Asia at Sea

By Captain Bernard Cole, U.S. Navy (Retired)

The Asia-Pacific players understand very well both the possibilities of conflict in their region and the uncertainties of the post-Cold War world, and they have devoted renewed attention to their national defense. There are three questions that any Asia-Pacific strategist must ask:

  • What will the United States do?
  • What will China do?
  • What will Japan do?

They generally see further U.S. withdrawal as inevitable, and almost all regret it to some degree—even Beijing, which aims to exert China's "natural" status as the region's hegemonic maritime power. Thus, the Asia-Pacific strategist could face a Hobson's Choice: will he in the future align with Japan or with China? Only in Beijing does there seem to be emerging a clear strategic direction, with the concomitant desire—if not the resources—to build the naval and other military forces needed to achieve national objectives.

If China possesses the ambition but not the resources, Japan has the latter without clearly demonstrating the former. Tokyo is continuing to improve its navy, one of the world's most modern and powerful. With Aegis-equipped guided missile destroyers, modern conventionally powered submarines, air-capable surface ships, and a modern maritime air arm, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) is equipped and trained to operate out to 1,000 nautical miles from the home islands, which extends Japan's maritime reach from the Bering Sea to the Luzon Strait.

Japan's defense program will keep the JMSDF the most powerful Asian navy, with the potential to expand if the United States eventually does withdraw. Japan clearly has significant financial, personnel, industrial, and technological-scientific resources; it will take only a perception in Tokyo that a new strategic situation demands regional dominance to maintain vital sea lines of communication.

It is this situation that worries Beijing strategists. In addition to their belief in China's natural status as dominant in Asia, they detest Japan because of fresh memories of World War II atrocities, along with older, historical enmities. China is determined that Japan not replace the United States as Asia Pacific's dominant maritime power.

Current Chinese efforts to establish a world-class navy include strategic deliberations fostered by Liu Huaqing, former head of the People's Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) and now head of the PLA and China's senior uniformed officer. Liu reportedly has developed a three-stage maritime strategy for his country:

  • By 2000, China would acquire a navy powerful enough to establish sea control out to the "first island chain"—the area between the Chinese mainland and a line from Japan through Okinawa, Taiwan, the Philippines, and the Indonesian archipelago.
  • By 2020, China would establish sea control out to the "second island chain"—to include the Bonins, the Marianas, and Palau.
  • By 2050, China would be a global naval power, replete with aircraft carrier battle groups.

There is little indication that China's leaders will provide the vast resources needed to carry out this maritime strategy; however, its mere existence is an important factor in the Asia Pacific.

In 1985, China's leaders shifted their strategic view from global, Maoist "peoples' war" to defensive combat on the nation's periphery by smaller, highly trained, modern forces. Since that perceptive change, however, China has made only halting steps toward acquiring a modern, effective navy: the PLAN still is composed mostly of ships and systems that would fit comfortably into a 1960s fleet. To execute even basic maritime strategy—to defend the homeland, protect disputed territories in the East and South China Seas, and exploit maritime mineral resources—China has a navy of questionable effectiveness but unquestioned technological shortcomings.

China's submarine fleet, for example, numbers nearly 90 (about one-third in reserve), but it includes mostly older, conventionally powered boats. The recently acquired Kilos—two to date, with two more to follow—are the most capable. China also has 54 guided missile destroyers and frigates, but they are far from state of the art. Her newest escort, for example, is the Luhu -class destroyer. Yet this ship's most capable antiaircraft missile system is the French-built Croatale, with only a 7.5-mile range.

It is in fleet replenishment, support, and power projection (amphibious) that China's Navy most significantly lacks the instruments of regional maritime dominance. China's major surface combatants outnumber those of any Asia-Pacific nation other than Japan, but unless the Navy garners the wherewithal to operate extensively at sea, it will never achieve the strategic effect envisioned by Admiral Liu—and his forthcoming retirement will make this essentially budgetary struggle even more difficult.

Despite its shortcomings, the PLAN is a significant force in the Asia Pacific. It may not present much of a threat to the Seventh Fleet, but the perspective is much different from Taipei or Singapore than it is on board the USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19).

The most obvious maritime hot spot is Taiwan, which China considers an errant province. The dispatch of two U.S. carrier battle groups to that threatened island in March 1996 not only quieted the ongoing crisis but also brought home to senior Chinese military officers the importance of sea control: their ability to employ naval power requires the acquiescence of the United States. Admiral Liu's maritime strategy does not count for much in the face of U.S. naval might.

Will this past spring's events cause China to alter radically its national priorities and build a large, modern navy, as the Soviet's did following the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis? This is unlikely, for several reasons:

The very un-Soviet-like state of China's heated economy under Deng Zhaoping's "four priorities"—with military modernization ranked fourth of the four

  • The fragility of the present Beijing government, as Deng hangs on to life and titular leadership
  • The lack of any outside threat to China's security
  • The traditional long view taken by Chinese strategists: a slow but steady increase in the PLAN's capabilities and a reduction in U.S. naval presence in the region may well result in growing Chinese dominance

The other maritime hot spot in the Asia Pacific is the South China Sea. China places a high value on establishing hegemony over this confined body of water for several reasons:

  • Beijing considers the South China Sea to be Chinese territory.
  • The South China Sea is the main sea line of communication from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean and the Middle East oil reserves.
  • China's hubris is increasing steadily with her economic growth.
  • The South China Sea may contain vast petroleum resources, although a 1982 Chinese estimate of 25 billion cubic meters of natural gas and 105 million barrels of oil has not been borne out after more than a decade of exploration.

China successfully fought the Vietnamese Navy in 1974 and 1988 and had a gratuitous naval confrontation with the hapless Philippine Navy in early 1995, but what sort of opposition will it face in the future? The Chinese Navy will not be able to overcome the numbers and modernity of the JMSDF for many decades; it would have little more success against the Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN), barring a massive overland invasion of the peninsula.

The ROKN already includes 24 surface ships and craft armed with either Harpoon or Exocet surface-to-surface missiles. Some of these are ex-U.S. Allen M. Sumner (DD-692)- and Gearing (DD-710)-class destroyers, but even these relics can out-shoot most of the PLAN. The ROKN also will have at least seven modern, conventionally powered submarines by the year 2000. In addition, this small country today is more capable of producing state-of-the art military technology than any country in Asia except Japan.

The Korean Navy's importance to the Asia Pacific is limited by the national strategy likely to emerge from Seoul. Self-survival is the highest priority of any nation's security strategy; for Korea—caught between Japan, China, and Russia—survival as a free state demands total commitment from its Navy, with three coastlines and many islands to defend.

Northeast Asia thus has three formidable navies, with a fourth—Russia's decaying fleet—at least capable of rejuvenation, but Southeast Asia sees nothing so robust. Falling within neither sub-region, of course, is Taiwan, a political entity in more actual danger day-to-day than any other Asian state, with the possible exception of South Korea. Taiwan's strategy for survival as an independent nation—or, more viably, as a semi-independent "special region" of China—requires a military, especially a navy, strong enough to deter Beijing from launching a military assault. Taipei must not repeat the 1938 experience of Czechoslovakia, which found itself essentially deprived through diplomatic means of its potent military and arms industry, and open to easy defeat by her larger enemy to the west.

Taipei recognizes this fact, and devotes significant resources and efforts to a modern navy. Today, that force includes just two modern submarines (China has blocked efforts to acquire more), but the Taiwanese Navy has been more successful in acquiring surface ships through lease, purchase, and construction. Twenty-two ex-U.S. Gearing , Allen M. Sumner , and Fletcher (DD-445)-class destroyers—updated with surface-to-surface missiles—have been joined by six former U.S. Knox (FF-1052)-class frigates, six modern La Fayette -class missile ships of French design, and six FFG 7-type guided missile frigates built in Taiwan. A follow-on class of corvettes also is planned. Taiwan will remain grossly outnumbered by China's Navy, but the island nonetheless possesses a more modern and capable navy, on a ship-to-ship basis.

The nations of Southeast Asia are wary of their huge neighbor to the north. None admit publicly to fear of Chinese hegemony, or to any need to arm against that nation, but naval modernization is rampant throughout the sub-region. There is always an exception, of course: the oceangoing Philippine Navy remains practically nonexistent. There is little indication that Manila has the resources or strategy to alter that situation, notwithstanding extensive claims in the South China Sea and last year's confrontation with China.

Indeed, Manila's attention is being drawn by the Muslim situation in her southern islands and territorial disputes with Malaysia.

Indonesia is a dramatically important maritime state, controlling the majority of the sea routes into and out of the South China Sea. This vast archipelagic nation also has extensive maritime petroleum fields among her most important national resources and recently has launched a large naval buildup, including the purchase of 16 ex-East German corvettes. These join an Indonesian Navy that includes 2 modern conventionally powered submarines, 17 surface combatants—many armed with surface-to-surface missiles—and a huge patrol and coastal force. A major Indonesian weakness is Djakarta's failure to delineate a clear maritime strategy: Is the Navy intended to defend the interisland and coastal waters and oil fields? Is it to defend Indonesian territorial and maritime claims against the Philippines, Malaysia, and other neighbors? Is the Navy supposed to ready itself to defend natural gas fields in the South China Sea against encroachment from China?

The smallest but one of the richest Southeast Asian states, the sultanate of Brunei has a vested interest in maintaining freedom of navigation through the South China Sea and the security of the seabed petroleum resources, which are the source of its wealth. Brunei's three Exocet missile boats and three shore-based maritime surveillance aircraft are capable but small—strictly a local asset.

More significant are the maritime forces of Indonesia's other neighbors: Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand. Singapore is the direct guardian of the vital Malacca Strait, of course, and has a technologically advanced defense force. Its coordinated air defense establishment is based on modern radars and F-16 and E-2C aircraft. At sea, Singapore currently has a well-trained force of mine-hunters, 10 corvettes, and 12 patrol combatants and patrol craft armed with Harpoon missiles, and it is in the process of acquiring 12 additional craft of this type. It is, however, a local navy.

Malaysia's Navy also is in the midst of a modernization and expansion program. Although previously approved submarine purchases have been postponed, in August 1997, two Exocet-equipped frigates are to join the fleet, which also includes two missile-equipped frigates, one gun frigate, and eight missile boats. Most significant of Malaysia's numerous smaller craft are the four Lerici -class mine hunters.

The Kuala Lumpur government, however, also needs to define more clearly its Navy's missions: the Malaysian force is equipped and trained to maintain local sea lines of communication, and there is a concern for the territorial and maritime zone disputes with several neighbors, but a possible mission vis-a-vis China is not clear.

The largest navy in the sub-region is that of Thailand, a nation with a history of independence throughout even the gravest international conditions. Thailand was the only nation of the region to escape the wave of 18th and l9th century colonization, and it successfully cooperated with and co-opted Japanese aggression during World War II. Today, Thailand is playing a careful international game and has close ties to China. It has purchased considerable quantities of arms from Beijing, including six frigates armed with Harpoons or the Chinese version of the Exocet missile—frigates reportedly so poorly constructed that they required significant further work before being declared operationally fit.

Most significant for the Thai Navy, which also includes two Harpoon-armed Knox -class frigates leased from the United States and two other Harpoon-armed corvettes, is the forthcoming acquisition of a small aircraft carrier. The Chakkrinareubet was built in Spain, displaces about 11,500 tons, has a ski-jump flight deck with two aircraft elevators, and can embark a combination of four helicopters and six ex-Spanish Harrier aircraft. She will have a nominal mission of search-and-rescue and humanitarian operations and reportedly is equipped with quarters for the royal family.

The carrier will give Thailand the only integral seabased air power in the Asia Pacific. This capability positions Thailand to take the lead in any confrontation between the Southeast Asian nations and an outside power—such as might develop with China over South China Sea territorial claims. Thailand has no claims in that sea, however, and its obvious attempts to remain friendly with China speak against the possibility of Thailand assuming a strong leadership role.

One of the Southeast Asian countries that is not making an obvious effort to improve its Navy is Vietnam. This is surprising, since Vietnam already has fought China twice at sea; China conducted the brutal 1979 invasion of Vietnam; and both countries have particularly bitter claims in the South China Sea.

Vietnam joined ASEAN last year, bringing to the table a strong defense strategy, which may lend some backbone to the organization.

The region's northern states—Japan, China, and Korea—are significant naval powers. In the south, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand are expanding and modernizing their navies; Brunei is maintaining a credible force for a state of its size. Other regional nations—Cambodia, Laos, Burma, and New Zealand—have very limited naval forces. Australia possesses a strong, modern navy and certainly could assume a leadership role in the sub-region in any strategic defense efforts.

How, then, are Asia-Pacific strategists answering the three questions?

  • They assume that significant U.S. presence in the region will end sooner rather than later, but they will delay any choice between China and Japan until absolutely necessary.
  • They assume China is determined to build the region's strongest navy, with aircraft carriers.
  • They assume that the JMSDF will grow, unless Japan makes the unlikely decision not to challenge future Chinese dominance on the seas.

Potentially caught between the two Asia-Pacific giants, the other nations of the region for the most part are determined to improve their maritime forces. But most of them are neglecting to develop a concomitant strategy—to think through their navies' missions. Absent a continued strong U.S. naval presence, a true naval arms race almost certainly will erupt, with the rich fisheries, trade, and mineral wealth of the Asia-Pacific seas the prize.

Captain Cole is Professor of Maritime Strategy at the National War College, where he also specializes in Asian affairs. During his 30 years of active duty, he served as commanding officer of the Rathburne (FF-1057) and Destroyer Squadron 35.


Capt. Bernard D. Cole, USN (Ret.), teaches at the National War College in Washington, D.C. Cole’s previous books include The Great Wall at Sea: China’s Navy in the Twenty-First Century, which was selected for the Navy Reading Program. He earned a PhD in history from Auburn University and lives in Alexandria, VA.

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