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arms1 rms procurements are a great barometer for determining a state’s threat perceptions and the “pressure” of its environment. A weapons system provides discrete capabilities and is itself a response or counter to specific threats. In Southeast and East Asia, commentators have focused heavily on a perceived naval arms race. Regional states have started procuring weapon systems with a strong naval focus, with surface ships, submarines, and fighter aircraft as the big-ticket items. This has led many to suggest that growing Chinese power, as well as doubt in US military commitments, has led states to bolster their own navies.

The nervousness surrounding China’s growing power has had the unintended effect of making many look at the region’s naval procurement through that prism alone. The fear is that the region is entering a multilateral arms race – one that could increase instability and tensions leading to clashes and even war. Yet this conclusion oversimplifies a region filled with varied states, each with its own complicated strategic calculus. According to the US Energy Information Administration, more than half of the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage passes through regional straits, and the majority continues into the South China Sea. A third of global crude oil and half of global liquid natural gas also pass through the sea. Intra-regional rivalries, economic dependence, and threats other than China continue to influence defense planning in the region. The simple but sensationalized explanation that China’s rise is triggering other nations to beef up their navies simply does not go far enough to explain the nuances of what is going on in the region.

China has certainly expended a lot of time and effort modernizing its navy. As a rapidly rising power, it has focused on counterbalancing US naval dominance through a strategy that seeks to make US naval operations impossible or prohibitively costly in its immediate periphery, through what US planners call anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD). It has invested in both conventional naval assets, namely surface ships, and asymmetrical naval assets such as submarines and anti-ship missiles. Conventional naval warfare involves two surface fleets being sent out against each other. Hasbro’s Battleship® game, however, does not seem to have been a very popular game among China’s naval strategists. Their strategy is to use relatively cheap assets such as missiles and submarines, which are difficult to defend against, to threaten expensive assets like American carriers. Because of their limited range, those weapons do not allow for much power projection; they merely prevent American surface ships from operating close to Chinese shores.

At the same time, Beijing has also invested in conventional naval assets as part of its own desires to project power regionally by procuring new ships and even an aircraft carrier, with plans to build more. Beijing’s intentions for its surface fleet are likely more modest and regional than the massive 11-carrier American navy, which has made ensuring the security of the global sea lines of communication one of its main goals. China has territorial disputes with Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Brunei over various islands in the South China Sea, with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, and with Taiwan over the island of Taiwan. Building a credible surface fleet allows Beijing to back up those territorial claims, and with a little brinksmanship, potentially force smaller states to back down.

What must a largely coastal state with a territorial dispute with China procure to ensure that Beijing thinks twice about pushing those claims? Surface ships are expensive assets. When they are equipped with modern anti-ship missiles and facing off against other surface ships, it can become a naval knife fight very quickly—and the first rule of any knife fight is that both fighters will get cut. The solution is very good anti-surface warfare (ASuW) weapons that provide an asymmetric advantage against enemy ships.

The classic example of these weapons is a diesel-electric submarine. Diesel-electric submarines use a diesel motor to generate an onboard battery that is activated when the boat is submerged to power the propellers. Detecting a submarine often relies on passive sonar, which involves listening very closely to the water to pick up distinctive submarine sounds. As a result, submarines have to be quiet in order to survive, and because they are running on a battery, diesel-electric powered subs are the quietest out there. In effect, a diesel submarine is the perfect weapon to prevent an enemy fleet from operating in your coastal waters, but not much else. The other popular option is anti-ship missiles, which can be launched from aircraft, land, ships, and even submarines.

Aside from China, several other nations in Southeast and East Asia are procuring submarines, suggesting a counter-China arms race. Vietnam has just received the first of its six submarines ordered from Russia, prompting some to question whether the country’s defense industry and military even have the technical experience to operate and maintain such advanced subs. Meanwhile, Japan is quietly increasing its own submarine force from 16 to 22. South Korea, currently operating 12, plans to produce another 6 to have a total fleet of 18 by 2018. Singapore has two new subs in the pipeline to be delivered around 2020. Malaysia’s two submarines, ordered in 2002, arrived in 2009-2010, though it has no real plans to procure more.

If all of the above countries were to achieve their procurement goals, roughly 30 new submarines would enter the fleets of China’s neighbors. Is this an arms race? The numbers alone are not actually all that interesting, since for most nations they do not constitute a major defense priority. Both Japan and South Korea operate relatively large and capable surface fleets, and any increased procurement of submarines has not affected their surface fleet modernization programs, which are ongoing. These large surface fleets are emblematic of the high level of capital investment required to balance against China’s conventional war capabilities. Rather than challenging China’s navy asymmetrically, the two countries are arguably seeking to respond to China’s own asymmetric challenge, but China is not the only threat to which Seoul and Tokyo are responding.

arms2Critically, surface ships are flexible enough to respond to a variety of regional threats. In a region where most states have coastlines and economies dependent on maritime trade, the best way to protect vital sea lines of communication is through surface ships. This versatility needs to be taken into account when speaking about naval arms proliferation and what threats might be driving it. Large surface ships like destroyers can shoot down ballistic missiles, like those possessed by North Korea, which has threatened South Korea and Japan. Indeed, the sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean surface ship, by a North Korean midget submarine exemplifies the vulnerability of surface ships to even outdated attackers under the right circumstances. The South Korean navy’s interest in procuring better anti-submarine warfare capabilities, such as another helicopter carrier, is as much directed against the North Korean submarine threat as it is against the Chinese. Helicopters, because they can drop sonar buoys and torpedoes, are great sub hunters. They are also great for humanitarian operations, and Japanese helicopter carriers proved their worth responding to the destruction caused by the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami, as well as the 2013 Philippines typhoon.

In the South China Sea, the situation is also more nuanced. One of the claimants to the Spratly Islands dispute, the Philippines, has not made many advances toward purchasing new naval weapons. Because of inadequate funding, the Philippine navy has had to operate some of the oldest warships in the world, including a 70-year-old frigate. In fact, The US Coast Guard recently donated two 45-year-old decommissioned cutters to the navy, which were viewed as a significant increase in capability. It still has no surface to air missiles, no surface-to-surface missiles, and no real anti-submarine warfare capability. In addition, the military must also contend with the localized threat of Islamic separatist groups in the south of the country. If there is an arms race in Asia, Manila is still at the starting line.

Vietnam, on the other hand, has gone full steam ahead with a counter-China procurement strategy, bolstered by rapidly expanding energy assets. In addition to its six submarines, it has placed orders for modern surface ships, offshore patrol aircraft, land-based anti-ship missiles, and new Russian fighter jets. Most of these new systems have been ordered or procured since 2009, contrasting sharply with the incremental modernization that took place in the decade before. Modernization is almost exclusively naval and air-oriented, as the Vietnamese military is not progressing with any land-based procurement programs, except updating their stock of Soviet-era tanks. Importantly, the Vietnamese and Chinese navies fought several small-scale skirmishes with each other in the 1970s and 1980s, one of which, in 1988, saw Vietnam lose some 70 sailors and two warships. Having been a historical victim of Chinese aggression, Hanoi perceives an expanding Chinese surface fleet as a significant threat, and is balancing against it.

Nevertheless, Vietnam seems to be the exception in the South China Sea. Malaysia’s new submarine capability is significant, but it has no plans to procure more, and two subs do not constitute a credible undersea deterrent. In addition, its other procurement programs are moving in fits and starts. For example, plans for new frigates remain on hold while a batch of six smaller corvettes will begin delivery in 2017. Malaysia’s haphazard procurement has led IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly to suggest the “government [is] placing more priority on political considerations and economic expediency in regard to fleet development and procurement.” Recently, under pressure of budget cuts, the government has decided that instead of buying new fighter jets, it would lease them.

Ironically, the smallest Southeast Asian country, Singapore, has the most advanced navy. For such a large budget, it has relatively few dedicated asymmetric weapon systems like submarines. Like Japan and South Korea, it has leveraged its large defense budget into building a well-rounded military that can respond to many threats. This means that while it has some advanced surface ships, including six stealth frigates, it also has spent significant time and money building a highly capable air force and army, the latter of which is of little use to stop a Chinese fleet. Singapore has a difficult history with Malaysia, from which it seceded, and those tensions play an important role in both of the countries defense planning. Its defense spending is directed as much toward balancing against regional rivals, against whom it seeks to maintain a clear technological edge, as it is toward China.

Nevertheless, Singapore cooperates with its regional rivals Malaysia and Indonesia to protect the vital Straits of Malacca, through which much of the region’s trade passes, from piracy. With globalized economies, it is unsurprising that East and Southeast Asian nations want robust navies to protect sea-lanes. Each coastal state is dependent on the sea, and guarding these trade and energy routes requires strong navies. The simple fact that they are modernizing their navies is not itself evidence of regional arms race, nor is it evidence of a changing regional power dynamic.

Military hardware is not inherently useful; it is the capabilities, which hardware provides, that create power. Too often measurements of military power become exercises of arithmetic: how many ships does China have? How many does Singapore have? But these numbers do not tell us much. A useful measure of military power must describe what a military force can do, and how successfully. Going further, simple tabulations of what arms a country is buying will not reveal much about its defense policy; rather, the capabilities of those arms will. The better question to ask is whether a country’s procurement program has given it new capabilities. When we look at procurement in the Asia-Pacific region, we realize that the modernization of many countries’ apart from China has not brought with it any game-changing capabilities. Those types of procurements, such as Vietnam’s submarine purchase, do happen, but not frequently enough to suggest the entire region’s balance of power is in the serious flux expected of a multilateral arms race.

Further, the regional trend of modernizing navies is not convincing evidence that China’s military is threatening all countries equally. Indeed, of the Spratly Islands claimants, Vietnam and the Philippines have had tense confrontations with China while Singapore and Malaysia have tended to avoid confrontations. Analyses of China’s military capabilities and strategies are often clouded by a certain alarmism, and the regional arms narrative is part of this. While China’s military growth is undeniable, it is important to avoid overreaction and sensationalism. Attributing naval weapons proliferation in the region to only China also makes the mistake of hastily discounting other rivalries and threats. The greater takeaway from looking at the shopping lists of Asia-Pacific countries is that different militaries are indeed different. In this arms race, some participants are sprinting, some are walking, and some are spectating. Wide, sweeping claims of a regional arms race in response to China, are not only exaggerated, they minimize the important idiosyncratic motivations that sub-regional states militaries have to procure different weapons.

Greg Graff, CC ‘15, is currently majoring in political science with a specialization in international relations. His interests include security and defense issues, especially ones involving obnoxiously long and complicated acronyms. He can be reached at: ggg2118@columbia.edu. 

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