(Tokyo Shimbun: January 20, 2016 – p.3)
By Yoji Gomi, the editorial board member
Amid the mounting tension over China’s building artificial islands in the South China Sea, coastal countries on the periphery of the Spratly Islands have been competing in the acquisition of submarines during the last several years in order to counter China’s rapid maritime push. Japan is trying to sell its domestic submarine to Australia under the Abe administration’s policy for arms exports. Some officials voice concern that “Japan may increase the tension.”
On Jan. 6, China flew two civilian chartered airplanes to the Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands for test landings on the airfield on the reef. This was the second test this month. China apparently aims to strengthen its de facto control of the artificial islands.
Under the circumstances, Vietnam is expediting its purchase of a Russian-manufactured submarine. Russian submarines are known for their relatively stable performance with few malfunctions.
The Philippines and Indonesia are also seeking to purchase new submarines to augment their current fleets of the vessels. Thailand has a strong sense of rivalry with Vietnam and reportedly is considering purchasing a submarine from China.
Japan, Germany, and France have offered their submarines to Australia for its next generation submarine. Canberra intends to select one of the three by this summer.
Japan had banned arms exports under its three principles regarding arms exports, but the Abe administration annulled the ban in April last year. Then the Cabinet decided on the Three Principles on Transfer of Defense Equipment and Technology, which in fact lifted the ban on arms exports. Now Japan is able to participate in bidding for a submarine contract.
In its report last year, the UK think tank “Strategic Defense Intelligence” anticipated that the submarine market in the Asia-Pacific region will expand from the current $7.3 billion (about 860 billion yen) to $11 billion in ten years. The market scale, according to the SDI, will exceed Europe’s and be the second largest after the U.S.
The Chinese Navy’s presence is driving the demand for submarines in the region. China is strengthening its naval power, as evidenced by the announcement of building a second aircraft carrier. Beijing is aiming to expand its interests, particularly in the South China Sea. Although China outnumbers surrounding countries in number of surface ships, their beefing up their fleets of subs, which are difficult to detect, could have a deterrence effect on the Chinese navy.
China has a submarine base at the Hainan Island, which faces the South China Sea. Many Chinese submarines seem to be operating underwater in this area. The surrounding countries could keep these Chinese boats in check by enhancing their submarine fleets.
The Japanese government is offering a submarine to Australia. The submarine is modeled after “Soryu,” the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s state-of-the-art submarine, known for its world-class quietness and stealth capability.
As 60% of Australia’s exports are shipped via the South China Sea, Canberra is sensitive to China’s behavior. If realized, the joint submarine development between Japan and Australia could be worth more than 4.4 trillion. Therefore, Tokyo hopes that the project can contribute to developing Japan’s defense industry.
Military commentator Miharu Furuze pointed out that if Tokyo successfully receives an order from Canberra, the country would likely become the world’s third-largest arms exporter, on the basis of 2014 data. “The joint project could lead to accelerating Japan’s economy,” he said, “but doing business by exploiting volatile circumstances is questionable. Such business may escalate the competition. Caution is necessary to prevent Japan from becoming ‘a merchant of death.'” Thus the military analyst also offered a warning.