Fateful terrains
A great arms race is beginning in Asia


Asia is a vast continent, where the enrichment and empowerment of many states is driving growing rivalries. Perhaps the greatest question of our time is how these rivalries will play out. Geography furnishes some compelling answers. Asia is divided into two separate strategic realms by an almost unbroken chain of mountains stretching from the Bosporus to the South China Sea. South of this mountain chain, along Asia’s southern strategic tier, dangerous competition and arms racing is brewing.

Asia’s southern tier is a narrow littoral realm stretching from the Persian Gulf in the west, around the continent’s southern and eastern coastlines to the Korean Peninsula and the Japanese islands in the continent’s northeast corner. Over three--quarters of Asia’s population lives in its southern tier littorals, peninsulas and islands, within 200 kilometres of the coast. In this terrestrial–maritime zone are more than 80 per cent of the continent’s major cities, most of its vital infrastructure and the majority of its centres of industry, trade and military power. Asia’s industrialisation, beginning in the islands and peninsulas of the continent’s northeast before spreading to its southeast, was concentrated in its littoral zones also, often close to great trading ports. This trend continued as industrialisation moved to the Asian continent proper. Today, over 70 per cent of China’s industrial capacity is situated in its coastal provinces.

Asia’s southern tier is a single strategic realm, bound together by the common opportunities and anxieties of societies that look out to the ocean for their vital commercial flows and which are aware that threats can also come from the ocean. An ocean orientation is a great boon to a society’s prosperity; over 90 per cent of all global trade, measured by weight and volume, or 80 per cent measured by value, is carried on the world’s maritime highways. Before the financial crisis of 2008, global maritime traffic was growing faster than global productivity. This was even more pronounced in Asia. For the decade before the crisis, Asia’s maritime trade with Europe increased by an average of 20 per cent per year. The oceans provide maritime trading states with flexibility and options to maximise profits and access the full range of what is produced by a great variety of other economies; these are huge commercial advantages that landlocked states can only dream of.

But while the ocean is a source of prosperity, it can also be a source of danger. A state’s coasts are potential front lines in a conflict – long front lines that offer multiple avenues of attack, beyond any state’s capacities to defend them comprehensively. The world’s oceans are host to the perpetual projection of military power. Even when not at war, heavily armed navies are at sea, visiting foreign ports, patrolling trade routes and gathering intelligence.

For societies whose populations, vital cities, core infrastructure and main industrial capacities are clustered along their coastlines, the promise and menace of the sea are inseparable. In an era when their neighbours were poor and focused on their internal fragility, the menace of the sea could be discounted. But in an era of rising prosperity and deepening rivalry, none of Asia’s southern--tier states can afford to ignore the vulnerabilities of their coasts.

Two interlinked trends keep security planners in Asia awake at night. The first is that maritime weapons systems tend to offer rising powers a much greater potential bang for each buck spent on them. Submarines and anti--ship missiles, for example, offer smaller countries the best chance to close the capability gap with larger powers, particularly in their capacity to deter or complicate other navies’ ability to operate close to their coastlines. The other great capability equaliser is distance: the further an aggressor’s forces are from home, and the closer the defender’s are to its own territory, the more the advantage tips towards the defender. No southern--tier state can afford to ignore the purchase of maritime weapons systems by even the most innocuous of its neighbours.

The second trend concerns naval strategy. There has been a steady shift among the world’s navies from deploying power at sea towards deploying power from the sea. In both equipment and doctrine, the navies of the major powers are moving towards expeditionary capabilities: the capacity to project coercive force from the sea onto the land. This can be in the form of sea--based air power, ship-- or submarine--launched cruise missiles, or the landing of amphibious forces. The only effective response for the southern--tier states, great and small alike, is to invest in the capabilities for what naval strategists call ‘sea denial’: the ability to deter or complicate an adversary’s capacity to operate in maritime areas from which it can project power. And the best weapons for sea denial are also the most cost--effective: submarines, missiles and advanced surveillance systems.

A third consideration adds fuel to Asia’s maritime arms race. Asia’s rising powers, no less than the superpowers during the Cold War, are similarly constrained in their ability to fight openly due to fears of economic damage and nuclear escalation. As Asia’s subterranean structure of force shifts, southern--tier states have begun to experience and anticipate new forms of coercion or non--coercive influence – in the South and East China seas, along the Sino--Indian border, at the line of control in Kashmir – and have begun to rehearse ways of responding decisively but not dangerously. One possibility offered by the southern tier’s geography is what Cold War strategists called ‘horizontal escalation’, th option of responding to a rival’s provocation in one location by threatening its interests in another.

Asia’s southern--tier geography, and the deepening dependence of its states on seaborne resources, energy and market access, offers considerable scope for the application of horizontal escalation. A major worry for Australia and the states of Southeast Asia is that if China gains sovereign control over the South China Sea, it could threaten access to their important markets in Northeast Asia. Indian strategic planners are aware that they can counter Chinese coercion over their common border by threatening China’s energy supplies as they sail through the Indian Ocean. Pakistan’s presumably have the same thoughts about responding to India’s pressure across their mutual border. Southeast Asia’s maritime states could exercise similar options in and around the Malacca Straits.

Given these trends and imperatives, it is unsurprising that Asia’s weapons acquisition statistics show a sustained build--up in southern--tier states’ maritime capabilities. In 2012, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) reported that the period from 2007 to 2011 saw a 200 per cent higher volume of arms transfers into Southeast Asia than there had been between 2002 and 2006. This volume of imports was the highest since the end of the Vietnam War. Naval weapons formed the bulk of the purchases, with ships and maritime weapons accounting for 52 per cent of the total and another 37 per cent for weapons with a possible maritime role. SIPRI reports that a similar level and profile is evident in weapons acquisition intentions also.

Asia has become a great arms bazaar, its states making the most of the cutthroat competition among weapons producers to procure the most effective weapons systems their money can buy. The effect of the combination of growing paranoia about seaborne threats, highly effective and affordable maritime weapons systems and the closing of military capability gaps through weapons, sea denial and distance has been to fundamentally shift the basis for strategic stability in Asia’s southern tier. For 200 years, the predominant strategic order in Asia’s southern tier has been one of dominance by between one and three navies, exercising what naval strategists call ‘sea command’. Sea command means that a navy is so dominant it can dictate the terms of use of a given stretch of ocean: it can use it as it sees fit, while either preventing others or placing conditions on how and when they use it. After the end of the Second World War, the United States Navy emerged dominant in both the Pacific and Indian oceans. America used this dominance to impress its vision of world order on all inhabitants and users of Asia’s Pacific and Indian ocean coasts: free trade and open access to vital markets and strategic resources, and the ability to project power onto the southern--tier littoral to prevent the rise of a power that could dominate Asia.

Thanks to a cascade of maritime weapons purchases along Asia’s southern tier, American sea command is crumbling. The only direct challenge to the US Navy’s sea command comes from the People’s Republic of China. Beijing has long been alarmed by the US Navy’s ability to sail along its coastlines, intelligence-gathering. In response, China has been investing intensively in weapons of sea denial. Its current inventory of submarines is estimated at seventy, of which all but four are thought to be attack submarines. It launched an aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, in October 2012, and is widely suspected to be building another. But the weapon that has the Pentagon abuzz is the innocuously named Dong Feng 21D, a land--based ballistic missile which defence analysts have dubbed China’s ship--killer. This high--hypersonic missile, able to be guided in flight, with a range of 1450 kilometres, is capable of carrying sufficient firepower to take out an aircraft carrier and is thought to be near--impossible to defend against. Enabled by new satellite capabilities and a nascent over--the--horizon radar system, the DF--21D has substantially increased the risks for American naval assets operating in the western Pacific.

In the Indian Ocean, India is laying in similar weapons systems. Although it is as uncomfortable as Beijing about the ability of rival navies to engage in intelligence-gathering close to its coasts under cover of freedom of navigation, New Delhi is more strongly motivated by China’s growing naval capabilities. While the two Asian giants continue to square off over their land borders, Indian strategists believe Beijing is preparing to project power into the Indian Ocean once it has dealt with American power in the Pacific. So India too has an aircraft carrier and wants two; its fleet of attack submarines is growing through both purchase and indigenous manufacture; and its missile and surveillance systems are benefiting from strong injections of resources and political attention.

In between, along Asia’s southern tier, smaller countries are developing sea denial capabilities, though on a more limited scale. Japan has enhanced its underwater surveillance systems in response to the constant intrusion by Chinese submarines into its territorial waters. Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Indonesia, Australia and Pakistan have all embarked on programs to upgrade, enlarge and enhance the capabilities of their submarine fleets, while Malaysia and Vietnam have begun to acquire submarine capabilities they previously didn’t possess.

Asia’s narrow seas are becoming crowded with increasingly effective military hardware. The tangle of risks grows ever tighter as the chance of accident and confrontation rises with the number of submarines, ships and surveillance aircraft. In this cauldron of rivalries, suspicions and new capabilities, the era of unquestioned American sea command has come to an end. While most of Asia’s maritime powers are allies, partners or tacitly aligned with the United States – and Washington harbours dreams of a ‘thousand--ship navy’, a broad coalition of like--minded countries upholding the maritime order that used to be guaranteed by the US Navy alone – Asia’s rivalries and suspicions are too intense to allow such a rational outcome. Asia’s southern tier is evolving towards a system of mutual, multiple and interlocking sea denial, in which none can dictate the terms of use of Asia’s waterways but most can raise the risks of others’ use of them. After a long period of commanded oceans, Asia is reverting to what the great naval strategist Sir Julian Corbett described as the natural state of maritime affairs: ‘the most common situation in naval war is that neither side has command; the normal position is not a commanded sea but an uncommanded sea’.

This is an edited extract from Restless Continent by Michael Wesley, published by Black Inc. 

Michael Wesley

Michael Wesley is Professor of International Affairs and director of the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University. His most recent book is Restless Continent: Wealth, power and Asia’s new geopolitics.

Read on

Image of Stephen Bram’s work, Untitled, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 210 x 390 cm.

Currents of joy: Stephen Bram and John Nixon

Overlapping exhibitions by the two abstract artists convey their shared radical modernism

What elitism looks like

Flagrant conflicts of interest abound at the top

Image of Anne Ferran, Scenes on the Death of Nature I, 1986

‘Know My Name’ at the National Gallery of Australia

An exhilarating exhibition considers a persistent gender bias in the visual arts

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison

Morrison’s climate flip

Australia has a lot of catching up to do on emissions reduction