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Dr. Dora Alves is an Asia-Pacific specialist who has visited and lectured frequently in the area. She directed the Southeast Asia-South Pacific strategic studies course in the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, NDU, and edited International Essays and the Pacific Symposia.

East Asian nations have far greater assets to defend than they had a few decades ago. In addition, Asia’s merchant fleets have more than doubled in the past ten years. Regional interest insecurity is growing and defense forces are being modernized. Asia’s military spending doubled in the last ten years and this year is likely to reach the US $130 billion, which will equal Europe• s total defense budget.

The region is dynamic, strategically and economically. Inevitable political change will make the policies of some regional states less predictable. In the post-Cold War era, Communist states are adjusting both to the end of bi-polar rivalry and their desperate need for hard currency. Southeast Asia, having concentrated on the internal security environment during the nation-building phase, is increasingly concerned with external security and the protection of trade.

The Asia-Pacific economies are especially dependent on safe maritime passage and on the security of offshore fisheries and minerals. Defense planners bent on safeguarding maritime trade, turn to land-based aircraft with precision-guided missiles, which are very effective in narrow waterways, and plan for submarines later. Complex modern equipment can take decades to acquire and bring into service while skills to operate high-tech modern equipment also take time to develop.


A mood of uncertainty prevails in East Asia where the discussion focuses on Japan’s and China’s strategic potential. The region has not forgotten Japan’s actions in World War II. Today, concern about a diminishing U.S. presence is linked to the fear that the Japanese Constitution might conceivably be changed and the Self-Defense Force transformed to make Japan a strategic power in its own right. During the North Korean nuclear impasse, last year fears were expressed that Japan’s three non-nuclear principles might weaken in the face of North Korean threats. Given Japan’s scientific and technological proficiency, the development of nuclear weapons would not take long if the will existed to produce them-however unlikely such a change of heart appears.

Japan is reported to be apprehensive about the ultimate outcome of North Korea’s nuclear program, China’s connection with North Korea, and China’s own intentions now that the collapse of the Soviet Union has reduced China’s concerns about its borders. Questions are raised about China’s upgrading of technology and weaponry and the continuing nuclear tests conducted by a developing country with so many calls on its budget. China’s determination to create a blue water navy (something that Lee Kwan Yew, Singapore’s senior statesman, estimates will take 20 to 30 years), is seen in the light of China’s claims to the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. The Spratlys, also claimed by Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Taiwan, are adjacent to shipping lanes from Singapore to Japan and have confirmed undersea oilfields. Were China to attempt to enforce its claims, destabilization and an East Asian arms race would result but, despite its external ambitions and an increasing oil shortage, China is presently preoccupied with many internal pressures.

Reports that China and Myanmar have reached an agreement for Chinese naval stations to be established in Myanmar prompt questions about Chinese interest in the Indian Ocean and its sea routes. There have also been reports that China has access to Hainggyi Island in the Irrawaddy delta region, and of a signals intelligence site built with Chinese equipment on Great Cocos Island, about 30 nautical miles north of the Andaman Islands.

The Chinese Navy patrols the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea, the Gulf of Tonkin, and the South China Sea, and it has cruised in the South Pacific. The Chinese Navy can operate within the Japanese, Filipino, and Indonesian archipelagos, though not for prolonged periods. China’s logistic support is still inadequate for true bluewater status.

The navy is divided among three regional commands. The North Sea Fleet, headquartered at Qingdao, Shandong province, is divided into nine coastal defense districts. Responsible from the North Korean border to Lianyungang, it has two nuclear submarine squadrons. The East Sea Fleet, headquartered in Shanghai, is divided into seven coastal districts and also has two submarine squadrons. The South Sea Fleet, headquartered at Dongshan, Fujian province, is divided into nine coastal districts and has two submarine squadrons.

China’s Submarines

China’s Navy, now the world’s third-largest small ship navy, expanded with Soviet-designed ships and submarines, some of which were assembled in Chinese yards. A Russian analyst has distinguished three phases of Chinese submarine building. 3 At first, the Chinese copied the Soviet designs with assistance from the Soviets. A decade later, when Chinese-Soviet relations cooled, the Chinese built ships and submarines that they developed from Soviet designs. 7he Program of Balanced Development of the Navy to the Year 2000 of 1989 gave priority to the production of both nuclear powered and diesel-electric submarines.

The Xia class SSBN was launched in 1981, three years after the keel was laid. The missile launching system apparently gave trouble for several years. Some analysts expect a follow-on to the Xia class to be deployed after 2000, fitted with SLBM Julang-2 now under development. Only one submarine of this type was built and it rarely goes far from port. The Xia class may have been an experimental development. However, China’s potential to produce strategic nuclear submarines that could maintain a normal operating cycle clearly alters the strategic situation in the Asia-Pacific region.

Production of the multipurpose nuclear-powered Han class continues. Defects that plagued the early 1970s models have been corrected. Subsequently, the Chinese have sought weapons systems and technological transfers from abroad for production under license. The Ming class diesel-electric submarines developed so slowly that foreign experts suspected technical problems as construction was suspended, then resumed. It is thought likely that China will finish the Ming class, now under construction, and then continue with the Song class (originally the Wuhan class).

Both the Xia and the Han classes show French design influence. 4 The planning of the Song class is based on the French Agosta class, with size and displacement similar to the Ming class, but with improved diving capability and propulsion. For the time being, it seems that the Chinese will concentrate on modernizing their diesel-electric submarines of which there are roughly 30 in the fleet and over 51 in reserve. China has this year acquired four Russian Kilos-at least some of them similar to the type used by the Russian Navy, a model that is not usually exported.

It is a matter of conjecture among Western analysts of Chinese nuclear-powered forces whether there will be more of the Han class or whether a new class will be built. The Project ESSG cruise missile submarine being developed under the plan is expected to have a surface launch (cruise missile) capability. Each of the six tubes is able to elevate independently to fire one C801 Yingji missile.


Japan, the other major military power in Northeast Asia, uncertain about Russia’s attitude and its Asia-Pacific capabilities as well as China’s intentions toward the Senkaku and Spratly Islands, spends about the US $40 billion a year on defense. The defense relationship with the United States is regarded as the key to security, while the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) mission has responsibility for the defense of national territory and the all-important sea lines of communication (SLOC). This is a formidable task as Japan’s huge raw material imports pass through the chokepoints of Southeast Asia. Since the mine-sweeping operation in the Persian Gulf, there is Jess opposition to the navy’s sailing outside home waters. The public’s sentiments toward members of the armed forces seem to be softening.

Japanese Submarines

The MSDF submarine force consists of six divisions in two flotillas. In the wake of Japan’s recession, future naval plans have been scaled down, but the planned procurement of five submarines remains unchanged. Development is pursued with discretion, particularly in high-tech areas, but since July 1994 a “technology management group” has facilitated the bilateral exchange of military technology.

A Japanese submarine (along with surface ships) takes part in RIMPAC, the multinational exercise around the Hawaiian Islands that takes place every two years involving the United States and Canada, as well as Northeast Asian nations.

Japan has 16 submarines, some obsolescent. There are two submarines off the Harushio class (of 2400 tons submerged). first built-in 1990. It is anticipated that there will eventually be six of this class. Japan is not looking to NATO models, seeming to prefer to develop its own technology and to acquire U.S. Harpoons and mines.

In March 1995 there were reports that a second Stirling-based AIP engine was tested for Japan at Kockum’s Malmo plant. An earlier Stirling set said to have lower noise and vibration levels than diesel propulsion, was then already at Karasaki’s test laboratory. Japan’s submarines are relatively large by non-nuclear standards and would need four of the current KVa-275R Stirling engines, each producing a maximum output of 75 kilowatts. Besides the four engines, liquid oxygen tanks and ancillary equipment in a plug-in section would be required. The Stirling AIP that has been operational for five years in a Swedish convert-ed Type A-14 NAcken allows the submarine to operate fully submerged without battery or diesel power. The submarine’s submerged endurance is chiefly determined by the amount of stored LOX.’ The version being developed by Mitsubishi under license from Kockums may be installed on the seventh Harushio class submarine. The 1995 defense budget includes one new 2700 ton diesel submarine.

North Korean Submarines

North Korea has 26 submarines, most of an outdated Russian design, and a large stock of combatants. Much of the equipment is old and outmoded, but strenuous efforts have been made to recruit the help of Russian technologists. In late 1993 North Korea received Russian diesel submarines of the Foxtrot, Golf, Romeo, and Whisky classes for scrap. At the time, fears were expressed by some observers that the submarines might be cannibalized to create ships capable of launching nuclear missiles. However, this does not appear to have happened.6 North Korea does possess midget submarines and small attack craft capable of carrying out clandestine inshore operations.

South Korean Submarines

South Korea anticipates that the reunification with the North will take a long time, due in part to North Korea’s lack of contacts with the outside world. Because of its vulnerability to North Korean troops, concentrated in overwhelming numbers along the border, South Korea’s budget for a long time gave priority to ground forces. Now, the government is emphasizing a “three-dimensional” defense-land, sea, and air. With a thriving economy and growing exports, South Korea is taking more interest in maritime security and acquiring amphibious and ocean-going support ships. However, the defense budget will continue to be reduced so long as it excites no political interest. The people are preoccupied with the economy and the tremendous improvement in social conditions of the past few years.

At the moment there are two submarines off the Chang Bo-go class. They are German Type 209/1200 submarines with a displacement of 1,285 tons. The first was completed in 1993, the second in 1994, and the third will be done in 1995. Three more are under construction. The Navy would like to have something heavier, similar to the newest Japanese type. In the conditions that prevail in South Korea’s region, detection is difficult because of the great depth of water where only submarine to submarine detection is really effective. The program for nine submarines is going well-more rapidly than the new destroyer program.

Taiwanese Submarines

Taiwan (formerly Formosa) is, like South Korea, eager to safeguard its developing interests by purchasing submarines. The European Community’s embargo has, however, made this difficult. Analysts mention the possibility of submarines being assembled in Taiwan.

Submarine deals with France, Germany, and the Netherlands have fallen through-the Dutch submarine would have been the modified Zwardvis class, of which Taiwan has two. Australia, wishing to export its new Collins class, categorized the diesel-electric submarine as a lethal weapon and stated that a contract of this magnitude was impossible. Taiwan has, at times, shown interest in the unfinished Argentine TR-1700 and the Russian Kilo.

Taiwan has purchased 41 Harpoon missiles. It has a great interest in state-of-the-art weapons. Faced with the problem of acquiring submarine torpedoes, the high-tech armaments agency is reported to be working on a heavy wire-guided submarine torpedo and a submarine version of the Taiwanese Hsiung-Feng II missile.

ASEAN’s Defense

The lucrative Asian arms market is flourishing as obsolescent equipment is disposed of by emerging medium maritime powers interested in a stable maritime regime and law and order at sea. They appreciate the stealth of submarines or even the threat of a submarine as a deterrent. Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia state that flank the Malacca Strait, the principal sea route between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, are focussing on combat aircraft small ships with Harpoons and Exocets that can be effective against far larger ships, and advanced electronic warfare equipment to defend their interests. Thailand has both an Indian Ocean and a South China Sea coastline.

The prediction of Malaysian strategists that China would seek to make the South China Sea a Chinese lake appears closer to becoming reality. Indonesian and Filipino protests about Chinese territorial ambitions have drawn no response, but in early April 1995 Indonesia announced increased air force patrols in the Nantuna area, and ASEAN is adopting a united front. China prefers bilateral talks that might allow it to exploit differences among the ASEAN nations.


Indonesia, the most influential member of ASEAN, is the world’s largest archipelago. It consists of five major islands (or parts of islands)-Sumatra, Java and Madura, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, and Irian Jaya-and 30 smaller groups. With territorial waters four times its land area, Indonesia claims sovereignty over all the waters surrounding and between the islands. (International recognition of the archipelagic seas claim means the Indonesian Navy will be responsible for policing the restricted traffic lanes that result.

Indonesia has two diesel-powered patrol submarines. The first of the German-built Type 209, CAKRA, is being overhauled in Surabaya.

Indonesia’s archipelago stretches across a large part of Australia’s air and sea approaches. Despite the differences in defense roles and political systems, cooperation between the two nations is growing. Australia would like to sell Indonesia its Collins class.


Malaysia’s total defense spending is less than Singapore’s. Malaysia has purchased defense equipment from both Russia and China. In addition to aircraft purchases, Malaysia has launched two well-equipped frigates and plans a 27 offshore patrol boat program with substantial Malaysian participation. These measures and the purchase of the USS SPARTANBURG COUNTY (LST 1192) have postponed plans for six diesel submarines.


Thailand has had to reduce its acquisition program because of budget restrictions. There are reports of difficulties with two Chinese-built frigates and problems in integrating Western and Chinese electronics in four Thai frigates. A new aircraft carrier, due in 1997, is being built in Spain and pilots are being trained for it. Submarine purchases have been again postponed. Thailand is anxious to protect its gas and petroleum platforms-hence its ambitious modernization program and its desire for F-16 Fighting Falcons and P-3A Orions for surveillance. A traditionally neutral country, with a land area of some 514,000 square kilometers and a 3,219-kilometer coastline, Malaysia has invested in surface-to-surface missiles for the Royal Thai Navy’s coastal protection role.


Singapore learned the vulnerability of its geographical situation in World War II. Since independence it has shown the will and careful planning needed to deal with potential threats, intending to have the maritime control of its geostrategic region. Singapore has also developed ties with its ASEAN neighbors and with Australia.

There are reports of a pending German sale of up to six redundant Type 206 submarines to Singapore. The government has not commented but Singapore’s Defense Minister Dr. Lee Boon Yang has pointed out that Singapore relies heavily on technology to overcome its limited manpower.

The Philippines

Mischief Reef, where China built structures, lies within the Filipino Exclusive Economic Zone. The Defense Secretary stated recently, “China’s latest activities … appear to reflect a two-pronged strategy, that is slowly but steadfastly moving into disputed territory while talking peace with its rival claimants. “9 It will be difficult for the Philippines to create a modem naval force while it is still contending with Muslim fundamentalists in the south, despite its improving economy. All the defense forces need modernization and communications equipment in particular. The Navy needs patrol boats to deal with piracy and encroachment on Filipino fishing grounds.

In this and other regional issues, ASEAN has quietly demonstrated solidarity among its members. There is a growing desire for East Asian defense consultation and transparency. In the context of rapid economic growth and increased regional trade, East Asia needs an umbrella maritime organization with the means to support effective maritime laws and treaties. Submarines, though costly to acquire, equip, and man in adequate numbers to be effective, warrant the investment to protect the ASEAN tanker route through the Indian Ocean, the Malacca or Lombok Straits, the South China Sea, and the Sea of Japan. Their presence, or the threat of their presence, can ensure the continued flow of raw materials and of finished goods to market.


1. V ADM Sir Somerford Teagle, “Defence Too Important for Peace Activists”, The Asia-Pacific Reporter, August-September 1994.

2. Jim Bussert, “South China Sea Emerges as a Regional Trouble Spot”, National Defense, January 1995, p.

3. Captain 3rd Rank M. Shepovalenko, Morskoy Sbomik, No. 2, 8 February 1994 (JPRS-UMA-94-023, 6 June 1994), pp. 37-39, 42.

4. Particularly the REDOUBTABLE, INFLEXIBLE, and the Rubis class.

5. Joris Janssen Lok, “Japan Invests in a Second Stirling”, Jane’s Defense Weekly, 11 March 1995, p. 36.

6. U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, March 1995, p. 113.

7. Richard Sharpe, “Regional Navies Growing”, Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter, August-September 1994, p. 30 and fn.

8. Warships within the declared lanes will not be restricted in any way, but outside the lanes submarines have to travel on the surface and show national flags.

9. Greg Early, in a report from Manila, Australian Financial Review, 12 April 1995, p. 12.

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