No Rest for the Wary
While many look to the year’s end as a time of respite, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may have looked to the end of this year as a time to maneuver. On December 26th, Abe visited the Yasukuni Shinto shrine, honoring the spirits of 2.5 million Japanese war dead, including over a dozen class-A war criminals. The Economist’s Banyan blog details the sharply negative regional reaction (notably from China, South Korea, and somewhat unprecedentedly, the United States), and also points to the speculation that this visit not coincidentally occurred on the same day as the announcement that Okinawa’s governor had tentatively agreed to an internal relocation of the USMC Air Station (MCAS) Futenma – a long-sought U.S. goal.
So who are the winners and losers of these moves?
Shinzo Abe: In buying bilateral political capital with the U.S. through the Futenma deal, Abe was able to visit the Yasukuni shrine to shore up support among his conservative and far-right supporter base. Although he still provoked a public rebuke from the U.S., it is unlikely to cause any lasting damage to the relationship. The same cannot be said for those with the PRC and ROK. The moves to watch are whether Abe tries to mend these relationships, or continues to revisit the shrine on an annual basis. Although there are indications Abe is attempting to “normalize” the visits as akin to a trip to Arlington National Cemetery by a U.S. president, without a (highly unlikely) large-scale war apology PR effort by the Japanese government such visits will always send the wrong signal regionally.
China: Roughly a month ago China committed the unforced error of including Socotra Island in its ADIZ declaration. Since the “island” (really a submerged rock) is disputed with South Korea, the move thereby nipped the burgeoning PRC-ROK ties in the bud and caused South Korea to make common cause with Japan. With yesterday’s moves, Japan has given China the diplomatic advantage by displacing it as the more worrisome neighbor.
Regional Cooperation: As my colleague Kyle Mizokami says, Abe is now “radioactive.” Even before the shrine visit, the South Sudan ammo cooperation fiasco highlighted the difficulty of boosting the Japanese-ROK ties. But whether Abe has killed all hopes of progress for the duration of his time in office is largely contingent on his moves in the coming year(s) – whether he makes sincere efforts at damage control or instead unapologetically continues to visit the shrine. The smart money is on the latter, but the former is not impossible.
United States: While the MCAS Futenma deal is a nominal victory, forestalling the need to relocate the Marines to another Asian facility, the setback to Japanese-ROK ties outweighs the win. Much of the U.S. Asia-Pacific strategy relies on leveraging its key regional allies, and there is little that would shore up U.S. grand strategy more than robust cooperation between Japan and South Korea. While greater ties can appear quixotic at the best of times, Abe’s visit has ensured that the most wonderful time of the year this is not.
Congratulations, Singapore! In 2020, the city-state will operate the Indo-Pacific’s most advanced, non-nuclear-powered submarines. For China, these submarines present a challenge, however for Germany the deal provides the potential for greater security policy access to maritime Asia.
In early December, German shipbuilder Thyssen announced that Singapore’s navy had contracted two Type 218SG U-boats, a variety previously unknown. While the Type 216 concept has been in public discussion Type 218 had not. As it seems, Type 218SG is an improved version of Type 214, adjusted to Singapore’s specific needs, thus the “SG” suffix. Given its size and operational profile, Type 214/218SG subs are very well suited for operations in coastal waters, such as those around Singapore. Thyssen’s offered Type 216 concept is would have been too large.
Thanks to the air-independent propulsion (AIP) fuel cells the U-boat operates almost noiselessly like a nuclear-powered submarine, but without the heat signature caused by the reactor. In consequence, by 2020, Singapore will receive the most advanced non-nuclear-powered submarines in the Indo-Pacific.
Why Singapore Needs U-boats
Lately, international attention has largely been on aircraft carriers and, through China’s ADIZ, with air forces. However, Asia’s arms race takes pace underwater as much as it does on the surface. China is expanding its fleet of nuclear and conventionally powered attack submarines in quality and quantity and the U.S. will commission even more new Virginia-class nuclear subs.
Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, Australia, the Philippines, and Pakistan all maintain programs to start, modernize, or expand their submarine fleets. South Korea has already been a customer of Germany’s submarines. Especially small countries, who are missing the resources and capacities for large expeditionary fleets, will respond to China’s increasing capabilities by expanding of their submarine forces.
The U.S. and Britain will favor ally Singapore’s procurement of top-of-the-line German U-boats, but the purchase will certainly not please China’s navy. All Chinese warships underway to the Indian Ocean by the far-most economic route have to pass the shallow waters around Singapore, thereby coming in range of the barely detectable 218s.
The purchase of a German product also helps keep Singapore’s fleet interoperable with Western navies. For the West this is advantageous in the event that continued Chinese “assertiveness,” spurs the formation of new coalitions in Southeast Asia. Japan is already pursuing that track. Given China’s desire to establish an ADIZ in the South China Sea, at least one aircraft carrier would have to transit to the south of the South China Sea to enforce it. China’s fighter jets lack the range to launch from the mainland and aerial refueling capabilities are too immature. Thus, Singapore’s Type 218s would pose a serious challenge to any Chinese carrier task force.
How far China has advanced in sonar techniques and submarine detection is hard to say. If German Type 212s can make their way through the anti-sub-defense of a U.S. aircraft carrier, the even more advanced 218s should have no major difficulty embarrassing the Chinese navy.
Yet just two 218s will not be enough because Singapore’s navy also has an Endurance-class LPD and surface warships to protect. One rule applies to warships as well as submarines: one at sea, one in the yard, and one developing its readiness. Of course, the Singaporeans know that. Thus, given a successful program development, we will likely see an order of a second tranche.
Strategic Value for Germany
The announced deal is also a win for Germany. Besides the good deal for the German defense industry, the secured jobs, and the revenue, the deal’s strategic value must also be examined. By purchasing amphibious landing ships, new frigates and the F-35, Singapore, with its central geo-strategic location, is on the way to become a military powerhouse. It is therefore in the interests of a maritime trade-dependent nation like Germany, to have good relations with Singapore, as it inhabits one of the world’s most important ports.
Germany has not yet had any maritime security access east of the Malacca Strait in Southeast Asia. Even its role in the Indian Ocean has remained unusually limited. With the further pace-taking maritime arms-race in Southeast Asia, Germany now has a bright foot in the door. In addition, Singapore will become dependent after 2020 on German spare part deliveries.
It should be noted that a submarine deal with South Korea, to this day, has not produced any immediate strategic value or results in practical security policy. Through two customers instead of one that could change, especially as Germany pursues additional export deals in the region.
In addition to the potential for these lucrative arcontracts, Germany has an interest in a stable, peaceful maritime arc running from Singapore and Vladivostok. China’s re-armament, coupled with a more assertive military doctrine, and its aggressive enforcement ensures the opposite. Since one can doubt U.S. resolve thanks to the Obama Administration and the federal budget, the countries of the region must be able to balance China’s rise, at least partially, by themselves. Therefore, German-built subs can surely do their share.
Felix Seidler is a fellow at the Institute for Security Policy, University of Kiel, Germany, and runs the site Seidlers-Sicherheitspolitik.net (Seidler’s Security Policy).
Follow Felix on Twitter: @SeidersSiPo
The big news of the day is China’s declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over parts of the East China Sea, notably furthering the potential for conflict with Japan over the Senkakus/Diaoyus. Per guidelines released Saturday, the policy requires non-commercial aircraft in the space to pre-arrange flights with China’s government – effectively creating a pretense for action against Japanese military aircraft should they fail to comply with rules set for a space they likewise consider their own. Taiwan, which also maintains claims to islands it calls the Tiaoyutai, has voiced regret over the move.
Additionally, the zone may (unintentionally or intentionally) heighten tensions with South Korea as it extends close to South Korea’s Jeju island and appears to include the disputed submerged rock “Socotra Island” claimed by both South Korea as Ieodo and China as Suyan.
While the announcement by China’s Ministry of Defense was contained to the East China Sea, according to the Washington Post, a Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman, Yang Yujun, said that China would will create additional zones “at the right moment after necessary preparations are completed.”
LT Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. He is the founding director of the Center for International Maritime Security and holds a master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College.
h/ts to @zacharykeck, @wayale, @dmhartnett, @washburnt for sources.