Control and command

15 September 2015

Growing wealth and rivalry has turned Asia into a great arms bazaar, with an increased likelihood of maritime conflict. How can we ensure peace prevails? Michael Wesley writes.

In Asia, where the enrichment and empowerment of many states is driving growing rivalries, the greatest question of our time is how these contests 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 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.

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 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.

A third consideration adds fuel to Asia’s maritime arms race; horizontal escalation, or the 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.

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.

Asia has become a great arms bazaar, its states making the most of the cut-throat competition among weapons producers to procure the most effective weapons systems their money can buy.

Thanks to a cascade of maritime weapons purchases along Asia’s southern tier, American sea command, its ability to dictate the terms of the sea’s use and held since World War 2, 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, and intelligence-gathering. In response, China has been investing intensively in weapons of sea denial.

At the same time, 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.

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.

Michael Wesley is professor of international relations and Director of the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, The Australian National University.

This article is an edited extract from his latest book, ‘Restless Continent’, launched by Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop Monday and available from Black Inc.


Updated:  6 February 2023/Responsible Officer:  Bell School Marketing Team/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team