President Xi’s bullying tactics trigger an Asian arms race

Allies of the United States in the region are starting to confront Beijing’s saber-rattling on the high seas

When a bully kicks sand in your face, you have two options.

You either do nothing and take it, or you do something about it.

Well, the Philippines is tired of being bullied by President Xi Jinping’s China.

According to a media report in the Daily Sabah, the Southeast Asian nation has ordered two new warships from South Korea’s Hyundai Heavy Industries, the world’s largest shipbuilder, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said this week.

And we all know why. Modernizing the Philippine Navy has become a burning issue for Manila as it faces a dispute with Beijing in the South China Sea.

Left to decay in recent decades with aging American craft from World War II, the navy is receiving a modest modernization makeover.

The program was pushed through by President Rodrigo Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino, in 2010, the report stated. It included a 28 billion pesos (US$556 million) deal with Hyundai to build and deliver the corvettes by 2026.

Cruising speed

Each war ship has a 3,200-ton displacement, is 116 meters in length and 14.8-meters wide with a maximum speed of 25 knots, and a cruising speed of 15 knots. 

The corvettes have a 16-cell vertical launching system, eight anti-ship missile launchers and a 35 millimeter close-in weapon system. There is also a 76 mm main gun, two three-tube torpedo launchers and Active Electronically Scanned Array radar.

In other words, it will pack a punch. It will need to.

During the past 12 months, Chinese coast guard ships have blocked and sprayed powerful streams of water at Philippine boats carrying supplies to troops on disputed South China Sea shoals. 

They will think twice if they are faced by well-armed corvettes that can sink them and their crews.

Made in South Korea Corvettes are small but fast. Photo: Handout.

Yet the Philippines is not the only country to boost its naval capabilities to counter China’s rising military might at sea.

Supported by Hyundai and Daewoo Shipbuilding and Mechanical Engineering, the South Korean Navy is in the process of building up its surface fleet. Submarine numbers will also be increased.

The last few months have seen a huge amount of activity, USNI News reported. It revealed:

  • The seventh of an expected eight new Daegu-class (FFX-II) frigates will be delivered in 2023.
  • The second of three new Batch 2 Sejong Daewang-class (KDX-III) destroyers are expected to be delivered in 2026.
  • Hyundai has already completed a keel-laying ceremony for the first Batch 2 KDX-III destroyer with a delivery date in 2024.
  • A new 30,000-ton light aircraft carrier is also in the works, as is a Dosan Ahn Chang-ho-class (KSS-III) conventional attack submarine. It will be delivered in 2024.

“Eventually, the ROKN [Republic of Korea Navy] plans to form a genuinely ocean-going surface fleet from early 2030s, consisting of three flotillas,” Kim Jae Yeop, an independent defense researcher, told the USNI website.

“[It would be] something like [the] Fleet Escort Force of Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Forces – along with KDX-II, KDX-III destroyers and other new ships in the future,” Kim said.

Light carrier

Despite initial skepticism, South Korea’s National Assembly has passed a $6.1 billion budget for the light carrier program, reversing planned cuts.

As in the US, fear trumps everything, and the South Koreans are taking no chances.

Already China claims almost all of the South China Sea, ignoring the rights of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam in the region.

Beijing even rejected an independent ruling in 2016 by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that its historical claim is without basis.

Tension in the South China Sea has only increased since then. Up to $3 trillion of trade passes through the busy waterway each year.

Japan has bought into the F35 fighter jet. Photo: Flickr

So, will the bully win out in the end?

A massive bloc of allies, with the United States at its core, have teamed up to back Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea along with the United Nations. Russia also appears to be onboard.

Maybe, the bully has met his match?

Also, China’s aggressive foreign policy has only added to the arms race in the Indo-Pacific.

Another key member of the bloc, Japan, has been forced to increase its proposed defense budget next year by 1.1% to a record-breaking 5.4 trillion yen ($47 billion), Aviacionline reported.

Linked to this, the world’s third-largest economy is developing a new vision of its strategic policy. It plans to abandon the purely defensive doctrine to gradually turn the Japan Self-Defense Forces into a combat group that can go beyond its jurisdictional waters.

Mitsubishi F-X

This sea change is illustrated by the addition of the Lockheed Martin F-35B, which symbolizes the return of the Japanese Navy’s carrier-based expeditionary capability. That has not been seen since the end of World War II, Aviacionline reported.

Japan’s homegrown Mitsubishi F-X sixth-generation fighter jet, which is nicknamed Godzilla, is also being developed at a projected cost of 5 trillion yen or about $48 billion.

The United Kingdom, another crucial partner, announced plans to develop a future fighter jet engine demonstrator with the Japanese and have agreed to explore further air combat technologies.

Work will start in the New Year with the UK investing an initial £30 million ($40.4 million) in planning, digital designs and “innovative manufacturing developments.”

In addition to working together on a new jet engine for their future fighter jets such as the British Tempest and the Japanese F-X, London and Tokyo are planning a “Joint New Air-to-Air Missile” program, the UK Defense Journal reported.

“Strengthening our partnerships in the Indo-Pacific is a strategic priority and this commitment with Japan, one of our closest security partners in Asia, is a clear example of that,” UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said as reported by the UK Defence Journal.

Bullies beware!