Asia’s next arms race may play out underwater as militaries ramp up spending on submarine fleets

(17 February 2012) — Asia’s waterways are becoming more dangerous as a new kind of predator stakes out its territory. Almost every Asian country with a coastline is turning to submarines as a first line of defence.

The race to get deep and deadly in Asian waters entered a new phase on January 23, when India joined an exclusive club of five nations with nuclear-powered submarines, taking delivery of a Russian Akula-2 class attack submarine on a ten-year lease.

The US, UK, Russia, France and China are the only other nations to have nuclear submarines.

China, in particular, is massively upgrading its giant fleet, spurring anxiety among its neighbours, which are increasingly responding by ramping up their own submarine capacities. Australia is preparing a fleet upgrade costing more than US$36 billion. Japan is adding eight subs to its existing fleet of 16. South Korea has been buying German Type 214 subs in recent years, purchasing another batch shortly after a North Korean sub attacked one of its warships in 2010, killing 46 seamen.

Smaller nations in Southeast Asia are also embracing submersibles.

Citing unclassified reports, Ashfaqur Rahman, chairman of the Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies in Bangladesh, told Asia360 News of startling new procurement plans in the region. Vietnam will receive the first of six Russian Kilo-class submarines from next year, while Thailand is buying the same number of German U-206 submarines, he said. Indonesia will soon acquire five submarines and the Philippines is said to be in discussions with the US to buy submersibles. Add to that Singapore’s four Challenger-class submarines and Malaysia’s two French Scorpene-class models, and Asia has become a major market for Western submarine technology.

Beijing’s demand for oil and gas is driving this trend, said Rahman, formerly Bangladesh’s ambassador to China.

Securing sea lanes for energy imports to fuel its economy is another of China’s highest policy priorities, providing Beijing with a compelling rationale for a strong sub fleet. The new US strategic focus on Asia will only reinforce this rationale, said Owen Cote, associate director of the security studies programme at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

A February 10 report released by Japan’s National Institute for Defense Studies said that China, owing to its growing dependence on imported energy resources, is strengthening its military power to ensure its ability to stand up to the US for regional resource development.

Experts believe that this trend is shaping up as a high-tech arms race, made all the more disconcerting by China’s rise and a host of simmering territorial disputes. Asia-Pacific is scattered with disputed islands. Japan has rival claims with China, South Korea and Russia, while more than half a dozen countries claim rights to the remote Spratly Islands, nearly 160 kilometres from the Philippines.

“The Chinese have an interest in using submarines in preventing the US surface ships from intervening on behalf of the one of the nations in the region in such a conflict,” MIT’s Cote added.

“Chinese military modernisation along with the non-transparency of its programmes and objectives has heightened insecurities in Asia,” Dr Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, senior fellow in security studies at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, told Asia360 News.

“This is the first time in several centuries that we see the rise of three or four major powers — China, Japan, India and Russia — simultaneously,” said Rajagopalan. “This has produced major insecurities. The region is plagued by several major boundary and territorial disputes, the baggage of shared history, and a trust deficit.”

Security analysts believe that in previous decades, smaller Asian states were able to compete with China in the deep seas because of the deficient state of Chinese vessels and the sub-standard training of the Chinese navy. But China has since begun to pour unprecedented sums into upgrading its surface and under-surface fleet.

China’s military spending will double to US$238.2 billion by 2015 from last year’s budget of US$119.8 billion, global research consultancy IHS estimates.

The 2015 figure exceeds the combined total of the next 12 biggest defence budgets in the region, including Japan and India, where spending is forecast to hit US$232.5 billion.

Less prosperous Asian countries with long and exposed coastlines can boost deterrence by adding submarines, which means they do not have to spend money building a full-scale navy. “Submarines are like a starter kit for nations when they first feel the need to move beyond the day-to-day maritime missions that coast guards perform and prepare for possible conflict with a more powerful neighbour,” said MIT’s Cote.

“Submarines are valuable because anti-submarine warfare is so difficult that it is out of reach of almost all navies,” he added. “Submarines give a navy certain capabilities that can be obtained relatively cheaply and without regard to the size or capability of the opponent.”

All of which begs the obvious question, will conflict erupt beneath Asia’s high seas?

The increasing popularity of submarines convinces some analysts that a minor spat could escalate into a multilateral dispute, given the interconnectedness of the region’s main actors.

For now, the consensus is that any actual underwater skirmishes are not expected in the near future. It would be naïve, however, to expect this to remain the case indefinitely, given the strategic importance of the region’s waterways for surrounding countries and other powers.

“It’s not certain there will be underwater skirmishes in the Asia Pacific, but it would be naïve for countries not to be prepared,” said Rajagopalan of the Observer Research Foundation.

Another reason to remain wary is the inability of regional security pacts to defuse undersea tensions, given China’s dislike of multilateral negotiations.

“We are not aware of any international mechanism that can help to avoid conflicts under the sea,” said Rahman of the Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies. “Only diplomacy and bilateral negotiations can ward off future submarine engagements.


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