In recent times, Indo-Pacific defence planning has begun to noticeably converge in the way of regional military coalitions and maritime tactics.
Australia flagged the revival of its participation in quadrilateral naval drills alongside the US, Japan and India following an announcement by former Defence Minister Kevin Andrews in Delhi in September. Known as Exercise Malabar, these bilateral exercises have been held annually between the US and India since 1992. They comprise of drills in maritime interdiction, air combat, and surface and anti-submarine warfare. The drill originally sought to include Japan and Australia in 2007, but this was met with unsurprising Chinese opposition due to the perceived strategic threat posed by military cooperation among its principal strategic adversaries in the region.
In a perceived effort to appease China, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced Australia’s decision to withdraw from the exercises at a conference with then Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi in 2008. Kevin Andrews has labelled this decision a “mistake”, signaling the Coalition Government’s more hard line stance on Chinese assertiveness and its renewed willingness to strengthen regional military alliances as a countermeasure. The head of ANU’s National Security College Professor Rory Medcalf contends that China has more reason to be concerned now than in 2007 about this quadrilateral grouping.
This grouping is also founded on converging concerns that Beijing’s activities may hamper $5.3 trillion worth of trade passing through the South China Sea annually. Andrews claimed that the inclusion of more countries in Exercise Malabar is a “way to avoid some kind of miscalculation happening,” highlighting Australia and India’s shared interests of maintaining “the wider free passage of international trade.”
This past week saw the conclusion of the first ever AUSINDEX maritime exercises between India and Australia under their bilateral Framework for Security Cooperation, established in 2014. The exercises focused on naval interoperability and anti-submarine warfare, featuring anti-submarine and reconnaissance aircrafts, a Collins-class diesel submarine, and stealth frigates.
The progressive focus on deploying submarines and practicing anti-submarine warfare in military exercises is prompted by the burgeoning presence of nuclear capable submarines in the Indo-Pacific.
It was no coincidence that the AUSINDEX exercises took place off Visakhapatnam Port in the Bay of Bengal near the location of China’s maiden deployment of a nuclear capable submarine (SSBN) last year. This is also near the Sri Lankan port where another Chinese SSBN surfaced for replenishment.
China currently operates three Jin-class SSBNs and is expected to produce five by 2020, each capable of carrying twelve Julang-2 long-range ballistic missiles. Last year, India also fielded its first SSBN, the INS Arihant, and has commissioned two more.
Traditionally, the development of maritime nuclear capabilities is endemic of military modernisation in major powers. SSBNs were used as key deterrents for the US and Soviet Union throughout the Cold War. Today, Washington actively operates eighteen SSBNs, while Moscow operates nine.
Following China and India’s lead, young nuclear states, including Pakistan and North Korea, are moving to guarantee the credibility of their deterrence capabilities in the maritime domain. Thomas-Noone and Medcalf contend in their latest Lowy Institute Report that “over the next decade, a number of sea-based nuclear weapons platforms in the Indo-Pacific will move from a testing and design phase, to active deployment.”
Defence experts agree that Pakistan’s sea-based second-strike nuclear capability is currently under development. The significant expansion of Pakistan’s submarine fleet required to reify its maritime nuclear capabilities will be sustained by China, who is expected to supply nuclear-armed conventional submarines, rather than SSBNs.
North Korea is also cited to be in the nascent stages of developing sea-based nuclear deterrents, since it has purportedly made significant investments in submarine technology and warhead miniaturisation. While claims of North Korea’s tactical advancements tend to be overstated, such allusions from Pyongyang are typically enough to trigger defensive measures from South Korea and Japan.
Indeed, last week South Korea announced its procurement of twelve S-3 Viking anti-submarine aircrafts from the US, following its failure to detect the location of Pyongyang’s alarming deployment of fifty submarines from their homeports – the largest deployment since the Korean War.
We can be certain that Indo-Pacific states are converging in their transition to possessing maritime nuclear capabilities. The uncertainty rests in the credibility of increased maritime nuclear deterrents as a force for stability. As such, states would be wise to heed Thomas-Noone and Medcalf’s recommendations of ensuring that the necessary infrastructure, including command and communications, doctrine and training, is in place before the Indo-Pacific can hope to enjoy nuclear-generated stability.
Sophie Qin is the Indo-Pacific Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.
Image Credit: Defence Images (cropped and filter) (Flickr: Creative Commons)