There’s change afoot on Asian seas and you don’t have to look hard to find it. You’d be forgiven, however, for thinking that change is being entirely led by the People’s Republic of China. It’s fair to say the country, and its naval forces, are ambitious, but so too are its regional neighbours.

Among them, Australia has embarked on a hugely significant regeneration and re-capitalising of its naval force. Japan is also considering the naval capabilities it has and might need in the future – something that has never been thought likely since World War II. The Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force is said to be on the verge of an order for up to 100 F-35B fighter jets to be stationed on its helicopter-carrying destroyers.

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“It’s ever clearer that it’s a very congested, as well as contested, environment. Everyone is enhancing their capabilities,” says Nick Childs, fellow and senior naval analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “Around the region a lot is going on.” This, in part, is why South Korea has stepped up its longstanding blue-water strategy.

South Korea’s blue-water fleet

In October 2018 South Korea announced plans to establish a task fleet comprising three squadrons, including its 7,600 ton Aegis destroyers. “The task fleet will contribute to securing maritime traffic routes and ensuring the free maritime operations and safety of our citizens through the expansion of our operational areas into far seas,” the South Korean Navy said.

Reporting on the news, many outlets singled the unprecedented growth of China’s naval capabilities, coupled with the country’s growing naval ambitions to assert itself as a major player in the region, as the leading reason behind South Korea’s move. However, there is more to it than that, argues Childs.

“South Korea clearly sees itself as a significant maritime player in the region, and to some extent beyond… But other navies and maritime forces, particularly the most significant regional players, have also been developing their capabilities,” he says. There is an element of adjustment taking place.

The US-Asia alliance

Since the inauguration of President Trump in 2017, the Asia-Pacific region has been left somewhat unsure of the long-held role the US will play there. The US Navy is still among those with the largest presence there but the scaling back of joint regional military exercises, a somewhat improved relationship with North Korea (at least at the time of writing), and growing pressure from President Trump on the US’s traditional regional allies to shoulder their share of the military burden have left many to question the future of the US as a stabilising force in the region.

“I think there is some element of concern among the US’s partners as to what to make of the signals coming out of Washington, in particular the White House,” says Childs. However, he believes US commitments to the region stand firm with the US appearing to be intent on remaining a major player, regardless of what it says on occasion.

It is, perhaps, the result of actions taken by the US and North Korea that have enabled the South to reaffirm its intention to create blue-water capability, which dates back to the late 1990s. The highly desired and increasingly positive approach to inter-Korean rapprochement has meant Seoul has the opportunity to extend its vision further afield.

“The issue, in large, for South Korea has been having to balance its aspirations against concerns closer to home,” says Childs. “The extent to which worries about North Korea, and therefore the costal littoral waters ebb and flow, appear to be ebbing slightly because of the desire and efforts to have a better relationship with the North.”

However, history teaches us to take little, if anything, for granted when it comes to the North-South relations.

Fixed wing capability

The South Korean task fleet, which is expected to be operational by the middle of the next decade, will be complemented by the creation of an aviation command the South Korean Navy said. “The envisioned aviation command, that will run maritime patrol aircraft and choppers, will ensure the completeness of various maritime aviation operations,” says Childs.

Some of this stated intent means the US will continue to be a major player in the region, with South Korea mooted to be considering equipping its ships with the F-35B variant and P-8 Poseidon patrol aircraft. As a result, South Koreas long-term ambitions are “somewhat dependant” on its North American partner. “The interesting question is, do South Korea’s naval ambitions seriously involve having a fixed wing aviation capability at sea; would the F-35B be onboard the Aegis?” asks Childs.

With Japan looking likely to place an order for the aircraft, the US operating them in the region, and China’s advances, both onshore and at sea, the proposition clearly has appeal. “It must be a tempting prospect of South Korea if it can get US agreement to add that capability to its forces. That would significantly increase the South Korean Navy’s ability to operate independently, at range, which is part of having a blue-water capability.”

The region is in a state of flux, with shifting dynamics and growing uncertainties. But one thing will likely keep a lid on potential dangers, says Childs. Trade is an important factor all parties have to consider, regardless of strategic military aspirations. “Because everyone has a significant stake in maintaining trade, particularly maritime trade, that will be a significant deterrent to anyone really pushing very hard to provoke.”

But, he warns, although trade focusses the mind, both regional and international, there is always the risk of miscalculation.

The Asian military spending surge

There does appear to be a turning of the tide across Asia, with major players looking to bolster their fleets on land, at sea and in the air.

According to the Australian Government’s 2016 Defence White Paper, annual regional defence spending stood at AU$439bn, more than double what it was at the beginning of the century, and AU$53bn more than that of Europe. According to Jane’s Defence Budgets by IHS Markit, the region will be the largest spender on weapons by 2029, outspending even North America.

Whilst AU$200bon of that is spent annually by China, according to Australian Government figures, others are stepping up their game, too. Today China is the largest shipbuilder in the world, having commissioned more than 30 vessels between 2013 and 2016. According to an editorial by Robert Ross of Boston College in Lawfare, at the current rate China could have as many as 430 surface ships and 100 submarines within the next 15 years.

It’s the underwater battlespace that could prove to be the next frontier, according to Childs. “There is a lot of discussion about the extent to which the undersea water space is evolving, including potential advance in detection capabilities, networked autonomous systems, and the like,” he says. “The extent to which they will fundamentally change the underwater battlespace remains uncertain. A bit like precision missiles for surface forces, it could have an effect on the tactical ways in which you employ your underwater capabilities in the future.”

So the future for the region remains uncertain. A vague US foreign policy, China’s huge military spending programme, the often volatile posturing of South Korea’s neighbour to the North, and ever-quickening technological advances do, however, mean one thing. The arms race will continue in all but name, meaning South Korean strategy-makers will have a lot to think about.