Japan's submarine plan raises arms race fears
Military analysts warned against a stepped-up submarine-building race in Asian waters, after Japan said it was planning to expand its submarine fleet for the first time in 34 years to counter China's naval build-up in the East and South China seas.
Kyodo reported yesterday the Japanese defence ministry was planning to increase the number of its submarines to 22 from 16 as part of the basic defence programme to 2015, which is set to be compiled in December.
The ministry felt the Maritime Self-Defence Force (MSDF) should have a bigger fleet to reinforce its vigilance in nearby waters, especially the East China Sea, where Japan and China have a running territorial dispute over the Diaoyu Islands.
The plan will be put in the appendix of the new defence policy guidelines, which, when they were adopted in December 2004, said 'attention must be paid' to developments such as moves by China. Beijing has been modernising its navy and air force and trying to expand the scope of its naval activities, according to the report.
Japan saw a need to increase its own maritime surveillance in light of China's actions, especially after last month's collisions between a Chinese fishing boat and Japanese coastguard vessels near the Diaoyus.
Japan has never had as many as 20 submarines since the government adopted its first defence programme in 1976.
Shanghai-based military expert Ni Lexiong said China would not be surprised by Japan's plan to expand its submarine fleet. But he said the expansion would give countries in Southeast Asia an excuse to escalate the naval race there.
'China will definitely continue its naval build-up because it has to protect the increasingly important oil lifeline on the high seas,' Ni said. 'But in fact, our navy is still too weak to match the image of being a superpower.
'It's a pity that our reasonable development has caused a domino effect among neighbours in Southeast Asia ... I think Japan's plan will further intensify such an effect, but it's not China's fault.'
In late 2008, China admitted for the first time it was planning to develop its first aircraft carrier. The Pentagon in the US said the PLA Navy had at least 60 submarines, including five new nuclear-powered Jin-class subs and five advanced Type 095 attack submarines, which are based at the navy's biggest submarine base, in Hainan .
Earlier reports said Vietnam had spent US$2.1 billion to buy six Kilo-class diesel attack submarines from Russia this year, and Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand all planned to buy more submarines from Western countries.
The naval race stemmed from the Taiwan Strait crisis in 1996. Beijing first realised the weakness of its navy when the US sent the Seventh Fleet to the strait to show its determination to defend Taiwan in the face of the People's Liberation Army's action. Beijing has focused on building up its navy since then. The build-up is reflected in its spending, although double-digit defence budget increases have actually been going on since 1992.
By contrast, Japan's defence budget has been cut in recent years. To persuade the cabinet to pass the submarine-fleet expansion plan, the media said the defence ministry had tried to study ways to rein in the increased spending, such as cutting some of its minesweepers.
Andrei Chang, the editor-in-chief of the Canadian-based Kanwa Defence Review, said that besides the budget, the MSDF had another problem - a lack of qualified young officers.
'The MSDF has been understaffed for many years because of the problems of a low birth rate and critical population ageing, even though salaries of self-defence force officers have been increased year after year,' Chang said.
'Indeed, training is another practical problem, as it's not easy to set up and train six new professional submarine fleets, which is almost 40 per cent of the current forces.'