Background to Asia's Expensive Naval Arms Race

Austin Bay
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Posted: Jul 08, 2015 12:01 AM
Background to Asia's Expensive Naval Arms Race

The great East Asian naval arms race has definitely begun. It is and will be quite costly.

Last November, StrategyPage.com estimated that over the next two decades China and its frightened neighbors will spend $200 billion on naval weapons acquisition. The bulk of that figure will purchase warships.

China, which started the arms race, will spend the most money and acquire the most ships. Wealthy South Korea and Japan will follow suit, as will their Pacific ally, Australia. They are buying hi-tech warships.

Though these developing nations can ill-afford the cost, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia plan to acquire small, fast ships and patrol vessels that can contest Chinese access to their sea space.

China's imperial policy of territorial acquisition drives this arms race. The neighbors fear diminished national sovereignty. Imperial subjugation is a distant but ugly possibility. This isn't theory. It is current East Asian history, which frames more dangerous future political conditions.

Fiery Cross Reef, in the South China Sea between Vietnam and the Philippines, illustrates the problem. Palawan, a major Philippine island, is 250 miles east; the Chinese coast, some 750 miles north.

Two years ago, Fiery Cross Reef existed, but today's island didn't. Yes, China manufactured an island with a 3,000-meter airstrip and other facilities.

Using land reclamation techniques, China has constructed "territorial facts" in the South China Sea by turning uninhabitable "features" like rocks, shoals and reefs into islands. From these fabrications, China projects economic claims and military power.

China already contests Filipino territory to the east. The Philippines has a complaint before the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) tribunal. A Chinese exclusive economic zone (EEZ) projected from Fiery Cross will infringe on Filipino rights. Manila argues the island is not natural and has no EEZ. Moreover, China has no rights in the area.

Beijing believes it has the ships and planes to be anywhere in the region it wants to be. China modernized its military ostensibly for defense, but now, vis a vis the neighbors, it is an imperial sword.

This spring, U.S. network television discovered China's scheme when the Pentagon put a camera crew aboard a Navy plane and flew them over Fiery Cross. An obnoxious Chinese air controller warned the plane to exit Chinese airspace, pronto. China also asserts sovereign control of area sea lanes. The U.S. rejects these claims and insists on freedom of navigation in open seas.

China's neighbors see U.S. forces as a strategic counter. The U.S. Navy remains the world's premier fleet. The Philippines is revitalizing its U.S. alliance, and Vietnam seeks one. However, even close allies like Japan see the U.S. Navy downsizing.

Hence, the warship binge. StrategyPage provided very approximate but illustrative numbers. In the next 20 years, Asian nations will buy some 400 major warships and 1,000 small patrol vessels and support ships. At least 80 (perhaps 100) of the major vessels are submarines. China loves subs. Chinese subs trail U.S. ships. But worried neighbors know that their diesel subs can ambush Chinese ships trying to protect, well, Fiery Cross.

Japan wants to defend and project power. Japan will buy subs, Aegis destroyers capable of intercepting ballistic missiles and "through deck" destroyers that are really small aircraft carriers. The Philippines' strategic development plan calls for six anti-air frigates, 12 anti-sub corvettes, three subs and 18 patrol vessels. This is an anti-access force built to deter Beijing. Chinese ships approaching the Philippines' main islands would encounter minefields and small but deadly vessels.