Fora fail as Asian naval race goes submarine | Asia | An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 25.01.2012

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Fora fail as Asian naval race goes submarine

Vast resources lie beneath the South China Sea, whilst upon it cruise myriad ships traveling one of the world's major trade routes. For the Asian nations who claim these waters the battle is going submarine.

An American submarine

The US plans to extend its presence in the Asia-Pacific

Something lurks beneath the South China Sea, keeping a watchful eye on what lies above, but also below. This is no kraken or Nessie, but rather a sleek, silent and deadly piece of weaponry: the submarine.

Countries with claims to islands in these hotly contested waters see the submarine as their best way to counter a growing Chinese navy and maintain some modicum of influence over who ends up owning the vast, uncounted natural resources underneath the South China Sea. Also at stake is the control of trade routes worth an estimated $1.2 trillion (0.9 trillion euros) annually.

China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam and Brunei all have claims on either all or part of the South China Sea, with much attention focused on the Spratly Islands, a group of more than 750 islets, atolls and islands in the region's south. As it stands, Vietnam controls 21 reefs, Malaysia eight, the Philippines eight, China seven and Taiwan one.

An airstrip is built on the islet of Pag-asa, one of the Spratlys' group of islands in the South China Sea

Some of the Spratlys house navy installations

'Sea denial' tactics

In decades previous, smaller Asian states were able to compete with China when it came to naval power in the region - mainly because of the poor state of Chinese vessels and sub-standard training in the Chinese navy. Now, however, China has begun pouring unprecedented sums into upgrading its surface fleet. It now has more than 60 vessels from heavy frigates to fast attack craft on patrol in the South China Sea.

Asia's minnows are scrambling to play catch-up with a China increasingly intent on casting a longer shadow with every passing year. Malaysia maintains only eight frigates, Indonesia 11, Singapore six, Thailand 10 and the Philippines one. That is why these comparatively smaller states have begun investing in submarine technology, which can make it difficult for navies to deploy their surface vessels with confidence.

Many agree this is fuelling militarization across the broader region. India now has plans for its first nuclear-powered attack submarine, which it wants to lease from Russia. Australia, whilst not a regional power player, is looking into splurging $36 billion on submarines of its own. Japan is currently expanding its 16-boat fleet by a further eight vessels, whilst South Korea has begun selling ships to Indonesia. To boot, Pakistan, Thailand and even Bangladesh either now have or are planning to obtain submarines.

Beijing, too, has been no slouch in the race. Lyle Goldstein, an associate professor at the China Maritime Studies Institute of the US Naval War College, says China now has 60 subs in its navy, including nine that are nuclear-powered.

'Festering wound'

According to a report by defense and security analysts IHS Jane's, what we are seeing in Asia can not yet be defined as an arms race, but it is indicative of a shifting geopolitical landscape.

A map of the South China Sea and surrounding countries

There are six claimants to all or part of the South China Sea

"Conflict may currently seem improbable in the region as relations are not strained to the point of military confrontation. Nonetheless, there are also few indications that regional states are willing to pursue political solutions," the IHS report states. "As such, an ongoing and increasingly tense militarization of the region is the most likely outcome."

Shada Islam, who is head of policy at think tank Friends of Europe, says the South China Sea issue has aroused much national sentiment in Southeast Asia - and this, too, has fuelled militarization.

"The people in all of these countries think of the South China Sea as belonging to them. There is also a great deal of economic interest. This is a vital trade route for China. So this is something that is a sore point within ASEAN [Association of South East Asian Nations]," Islam told Deutsche Welle. "They've very successfully sidestepped this explosive question to discuss economic and political cooperation, but it does flare up and it's a festering wound in ASEAN."

US welcomed

Recent years have seen several tense maritime and diplomatic stand-offs, amid complaints that China is becoming more aggressive in asserting its territorial claims over the South China Sea. Islam says China "becomes extremely aggressive and confrontational" when attempts are made to discuss the standoff on the international stage.

This has pushed the smaller South China Sea claimants to reaffirm ties with the United States and encourage greater involvement from Washington in regional politics.

Tim Huxley, executive director at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore, says this increasing anxiety over China has buttressed moves by the Obama administration to bolster US power in the Asia-Pacific.

President Barack Obama

Obama has announced a reorientation of US policy towards the Asia-Pacific

"There is no doubt the US will go on playing a significant diplomatic as well as military and of course economic role in this region," he told Deutsche Welle. "The US remains by far the most important military power in the Asia-Pacific and will remain so for the foreseeable future."

So, the path forward? Most experts agree that regional fora, whilst well-intentioned, are incapable of tackling the issue so long as China spurns multilateralism.

Huxley says the best that can be hoped for is some form of stronger agreement to desist from using force and perhaps a focus on joint-development of the region's resources.

"That's the best option and it may well be the most likely," he says. "On the other hand, it is possible that there could be an escalation in military tensions in the region as countries take harder-line positions and deploy more sophisticated hardware in the South China Sea."

Author: Darren Mara
Editor: Sarah Berning

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