The Asian Naval Race

The Japan helicopter destroyer JS Kurama leads ships during a rehearsal for a fleet review, October 21
The Japan helicopter destroyer JS Kurama leads ships during a rehearsal for a fleet review, October 21 (US Navy/Seaman Dominique Pineiro)

Last week, the Japanese Ministry of Defense announced they would construct a new class of helicopter destroyer — a typical Japanese military euphemism — as a part of the continuing modernization of Japans military capabilities. Complementing the already spacious Hyuga class, this new class will not only hold helicopters for anti-submarine duties but also be capable of refueling naval squadrons at sea and supporting amphibious operations.

The existence of ships that in everything but the name constitute light carriers is somewhat controversial, especially since the postwar Japanese constitution expressible forbids the country from possessing “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential.”

Yet this article has been traditionally circumvented by the formation of the Japanese Self Defense Force, which, despite its deliberately non-threatening dogma, possessed the world’s seventh largest military budget in 2008. And while Japan is still somewhat bereft of offensive military capabilities, the latest decade has seen its forces partake in numerous expeditions abroad, from participation in the early stages of the occupation of Iraq to chasing pirates off the Somali coast.

Regional perspective

When seen in a regional perspective, the decision to push forward with the expansion of fleet capabilities is not surprising.

The Chinese navy has undertaken a rapid modernization and expansion program, both by domestic construction and the import of Russian warships. Like their Japanese counterparts, they have partaken in anti-piracy operations off Somalia. And again much alike their counterparts, they dearly hold on to the belief that they will eventually need carriers to carry out their duties.

This expansion is not restricted to carriers. Submarines, destroyers, long-range patrol aircraft, supply vessels, amphibious crafts and more are on the acquirement list of not just Japan and China but also on regional moving-toward-global powers like South Korea, India and Australia.

Smaller nations like Taiwan have invested in modern frigates and second-hand destroyers. Singapore has invested not just in frigates and amphibious vessels but also submarines, a weapon never before seen in the republic’s arsenal.

Arms race

If one is a proponent of the theory that warfare has passed beyond state-based conflicts and moved on into fourth-generation warfare involving organizations and internal conflicts, one may see this as a frivolous waste. But the fact remains that Asia is rearming.

Of course, one must keep these developments in perspective. Despite outstanding disputes such as Taiwanese sovereignty, control over various small islands in the Western Pacific and North Korea, East Asia is far from the brink of war.

Instead, what we are seeing is a policy not unlike that which has been encouraged by Western militaries: the switch from territorial defense to foreign intervention.

Rapidly expanding economies like China and India want to protect their trade and interests abroad. Japan is continuing its slow retreat from postwar isolationism (at least on the military field). South Korea wants to flex its already significant military muscles overseas. As always, when one nation arms, its neighbors tend to follow.

The arms race should be seen not just as a contest in military capabilities but as one of prestige. Aircraft carriers, destroyers and submarines are highly visible symbols of national power. For a region that is finally gaining recognition as a world powerhouse and not just a source of cheap goods, this is crucial.