There is a simple way to explain the shift of naval power in East Asia over the past two decades: The region was handed to Beijing on a platter. Back in the year 2000, China’s defence expenditure in relation to the US outlay was in the ratio of 1:11. By last year, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, that ratio had changed dramatically to 1:3. China’s defence outlay multiplied six-fold while Japan’s stayed where it was and Taiwan’s increased by just 10 per cent. South Korea, in a contest with North Korea rather than China, did better by more than doubling its defence spending over 20 years, while Australia less than doubled. The smaller countries with whom China contests ownership of various islands in the South China Sea did better, roughly trebling their combined defence outlay. But none matched China. The result? All these countries in the region, taken together, spent only two-thirds of what China did on defence last year, whereas in 2000 Japan by itself had outspent China.
Navies are built over decades. It has taken China nearly 30 years to first upgrade and then expand its fleet, while other countries watched. It still has much to learn. Meanwhile, the major European powers which say they have a stake in the Indo-Pacific raised their defence outlays by less than 20 per cent over 20 years. All these countries, in Asia and Europe, have relied on the US for a security umbrella, but that can no longer be relied on if the US is unwilling to commit troops — say, to defend Taiwan.
Besides, the US already has fewer front-line naval ships (under 300) than China. Ship to ship, the US is still superior, but China has been commissioning new ones at twice the US rate. And while Beijing can deploy its entire navy in its regional waters and the larger Western Pacific, Washington can deploy only a part of its fleet in the area. That explains why American policymakers who sit in the Biden White House have given up hope of staying dominant in the area; what they look for now is the more limited goal of deterrence. Even that may become difficult in the coming years, without help from allies. If the latter don’t step up to the plate, Chinese dominance will grow.
This provides the backdrop to the big announcement this week that the US will help the Australian navy acquire nuclear-powered attack submarines (without nuclear armaments). These can reach distant blue waters and prowl there for much longer than non-nuclear ones. Being quieter, they also have better stealth and therefore survivability. So it will change the game — over 20 years! The question is, will Japan step up next? So far that country has stuck to spending less than 1 per cent of its GDP on defence. That cap must be breached if the Quad is to have greater meaning.
As for India, it has done more than most others in terms of increasing defence outlays. But the number of its front-line ships and submarines has changed little, though overall capability has vastly improved. The number of hulls won’t grow much over the next decade either, with new ships and submarines mostly replacing old ones being retired. Meanwhile, Chinese long-range missiles are a threat to the navy’s surface ships while India struggles to develop even a mid-range, sub-sonic cruise missile — the Nirbhay. Its sole nuclear ballistic-missile submarine remains without the K-4, an intermediate-range missile that would spell real sea-based nuclear deterrence. Given such technology gaps and the relative rates of naval expansion, a power shift in the Indian Ocean region looms.
Time for hard choices. Anyone within range of China’s expanding navy will have to build capabilities faster and/or work more closely with the US, as Australia has just announced. Ordinarily, India, with its longstanding goal of strategic autonomy, would not want to be pushed into a Western naval embrace, but it already has to some degree. Having bumbled along while China built bigger and better, there is now no alternative.