Flashpoint East China Sea: Current Trends

This analysis is the second of four chapters in a CSIS examination of security dynamics in the East China Sea and the implications for the U.S.-Japan alliance. The first chapter can be read here, the third chapter here, and the fourth here

Although the East China Sea is increasingly contested, Japan and the United States are likely to find a far more challenging strategic situation in the years ahead. China’s military modernization is rapidly closing the gap in conventional military capabilities, particularly in the maritime domain. Meanwhile, the China Coast Guard is expanding in size and developing larger and more advanced ocean-going vessels. Finally, China’s maritime militia and fishing fleet are the largest in the world, providing a third potential challenge for Japan and the United States in the years ahead. Each of these is reviewed in turn below.


Every year, China’s maritime capabilities are growing in both quality and quantity. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, China spends well over three times as much on defense as Japan (the official budgets for 2016 were $144.3 billion vs $47.2 billion). In reality, however, China’s defense spending is likely to be significantly higher, most likely above $180 billion for 2016, and growing by approximately 7-8 percent per year. This increased funding has rapidly improved the capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, as shown below.

2005 2007 2009 2011 2013 2015 2017
Ballistic Missile Submarines 1 1 2 2 3 4 4
Nuclear Attack Submarines 6 5 6 5 5 5 5
Diesel Electric Submarines 51 53 54 49 49 53 54
Aircraft Carriers 0 0 0 0 1 1 1
Destroyers 21 25 27 26 23 21 31
Frigates 43 47 48 53 52 52 56
Corvettes 0 0 0 0 0 15 23
Coastal Patrol Craft 51 41 70 86 85 86 88
Amphibious Ships 43 50 55 55 55 57 55

Source: Ronald O’Rourke, “China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, December 13, 2017, p. 63, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RL33153.pdf.

Number of Chinese Navy Ships

Source: Ronald O’Rourke, “China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, December 13, 2017, p. 63, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RL33153.pdf.

Although these forces are spread across three theaters, they are adjacent geographically and Chinese forces can flow from one theater to another far more easily than U.S. forces, which are spread across the globe. As of 2017, the U.S. Department of Defense estimated that China’s Eastern Theater Navy alone included 18 diesel-powered attack submarines, 9 destroyers, 20 frigates, 9 corvettes, and 30 missile patrol craft. Meanwhile, the United States and Japan are struggling to fund their current fleets and meet current operational demands. Although the United States has attempted to rebalance its forces to the Asia-Pacific region, this shift has been limited by budgetary constraints and operational demands. The challenges of the current operational tempo have been demonstrated by recent training and readiness issues in the 7th Fleet, which have resulted in several recent collisions. Unfortunately, these trends are only likely to worsen in the years ahead, if China continues to pour money into its regional maritime capabilities as expected.

A 2015 analysis by the Office of Naval Intelligence demonstrates graphically the worsening balance of capabilities between China and Japan.

Coast Guard

According to Lyle Morris, the China Coast Guard includes over 17,000 personnel and 225 ships over 500 tons capable of operating offshore (as well as another 1,050 smaller vessels). In comparison, Japan has less than 80 coast guard ships. It is certainly true that the China Coast Guard must attend to other concerns outside the East China Sea, particularly the growing demands in the South China Sea. Yet, even the South China Sea’s most capable coast guards pale in comparison, in both ship numbers and tonnage. Moreover, China’s advantage in coast guard tonnage and spending has been increasing, as shown in the figures below.

Regional Coast Guard Tonnage

Source: Lyle J. Morris, “Blunt Defenders of Sovereignty: The Rise of Coast Guards in East and Southeast Asia,” Naval War College Review 70.2 (Spring 2017), http://digital-commons.usnwc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1016&context=nwc-review


Coast Guard Spending

Maritime Militia

As Andrew Erickson, Conor Kennedy, and others have discussed, China’s maritime capabilities are significantly enhanced by its maritime militia. They quote a Chinese officer who describes the maritime militia as “an irreplaceable mass armed organization not released from production and a component of China’s ocean defense armed forces [that enjoys] low sensitivity and great leeway in maritime rights protection actions.” Although exact numbers are not known, the maritime militia may number in the tens of thousands of ships and personnel (or even the hundreds of thousands, if earlier estimates are to be believed).

This provides China with a substantial asymmetric advantage below the level of conventional military forces and coast guards. Based on lessons from China’s past strategies and tactics in maritime disputes, Beijing’s likely approach will be to use these forces in combination to:

  • Create wedge issues that separate Japan from the United States;
  • Attempt to act more quickly than foreign decision-makers;
  • Incrementally alter the status quo through fait accompli tactics;
  • Force foreign decision-makers to break escalation thresholds;
  • Generate and leverage confusion about events, rules, and norms.

China’s rapidly improving military, coast guard, and maritime militia provide Beijing with a number of potential maritime tools to execute this strategy. When Chinese capabilities are matched or exceeded by Japan and/or the United States, Chinese leaders can attempt to focus the competition on a different escalation level. It is therefore incumbent upon alliance leaders to think through how Beijing might use current trends to its advantage by utilizing China’s growing capabilities in particular scenarios.

Image: Creative Commons. 

The piece was originally published by the AMTI.

Zack Cooper is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Previously, he was senior fellow for Asian security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He has also served on staff at the National Security Council and in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He received a B.A. from Stanford University and an M.P.A., M.A., and Ph.D. from Princeton University.