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Asian Militaries Embrace Submarines Amid South China Sea Competition

  • Ron Corben

FILE - Sailors look at a model of a submarine at an exhibition as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations of the establishment of the 125 Naval Transport Brigade, also known as the No Number Naval Shipsm, in Vietnam's northern port city of Hai Phong, Oc

FILE - Sailors look at a model of a submarine at an exhibition as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations of the establishment of the 125 Naval Transport Brigade, also known as the No Number Naval Shipsm, in Vietnam's northern port city of Hai Phong, Oc

Asia’s spending on military hardware is quickening at a time of increasing focus over maritime territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas, as well as growing concern over China’s expanding military.

Earlier this year London-based Strategic Defense Intelligence (DSI) reported that Asia led the world in rising defense spending, and countries’ spending on submarines was at the top of the list.

DSI analysts say the Asian submarine market is currently worth just over $7 billion, but will rise to $11 billion by 2025. That could mean it surpasses Europe as the world’s second largest submarine market, behind the United States.

SDI analyst Sravan Kumar Gorantala said China, India, Australia and South Korea are the key buyers of submarines amid fears of potential maritime conflicts and threats in the South China Sea, as well as the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Gorantala said China’s growing assertiveness in disputes over the South China Sea and modernization of China’s submarine fleet has led to demand for submarines by India, Japan, Taiwan, Australia and Vietnam.

Japan has moved to secure foreign arms sales, largely for its Soryu-class submarines. Many countries with territorial disputes in the waters of East and South China Seas have also been securing spy planes.

In emailed comments to VOA, Gorantala said competition between China, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia in claiming rights over natural resources including oil and gas in the South China Sea is spurring demand.

Thailand is purchasing three diesel electric submarines from China to match naval capabilities with Vietnam. In 2009 Vietnam took possession of three Russian-built Kilo-attack submarines with three more on order as part of a $2.6 billion deal.

The Philippines and Indonesia have also moved to purchase the Russian-made Kilo class submarines amid China’s increasing assertiveness.

The United States remains the largest market for submarines, with an expected cumulative spending of $102 billion over the next decade.

South China Sea tensions modernize navies

China has long claimed almost all of the South China Sea as its own, but in recent years has accelerated an island building program that many worry is militarizing a region crucial for international shipping. Beijing now has seven man-made islands on reefs in the Spratly Islands, including construction of a 3,000 meter airstrip at one site.

Carl Thayer, a defense analyst at Australia’s University of New South Wales, said Vietnam’s strategy in dealing with potential conflict is to “try to keep China’s strike forces as far away from the Vietnamese coast as possible.”

Thayer said conflicts over the South China Sea have led to “the unprecedented modernization of Vietnam's naval and air forces.”

Since 2008, the Vietnamese navy has taken delivery of one BPS-500 corvette and two Gepard 3.9-class guided missile stealth frigates armed with 3M24 Uran anti-ship missiles.

The Kilo-class conventional submarines are armed with anti-ship and land attack cruise missiles, and supported by four guided missile corvettes, five light frigates and six Fast Attack Craft armed with anti-ship missiles.

“[Vietnam] is not looking at a conventional war or a theater war with China, they are looking at an eruption of conflict at much lower level, but trying to position themselves to be able to deter China and really inflict some damage,” Thayer said.

Zhang Baohui, a political science professor at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University, in emailed comments said the potential for conflict in the South China Sea depended on “how China may react to future U.S. ‘freedom of navigation patrols’ entering Chinese claimed territorial waters surrounding the shoals and reefs.”

In recent months U.S. ships and planes have traveled inside the 22-kilometer offshore economic exclusion zone that China claims its man-made islands possess. Washington and other regional countries do not recognize Beijing’s claims, and say China’s efforts are hindering commercial shipping and fishing operations.

Zhang Baohui said such actions reflect on China’s “deterrence credibility.”

“At a certain point they may be compelled to take some concrete measures to respond to U.S. ships sailing through. They could be the start of an unintended escalation,” Zhang said.

A ‘weapon for the weak against the strong’

Zhang said there is a “submarine race in the region” that marked “a good asymmetric response to power imbalances so small countries, ranging from Vietnam to Australia, will continue to improve their submarine capabilities to hedge against a rising China.”

Collin Koh, an associate research fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), said the buildup of submarines is geared “to provide a weapon for the weak against the strong.”

Koh told VOA that submarines “do constitute one of the major focus areas of capability build up.” Submarines entering service “in the near future will be larger than those used to be operated in the region, and of course, better armed and equipped.”

But Koh said then navies need to overcome several challenges including financial, technical, logistics and manpower issues of submarine operations.

“Not all of these countries that purchase submarines necessarily master the art of underwater warfare,” he said.

New alliances

Vietnam has turned to India in its training of 500 submariners at an advanced undersea warfare school since taking possession of three Russian built Kilo attack submarines.

Australian University of New South Wales’ Thayer said the issue for Vietnam is a lack of combat experience and a lack of effective training where you have opposing forces.

“Now at least Vietnam will be able to [do] one thing – it can send the Kilo [submarines] out there and go hunting themselves – and learn how to find and locate submarines,” he said.

But Thayer said Vietnam needs to embrace programs involving friendly countries, something it has so far been reluctant to do.

Vietnam’s strategy is to build up “the capability to make China think twice about that sort of [threatening] behavior,” he said.