April 29, 2009 1:05:42 am
After Beijing showed off its maritime muscle last week,the stage is now set for a competitive modernisation of naval power in Asia. At the celebrations to mark the Peoples Liberation Army Navys 60th birthday,President Hu Jintao sought to reassure the world that China will neither engage in military expansionism nor an arms race.
Hu insisted that China will stick unswervingly to the path of peaceful development,and will never seek hegemony now or in the future,no matter how much the country develops.
In the cynical world of international politics,few Asian leaders will buy into Hus calming rhetoric. Beijings neighbours will certainly respond the rise of Chinese naval power.
One significant reaction could come as early as this week when Australias Labour Government releases a White Paper outlining Canberras defence priorities for the next three decades. All indications are that Australia will cite Chinas rise to unveil a substantive military modernisation plan costing about US$72 billion.
Canberra is expected to unveil plans for doubling its submarine fleet and building powerful surface ships equipped with advanced missile defence systems.
Meanwhile,the Australian defence establishments focus on the China threat has been vigorously contested by Canberras intelligence agencies that take a more benign view of Chinas military modernisation.
Although Australia is a leading ally of the United States in the Pacific,its economic and political relations with China have rapidly improved in recent years. In many ways the Australian defence debate on Chinas capabilities and intentions is becoming a trend setter in the Asia Pacific region.
All major Asian nations will have to navigate between their growing economic interdependence with China on the one hand and their fears about the strategic consequences of Beijings rising military profile.
Australia has already announced plans for large deck ships that can carry troops and helicopters. Although helicopter ships are not as sexy as aircraft carriers,they do serve the demands of force projection.
Canberra is not the only one interested in helicopter carriers. South Korea already operates one such platform called Donko and plans to induct two more. The 14,000 ton Donko landing ship participated in the Chinese fleet review at Qingdao and drew much international attention.
Meanwhile,Japan has commissioned last month the first of its Hyuga class helicopter destroyers. While its primary function is anti-submarine warfare,the Hyuga will also give Japan its first real power projection capability since 1945. The Hyuga is the largest warship built in Japan since World War II.
The Japanese constitution,it may be noted,forbids Tokyo from having aircraft carriers. Cynics say that is probably one reason why the Hyuga is called a destroyer,rather than an aircraft carrier.
The very reasons that China cites for developing a powerful navy energy and resource security,protection of sea lines of communication and the need to protect far-flung national interests are also the ones that Tokyo,Seoul and Canberra cite in quietly developing more powerful navies.
Vietnam,which shares communist ideology with China but also inherits a long and complex legacy of conflict with Beijing,has put out interesting messages on how it hopes to balance Beijings growing military clout.
Chinas fleet modernisation,designed for power projection,is being watched closely and with some concern in Hanoi,which is locked in dispute with Beijing over ownership of the Paracel and Spratly island chains.
A day before the Chinese fleet review at Qingdao last week,Vietnamese defence officials flew out to the deck of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis.
According the official media in Vietnam,this was the first time Communist Vietnamese defence personnel had ever been on a US carrier. Thirty years ago,US carrier based aircraft used to bomb Vietnam on a daily basis. Now the two sides are talking about mutual understanding and cooperative efforts towards regional peace.
To make sure it has more than one friend in dealing with a rising China,Vietnam has also ordered six submarines from Russia. According to reports from St. Petersburg,the Russian dockyards there will build six Kilo class submarines for Vietnam. The price tag will be US$1.8 billion.
The writer is a Professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies,Nanyang Technological University,Singapore.
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