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Asia’s arms race to control the sea

Unusually blunt language from Defence Minister Kevin Andrews – directed at Australia’s largest trading partner – raised eyebrows at a regional security conference in May.


It showed just how worrying the rising tensions in our region have become.

“We remain concerned by any developments in the South and East China Sea which raise tensions in the region,” Mr Andrews said.

“Australia has made clear its opposition to any coercive or unilateral actions to change the status quo in the South and East China Sea,” he said. “This includes any large scale land reclamation activity by claimants in the South China Sea.”

“We are particularly concerned at the prospect of militarisation of artificial structures.”

Such undiplomatic language directed at China reflects a changed situation in a vast continent. The enrichment and empowerment of many Asian states is driving growing rivalries.

Geography explains a lot: Asia is divided into two separate strategic realms by an almost unbroken chain of mountains, from the Bosporus to the South China Sea. South of this, along Asia’s southern strategic tier, an arms race is brewing.

In a conflict, coasts are potential long front lines, offering multiple avenues of attack, beyond any state’s capacity to comprehensively defend them.  Even in peacetime, heavily armed navies are at sea, visiting foreign ports, patrolling trade routes and gathering intelligence.

Two interlinked trends keep security planners in Asia awake at night. The first is that maritime weapons systems tend to offer rising powers greater potential bang for buck.

The second trend concerns naval strategy. There has been a steady shift among the world’s navies from deploying power at sea towards deploying power from the sea.

Major powers are moving towards the capacity to project coercive force from the sea onto the land, whether in the form of sea-based air power, ship- or submarine-launched cruise missiles, or the landing of amphibious forces.

Asia’s weapons acquisition statistics show a sustained build-up. In 2012, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reported that the volume of arms transfers into Southeast Asia had grown by 200 per cent.

This volume of imports was the highest since the end of the Vietnam War. Naval weapons formed the bulk of both the purchases and intentions to acquire. Asia has become a great arms bazaar, its states making the most of competition among weapons producers.

Beijing has long been alarmed by the US Navy’s ability to sail along its coastlines, intelligence-gathering. In response, China has been investing intensively in weapons. Its current inventory of submarines is estimated at 70, of which all but four are thought to be attack submarines. It launched an aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, in October 2012, and is widely suspected to be building another.

But the weapon that has the Pentagon abuzz is the innocuously named Dong Feng 21D, a land-based ballistic missile, which defence analysts have dubbed China’s ship-killer.

Meanwhile, India is laying in similar weapons systems. While the two Asian giants continue to square off over their land borders, Indian strategists believe Beijing is preparing to project power into the Indian Ocean once it has dealt with American power in the Pacific.

So India, too, has an aircraft carrier and wants two. Its fleet of attack submarines is growing, through both purchase and indigenous manufacture. Its missile and surveillance systems are benefiting from strong injections of resources and political attention.

In between, along Asia’s southern tier, smaller countries are developing naval capabilities, though on a more limited scale.

Japan has enhanced its underwater surveillance systems in response to the constant intrusion by Chinese submarines into its territorial waters. Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Indonesia, Australia and Pakistan have all embarked on programs to upgrade, enlarge and enhance the capabilities of their submarine fleets, while Malaysia and Vietnam have begun to acquire their first submarine capabilities.

In this cauldron of rivalries, suspicions and new capabilities, the era of unquestioned American sea command has come to an end. The chance of accident and confrontation rises along with the number vessels and aircraft.

After a long period of commanded oceans, Asia is reverting to what the great naval strategist Sir Julian Corbett described as the natural state of maritime affairs: ‘the most common situation in naval war is that neither side has command; the normal position is not a commanded sea but an uncommanded sea’.

This is the new reality in which Australia finds itself. Our alliance with the US is closer than ever, but does it still have the clout to maintain order in this increasingly contested region?

Building new submarines is now not enough to ensure our safety and the stability of our region. We need new, proactive diplomacy focused on building new understandings and institutions of regional order.

Michael Wesley is Professor of International Affairs at ANU and the author of Restless Continent, published by Black Inc, of which this is an edited extract.


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