The Pacific Ocean is the largest and deepest body of water on the planet. Framed on one side by the Americas, on the far side of this vast ocean spanning more than 155 million square kilometres, competition between Asian Pacific Rim powers is heating up.
South Korea, Japan, China and Australia have all boosted their naval power as they jostle for supremacy in the Pacific.
Vast resources of fish and significant deposits of both oil and natural gas lie beneath the ocean surface, with most barely discovered and lying untapped.
Possession of this potential wealth is linked to ownership of often tiny and uninhabited islands. If a country owns these islands, it means the surrounding ocean floor and volume of ocean also belong to it.
In a world with growing populations, dwindling resources and greater demands on industry, their possession could very well ensure a country’s long-term wellbeing. As a result, competition for these islands and the resources they represent has sharply picked up pace.
Meanwhile, as China asserts its presence in the Pacific, this rivalry has led to a growing arms race with new strategic alliances reshaping the region.
China, the second largest economy globally, is also the world’s most populous nation. The search for food and fuel for its people and resources for its industry is vital if China is to ensure its political stability.
China’s expeditionary fishing fleet is the world’s largest by far, comprising an estimated 17,000 vessels. This number dwarfs the combined fleets of its nearest competitors, Japan and South Korea, which together only number about 2,500.
These vast Chinese long-range fishing fleets roam the Pacific searching for and exploiting fishing grounds and have encroached on the territory of other countries. The fleets, made up of trawlers, processing factories and support vessels, are self-sufficient and are designed to travel enormous distances to lucrative fishing grounds far beyond China’s shores. In 2020, a giant fleet of nearly 300 vessels was spotted near the Galapagos Islands – close to the territorial waters of Ecuador – more than 15,000km from China’s shore.
Not only does China have the largest fishing fleet in the world, but to protect its trade routes and to project power it also has the world’s largest navy. It has embarked on a huge shipbuilding programme and with so many ships being built, a second naval shipyard is being opened in Shanghai to cope with demand.
Numbers are not everything, however. The Pacific Ocean has been dominated by the United States since the end of World War II.
While China has the largest navy, the United States has vast powerful submarine fleets and by far the most aircraft carrier groups in the world. These huge ships can each carry up to 90 aircraft, floating airfields that are heavily protected by air defence destroyers, cruisers and submarines. The US Pacific fleet is made up of about 200 ships, some 1,100 aircraft and about 120,000 highly trained sailors and civilians.
With decades of combat experience under its belt, the US navy is truly formidable as a military force. The power of its ballistic missile submarines alone would be able to eradicate all life on earth. The US Indo-Pacific Command, based in Hawaii, has an area of responsibility stretching from San Francisco to the Somali coast, covering more than half the planet.
Islets, islands and more islands
While China’s colossal fishing fleets scour the ocean for seafood, competition for the untapped oil and gas lying beneath the ocean floor focuses China’s attention on the desolate islets lying closer to its coast. From island chains in the South China Sea to the islets off the southernmost tip of Japan, China has pushed for ownership in an attempt to expand its control over the region.
China’s rise as a regional power has its neighbours worried. Aggressive naval patrols and overflights of disputed territory by Chinese air force jets are seen as provocative. China says it is merely asserting its rights over areas it considers to be part of China. Small islands, most barely habitable, have become flashpoints in this new cold war between China and its neighbours.
Nowhere is this regional tension more pronounced than in the South China Sea.
China claims the vast majority of the area, intruding into waters claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and Brunei.
Some 60 percent of the world’s maritime trade passes through this large stretch of water, making it one of the world’s most strategic sea lanes.
The main islets, the Paracel Islands in the north and Spratly island chain to the south, are all claimed by China. To reinforce the legality of these claims it has literally built more islands, dredging sand and rock from the seabed to form not just habitable islands. With the addition of radar sites and missile batteries, some of these islands have become air bases, each with 3,000-metre runways that can accommodate the largest military aircraft.
From there, the Chinese air force flies patrols, enforcing the point to its neighbours that, despite the technical legalities, possession is nine-tenths of the law.
Adding to this is a huge Chinese maritime military force. Technically unarmed, they sail huge fleets into disputed areas, intimidating rival claimants with their sheer presence and also occasional aggressive ramming manoeuvres. This force answers directly to the Chinese military, the People’s Liberation Army, and is being used as an instrument of foreign policy: intimidation just short of conflict.
It is these worrying moves by China, the growing superpower in Asia’s midst, that has its neighbours increasingly concerned, and a regional arms race is now in full swing.
Japan, South Korea and Taiwan – the growing arms race
Japan has discretely moved away from its pacifist constitution, quietly building up its armed forces and its military-industrial complex. It now builds some of the most advanced conventional submarines in the world. The Soryu-class submarines can stay underwater for extended periods of time and are equipped with the latest sensors and weapons.
Japan’s helicopter carriers have been converted to light aircraft carriers and will carry the latest F-35 stealth fighter jets. The US has approved orders for 105 of these fifth-generation planes for Japan, its regional ally.
Japan is also buying long-range anti-ship missiles, exactly the type of weapon that will give Japan a decisive advantage in any future war fought in the Pacific, and is debating whether to adopt a “pre-emptive strike” approach if the threat is serious enough, a major shift in its defence policy.
Japan has also reinforced its southern islands with troops and missile batteries in case China makes a move to invade Taiwan. In the light of this potential threat, Japan and Taiwan have agreed to help each other if China makes such a move.
Japan claims a set of uninhabited islands it calls Senkaku and China calls Diaoyu. Repeated overflights by Chinese military aircraft are matched by Japanese patrols, each attempting to persuade the other that they are willing to fight for what is theirs. China has always asserted what it calls the “first island chain” is within its sphere of influence. This includes Taiwan and also the Senkaku/Diaoyu islets. Japan says these islets are part of its own island chain.
It is not just China driving Japan’s defence calculus.
Russia claims sovereignty over what Japan calls the Northern Territories and the four southernmost islands of what Russia calls the Kuril Islands. Taken by the then Soviet Union in the closing days of World War II, Russia has steadily been reinforcing its military there. In March, Russia ran exercises on the disputed isles involving 3,000 troops, its armed forces practising how to defeat a hypothetical airborne assault.
Disputed claims over islands – lying in overlapping maritime zones – which Japan calls Takeshima and South Korea calls Dokdo, have also raised tension. With the area rich in gas deposits, ownership of the islands is a constant source of friction.
Japan is not the only country re-arming.
Last year South Korea developed and tested the world’s first conventionally-powered ballistic missile submarine and is now one of the few countries that possess this capability. It is also developing its own supersonic long-range, cruise missile, relying on South Korea’s vast high-tech industries rather than foreign purchases.
Taiwan has also embarked on its own armaments programme, building its own domestically made submarine. The island plans to build a fleet of its own submarines in only a few years and is doubling its capacity to build long-range missiles.
There is a pattern here. America’s Asian allies had their faith shaken by Donald Trump’s tenure as president. His mercurial style and ability to reject longstanding treaties made China’s neighbours wary of the help and protection the United States offered. In an increasingly uncertain world, most countries realised that if they wanted to guarantee their protection they would have to go it alone, and any help from anyone else was extra.
Large-scale armaments programmes have now been started by Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. All possess huge industrial high-tech resources that have been put to the task of building new generations of weapons for their defence.
Australia’s approach: AUKUS
Australia has taken another approach. Already a core regional ally of the US, it has further cemented this relationship by abandoning a huge submarine programme it had commissioned from France, announcing it was going instead to have its submarines built by the United States and the United Kingdom.
The signing of the AUKUS deal between Australia, the US and the UK means Australia will acquire eight nuclear-powered, advanced submarines, giving it a huge boost in military capabilities.
The submarines could remain underwater and undetected, able to pack an enormous punch, bringing the fight to the enemy’s shores thousands of kilometres away. This single act means that Australia is now a major player in the Pacific and a growing power to contend with.
As part of the AUKUS agreement, Australia has agreed to increased intelligence-sharing between the countries, already intelligence partners through the Five Eyes intelligence alliance along with Canada and New Zealand. The presence of US aircraft and military personnel will also grow as part of the AUKUS pact.
Winners, losers and strategic relationships
With mutual defence agreements forming across the region, India has pushed for inclusion, not only in the Five Eyes alliance but is also looking to enhance the strength of maritime pacts like the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known as the Quad – the deepening military naval cooperation between Australia, the United States, India and Japan.
A few years ago, this was largely a paper organisation, India wary of any “anti-China” alliance and focused primarily on unilaterally resisting Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean. In an effort to show India the United States was serious about its commitments to the world’s largest democracy, the US navy changed the name of its US Pacific Command to the US Indo-Pacific Command.
Rising tension between China and India has also helped remove some of India’s initial reticence about the Quad and military exercises between the four countries have become larger, more sophisticated and realistic in nature.
India has given new impetus to its own naval programmes and abilities to project combat power with the development and building of India’s indigenous aircraft carrier, the INS Vikrant, which underwent sea trials in 2021. There were plans to build bigger and larger carriers although the delays and expense in building the Vikrant have led to the cancellation of the subsequent aircraft carrier programme.
France, despite controlling several Pacific territories, home to 1.5 million French citizens and with 8,000 troops stationed on islands across the vast ocean, has become marginalised. France’s attempts to revitalise its “Indo-Pacific” presence and influence have been checked, most recently by Australia’s sudden cancellation of the $66bn submarine deal.
The US, with its colossal navy, has kept its pre-eminence across the vast ocean, ensuring that only countries favourable to it will benefit from the region’s huge and mostly untapped potential.
As Pacific Rim countries arm themselves and contest neighbouring islands in the endless quest for resources, a growing patchwork of alliances has joined these countries through a variety of defence agreements. While their main focus is China, they are also keeping a wary eye on one another.
These new strategic relationships, plus others like the Quad, all help allay fears over China’s increasing assertiveness in the region, acting as deterrents against future conflicts.
China for its part sees its military expansion as both a symbol of national pride and also a vital component for the protection of its growing trade with the rest of the world. It sees these new alliances as threatening and is boosting its own armed forces accordingly.
The race is on.