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As US-China Rivalry Heats Up, Southeast Asian Countries In Race Of Acquiring Submarines

Nations in Southeast Asia are acquiring submarines as the US-China rivalry heats up, but, it is logical for them to acquire submarines? Or a waste of money?

Written By
sagar kar

Image: AP

As geopolitical realities shift, Southeast Asian nations increasingly view the development of submarines as a necessity for their security. While some analysts argue that this move is "logical and necessary," others question the usefulness of the vessels due to their high cost and the difficulties of maneuvering through regional waters. Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, and Myanmar currently have submarines, while Thailand and the Philippines are in the process of acquiring them, SCMP reported. Earlier this month, Singapore launched its next phase of submarine development with the unveiling of the Invincible-class submarines, which were built in Germany. Singapore's Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, emphasized the critical role of the navy in ensuring the survival of the island nation and maintaining open sea lines of communication, given Singapore's status as a maritime nation.

According to Aristyo Darmawan, lecturer in international law at the University of Indonesia, the desire for acquiring submarines is driven by US-China rivalry. The US has a total of 66 submarines, including more than 50 nuclear-powered attack submarines, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, while China is believed to have six nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, six nuclear-powered attack submarines, and 46 diesel-powered attack submarines, according to a US Defense report from last year. Darmawan commented that in recent years, the South China Sea has seen increased militarization, with Beijing fully militarizing at least three of the islands it built in the disputed waterway. In Darmawan's assessment, it is logical for Southeast Asian nations to acquire submarines. 

Does acquisition of sumbarines make sense? 

According to Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, there are "compelling strategic reasons" for countries like Vietnam to operate submarines, given Vietnam's ongoing territorial dispute with China. Storey pointed out that Vietnam's six submarines would make China think twice before attempting to occupy Vietnamese atolls in the South China Sea, and in the event of conflict, would allow the Vietnamese Navy to sink Chinese warships. Vietnam purchased six Kilo-class submarines from Russia in 2009, making it the largest submarine fleet in Southeast Asia. However, Storey argued that for other countries like Thailand, the acquisition of submarines is simply a matter of "keeping up with the neighbors."

In 2017, Thailand signed a deal with China to purchase three Yuan-class submarines, but the Chinese state-owned submarine developer was unable to obtain the required diesel engine from Germany due to EU arms embargoes on Beijing. Ian Storey assesses that many navies around the world want to buy submarines because they feel that they are not "proper navies" without them. However, he cautioned that submarines are complex and expensive systems to operate and can sometimes become more symbolic of power than practical warfighting vessels. As the number of submarines in Southeast Asia increases, the risk of a collision or accident at sea also rises.

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