China has been a good friend to Pakistan. During a visit on April 21 by Chinese President Xi Jinping, the Chinese pledged $46 billion in new infrastructure and energy investment in Pakistan. The two sides are working on another token of China-Pakistan friendship: a purchase by Pakistan of eight Chinese-made submarines capable of carrying anti-ship missiles. According to the official China Daily, the price tag is somewhere between $4 billion and $5 billion. The sale will more than double the size of Pakistan’s submarine fleet and help it keep pace with China and Pakistan’s mutual rival, India, which is expanding its own trove of subs.
The Pakistan purchase extends a submarine race not only on the subcontinent but also in East Asia. Of the world’s 300 submarines that are not part of the U.S. Navy (which has 73), two-thirds are in the Indo-Pacific region, Admiral Samuel Locklear told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee on April 16. The region already is “the most militarized part of the world,” he said.
China, asserting its claims to disputed islands in the East and South China Seas, is modernizing its submarine fleet to expand the reach of the People’s Liberation Army. That’s pressuring Japan and South Korea to add to their fleets. Taiwan, after unsuccessfully attempting to buy submarines to modernize a fleet that includes World War II vintage boats, plans to build its own. In Southeast Asia, where governments used to shun subs as too pricey (roughly $500 million to $2 billion each), Indonesia and Vietnam are deploying them.
The jump in submarine purchases stems in part from the prestige associated with the vessels, which are expensive to buy and complicated to operate. But as their economies have grown, Asian countries that once wouldn’t have purchased even one sub are buying many. “A submarine is a symbol of national power,” says Swee Lean Collin Koh, associate research fellow at the Maritime Security Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. A typical military or government official would think, “If my neighbor buys two submarines, then I want to buy two as well,” he says.
China is shifting away from the small, short-range subs it used in the Cold War. The Chinese navy has at least 70 subs, and over the next decade it’s looking to add as many as 20 boats capable of traveling long distances submerged in deep water for days at a stretch. China will soon have a bigger fleet than the U.S., says Jack McCaffrie, a visiting fellow at the University of Wollongong’s Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security. “The Chinese navy is getting bigger, it’s getting stronger, and it’s getting more capable,” he says. McCaffrie figures there were 200 submarines in East and South Asia in 2010. By 2030 that number will rise to 288.
China’s aggressive program is leading other countries to invest more in aircraft to detect submarines. “The best way to deal with submarines is to pick them up early as they’re leaving port and track them,” says McCaffrie. “If you don’t do that you have to search in a large ocean, and that’s bloody hard work.” Taiwan’s Defense Ministry reported on April 20 that it will deploy Lockheed Martin’s P-3 submarine-hunting aircraft in the South China Sea for the first time.
Japan has long relied on the P-3. But to do a better job keeping track of Chinese subs, the Japan Self-Defense Forces are replacing some of their old planes with new submarine hunters made by Kawasaki Heavy Industries. The Philippines, which has no submarines of its own, wants to buy submarine-hunting aircraft. Says Lance Gatling, president of Nexial Research, a Tokyo-based consultancy: “Countries are scrambling to figure out what’s going on in their waters.”
One of the biggest dangers created by the presence of more submarines is the risk of collisions, deliberate or accidental, especially in the relatively shallow waters of the South China Sea. With barges hauling coal and iron from Australia and tankers carrying oil from the Middle East, it’s one of the world’s busiest commercial trading routes.
Traditionally, Asian governments have skimped on their navies, favoring land-based forces. Spending on the army made sense since governments relied on the military “to control their own populations,” says James Der Derian, director of the Centre for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney.
Now, with countries focusing more on defending sea lanes, seaborne forces are getting more attention. The challenge, Der Derian says, is for rival navies to talk to each other and so avoid unintended confrontations. In November the U.S. and China promised to do that, and Der Derian says there’s dialog between China and Japan, too. “Arms races don’t necessarily lead to war or to conflict,” he says. But “you have to have the ability to communicate quickly to make sure that accidents don’t escalate.”
The bottom line: Asia, the world’s most militarized area, is about to introduce new submarines into an already dangerous mix.