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Commentary: Asia-Pacific’s submarine aspirations make regional waters more congested – and riskier


SINGAPORE: In Dec 2022, the Singapore navy launched the second and third of four new Invincible-class submarines, named Impeccable and Illustrious. Delivery of the first – Invincible – was delayed after its launch in 2019 due to the pandemic.

COVID-19 may have held up supply chains and devastated the global economy as the world spent trillions in pandemic measures and stimulus packages. But defence spending during this time hardly languished.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) assessed that world military expenditure crossed the US$2 trillion mark for the first time in 2021. Two of the top five spenders are in the Asia-Pacific – China and India.

Japan lately also pushed for an unprecedented increase in defence spending, envisaging a total of US$324 billion over fiscal years 2023 to 2027. SIPRI also found that even though the global arms trade fell slightly from 2017 to 2021, arms imports by East Asia and the Oceania regions rose.

Such assessments tend to give rise to the conclusion that an arms race is brewing in Asia, even as countries continue to grapple with global economic uncertainties brought about by the pandemic and the Ukraine war.

But the momentum for greater arms spending clearly started before the Ukraine war started in February 2022. And who knows how much it will henceforth contribute to driving up defence budgets?

Maritime Asia-Pacific has always had an abiding interest in modernising naval forces – especially with submarines, often regarded as a highly valued force multiplier for weaker navies against stronger foes.

Past historical feats of submarines in the hands of the presumably weaker party against the stronger adversary further romanticises the idea that an undersea force is necessary. The Argentinean submarine San Luis created so much commotion during the Falklands War in 1982 that the United Kingdom devoted disproportionate anti-submarine efforts against this singular threat.

The post-pandemic submarine proliferation in the Asia-Pacific represents a mixed picture. China, Japan and South Korea are beefing up their undersea capabilities.

Notably, Japan expanded its submarine fleet from its pre-pandemic figure of 20 boats in 2019 to 22 by end 2022. In the same period, South Korea boosted its submarine fleet from 16 to 19.

Source: Channel NewsAsia