And three, it's misleading to reduce the problem solely to fleets. There will be no purely fleet-on-fleet engagement in Northeast Asia. Geography situated the two Asian titans close to each other: their landmasses, including outlying islands, are unsinkable aircraft carriers and missile firing platforms. Suitably armed and fortified, land-based sites constitute formidable implements of sea power. So we need to factor in both countries' land-based firepower.
Japan forms the northern arc of the first island chain that envelops the Asian coastline, forming the eastern frontier of the Yellow and East China seas. No island between the Tsushima Strait (which separates Japan from Korea) and Taiwan lies more than 500 miles off China's coast. Most, including the Senkakus/Diaoyus, are far closer. Within these cramped waters, any likely battleground would fall within range of shore-based firepower. Both militaries field tactical aircraft that boast the combat radius to strike throughout the Yellow and East China seas and into the Western Pacific. Both possess shore-fired anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) and can add their hitting power to the mix.
There are some asymmetries, however. PLA conventional ballistic missiles can strike at land sites throughout Asia, putting Japanese assets at risk before they ever leave port or take to the sky. And China's Second Artillery Corps, or missile force, has reportedly fielded anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) able to strike at moving ships at sea from the mainland. With a range estimated at more than 900 miles, the ASBM could strike anywhere in the China seas, at seaports throughout the Japanese islands, and far beyond.
Consider the Senkakus, the hardest assets to defend from the Japanese standpoint. They lie near the southwestern tip of the Ryukyu chain, closer to Taiwan than to Okinawa or Japan's major islands. Defending them from distant bases would be difficult. But if Japan forward-deployed Type 88 ASCMs -- mobile, easily transportable anti-ship weapons -- and missile crews to the islets and to neighboring islands in the Ryukyu chain, its ground troops could generate overlapping fields of fire that would convert nearby seas into no-go zones for Chinese shipping. Once dug in, they would be tough to dislodge, even for determined Chinese rocketeers and airmen.
Whoever forges sea, land, and air forces into the sharpest weapon of sea combat stands a good chance of prevailing. That could be Japan if its political and military leaders think creatively, procure the right hardware, and arrange it on the map for maximum effect. After all, Japan doesn't need to defeat China's military in order to win a showdown at sea, because it already holds the contested real estate; all it needs to do is deny China access. If Northeast Asian seas became a no-man's land but Japanese forces hung on, the political victory would be Tokyo's.
Japan also enjoys the luxury of concentrating its forces at home, whereas the PLA Navy is dispersed into three fleets spread along China's lengthy coastline. Chinese commanders face a dilemma: If they concentrate forces to amass numerical superiority during hostilities with Japan, they risk leaving other interests uncovered. It would hazardous for Beijing to leave, say, the South China Sea unguarded during a conflict in the northeast.
And finally, Chinese leaders would be forced to consider how far a marine war would set back their sea-power project. China has staked its economic and diplomatic future in large part on a powerful oceangoing navy. In December 2006, President Hu Jintao ordered PLA commanders to construct "a powerful people's navy" that could defend the nation's maritime lifelines -- in particular sea lanes that connect Indian Ocean energy exporters with users in China -- "at any time." That takes lots of ships. If it lost much of the fleet in a Sino-Japanese clash -- even in a winning effort -- Beijing could see its momentum toward world-power status reversed in an afternoon.
Here's hoping China's political and military leaders understand all this. If so, the Great Sino-Japanese Naval War of 2012 won't be happening outside these pages.