Here's What World War I Can Tell Us About How China and Japan Would Wage War

James Holmes

Key point: The outcome of such a war would be anything but straightforward.

The First World War is the gift that keeps on giving when surveying modern Asian geopolitics and pondering how to manage it.

Consider what the Great War has to say about the military balance between China and Japan and how an East Asian war might unfold. Conventional opinion in Japan has long held that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would more or less steamroller the Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) in wartime. Demographics, economics, defense budgets, you name it: they all line up on China’s side.

And there’s no gainsaying the impact of decades of meteoric economic growth and defense-budget increases on the mainland coupled with economic malaise in the island state. A productive economy furnishes the resources to amass military might while a stagnant one withholds warmaking resources. Beijing has availed itself of the opportunity flowing from its economic reform and opening project. To all appearances the balance of forces now tilts alarmingly toward the PLA.

Game over.

But not so fast: brute numbers of ships, planes, and missiles aren’t everything in combat. Far from it. The ability to combine all available assets for tactical and operational gain is what counts, and the order of battle—the panoply of hardware making up the military inventory—comprises only part of a nation’s martial portfolio. For example, the geographic setting matters. That’s why Clausewitz counsels commanders to evaluate the strength and situation of potential combatants when undertaking a net assessment. Tallying up hardware tells only part of the story.

And situation—geography—takes rank with Japan.

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