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Arms Race in Asia
China Spurs Submarine Spending Spree

A submarine race is underway throughout Asia, experts say, as China’s efforts to expand its fleet of submarines has the rest of the region scrambling to catch up. FT:

A rapid build-up of submarines in the western Pacific is fuelling Asian demand for vessels with advanced technology, defence groups say.

The number of submarines in the region is expected to rise to 250 from 200 within eight years, according to Singapore’s defence ministry, which warned this week of a growing risk of “miscalculations at sea”.

Quiet vessels with long-range firepower pose a challenge for planners seeking to keep Asian sea lanes open, said contractors and analysts gathered at a maritime defence exhibition in Singapore. […]

“If programmes proceed as projected, major change is afoot in the submarine operational picture in the region,” said Paul Burton, Asia-Pacific defence director at IHS Jane’s. “The common thread running through these developments is the introduction of increasingly modern, capable and quiet submarines.”

We’ve followed these trends piecemeal for some time now, but the FT gives the larger picture. It’s a story largely led by China, whose visible and rapid progress in expanding its submarine fleet have been spooking the neighbors. But as the FT piece makes clear, this is not a simple case of China against all, with a scary buildup from Beijing sending the rest of Asia into a tizzy. China has also been using the arms race to pull certain neighbors into its orbit, for instance courting Thailand with a controversial deal to purchase Chinese submarines.

In other words, this is as much a story about competing national defense industries as it is about a raw increase in capabilities across the board. In the current climate, where Asian countries are buying submarines from is nearly as important as the fact that they doing so—so that Australia’s decision last year to choose French contractors over the Japanese, for instance, was seen as a win for Beijing and a blow to Tokyo.

With Australia, India, Pakistan, South Korea, Indonesia and Myanmar all developing plans to expand their fleets, it doesn’t look like the submarine arms race will be slowing down any time soon. In the years to come, that will mean an increasingly volatile security situation in Asia, a lot more politically loaded defense lobbying—and surely some more industrial espionage, as China and its rivals seek to keep tabs on each other’s capabilities.

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