Reassessing Maritime Capabilities in Asia-Pacific

4 MINS READJun 6, 2012 | 06:05 GMT
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

A four-vessel Indian navy flotilla is in Japan to mark the 60th anniversary of bilateral diplomatic relations. The ships will also take part in the first ever bilateral naval exercises between the two countries beginning June 9 in Sagami Bay, Kanagawa Prefecture.

The Indians' contingent includes four vessels: a Shivalik class multi-role frigate with stealth features that was commissioned in 2010; a Rajput class guided-missile destroyer built in the Soviet Union and upgraded with BrahMos cruise missiles; a Kora class corvette; and a Deepak class fleet tanker. Japan will send two destroyers, a patrol helicopter and what is likely a Shin Meiwa type rescue plane.

Unlike the more extensive multilateral Malabar-2007 exercise in which both countries participated, the upcoming two-day exercise will be limited to search and rescue activities, and will be followed by routine passage exercises later this year during a visit by Japanese vessels to Indian ports. The bilateral exercises, then, involve primarily familiarization with communications and naval procedures. That will further enhance existing cooperation by Japanese and Indian participants in counterpiracy operations off the Somali coast, but it will also make future exercises elsewhere easier.

The exercises also reflect Japan and India's growing concern about potential challenges to their maritime supply routes and highlight the more active role both countries are beginning to take. Japanese interests stretch logically to the Persian Gulf, from which the vast bulk of its oil is supplied. Indian interests stretch through the South China Sea and into the Pacific, the direction of much of its external trade. Between the two sits China, which perceives itself as the real target not only of increased maritime cooperation between Japan and India, but also of Washington's "pivot" to Asia.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, speaking June 2 in Singapore at the Shangri-La Dialogue, said the United States would adjust its global fleet positioning, shifting from the current 50-50 balance between Atlantic and Pacific to a 60-40 split in favor of the Pacific. The shift in resources is natural, given the relative size of and activity in the two oceans, and in many ways has been well under way since the end of the Cold War. Still, Beijing called the U.S. announcement "untimely," and urged Washington to respect China's interests in the region.

Beijing is wary of the potential for the United States to take a more active role in regional maritime territorial disputes. China actively contests maritime claims with Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan, and to a lesser extent Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and North and South Korea. Of these countries, the Philippines, South Korea and Japan are all U.S. treaty allies, and Washington has growing military relations with Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam.

China's expansion of naval activity — a natural follow-on to its economic growth and  expanding maritime supply lines — has raised concerns among other countries in the region about Beijing's intent and growing capabilities. This, in turn, is spurring these countries to reassess their own maritime capabilities and expand intraregional cooperation and cooperation with the United States. Added to the mix are UN-mandated filing deadlines for claims on marine territory, which helped spark the latest round of counterclaims and rising tensions, and changing technologies that may make subsea resource extraction from the South China Sea more viable.

The Asia-Pacific has long been a primarily maritime realm, and since the end of World War II, the United States has been the undisputed naval power in the region, if not the world. The rise of China, and its attendant maritime and naval expansion, is testing the regional balance. The counteractions of the United States and of regional powers like Japan and India — and even of smaller or emerging countries like the Philippines and Vietnam — are adding to the complexities of these increasingly crowded seas.

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