China or Japan: Which wields more military clout?

Territorial disputes and China's air defense identification zone have focused new attention on the question.

Shizuo Kambayashi
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, right, reviewed members of Japan Self-Defense Forces during Self-Defense Forces Day at Asaka Base, north of Tokyo, in October.

There is a widespread assumption that China is Asia’s leading military power.

Not so fast. In fact, that spot belongs to Japan. Yes, Japan.

The Japanese postwar Constitution may “forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation” and its military forces may carry the benign-sounding title of “Self Defense Forces.” But “you don’t want to mess with them,” as Larry Wortzel, a leading analyst of Asian military affairs, put it recently.

In terms of simple numbers, Japan lags far behind. It has just one-tenth the number of men in uniform that China does, four times fewer combat aircraft, and its fleet is about half the size of China’s in terms of tonnage.

But when it comes to training and technology, the key elements in modern warfare, the Japanese easily outclass the Chinese. If the territorial dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands ever sparked “kinetic action” as the military strategists put it, Japan would come out on top.

Another consideration that would give Chinese generals pause for thought: the United States would almost certainly step into any armed conflict on Japan’s side. And though China has been building up its armed forces as fast as it can recently, it is “at least two decades behind the United States in terms of military technology and capability,” a recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations concluded

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