Submariners joke that despite all the abbreviations, acronyms and ship designations in naval discourse, there are really only two types of vessels: submarines and targets.
That principle appears to be currently guiding major naval arms procurement decisions in Southeast Asia. With the growing might of China’s surface fleet, regional navies are beginning to adopt a sea denial strategy that will define maritime competition in coming years.
The strategy, defined by a rash of submarine purchases that will furnish navies with little or no previous submarine experience with capable sub-surface assets, is a tacit admission that China’s fleet is now becoming dominant in the South China Sea and therefore regional states are unable to compete. It is also an indication of continuing tensions in the region, not least over the disputed Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, and the growing fear of China’s newfound power.
The resultant arms purchases have been combined with a delicate rebalancing of the political dynamics in the region, as states begin to hedge against China’s more dominant position by reaffirming relationships with the United States that were waning.