In the latest annual report from the US Office of the Secretary of Defense, it has been reported that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) of China now surpasses the US Navy (USN) in its number of vessels.
This turn of events in the naval arms race between the US and China displays rising tensions in the Indo-Pacific regarding naval military strength. This is further highlighted by the formation of the AUKUS, a military pact among the Anglo-sphere or the US, UK and Australia last September. Moreover, we are also approaching nine months since the sinking of the Indonesian Navy submarine KRI Nanggala 402, and the loss of its 53-person crew near the coast of Bali earlier this year on the 25th of April.
China’s PLAN now has between 355 to over 400 ‘front-line’ ships in their fleet. Meanwhile, the US Navy has 305. However, analysts in the US and around the world do not see fleet size as the only measurement of naval power and combat capacity.
Though the Chinese Navy has more ships, in terms of weaponry, the USN is still superior. In short, the US arms its individual vessels with more weaponry than the Chinese do. Another way analysts compare the two navies is how much water the fleets displace, which factors in the weight and amount of launchers and missiles they are equipped with. By this measure, the USN outweighs the Chinese PLAN more than twice over at 4.5 million tons. While China’s navy has the numbers, the US’ has the guns.
This is not to say China’s rising navy is ignorable, for it has other advantages besides its size. China only borders one ocean where it can deploy the entire PLAN, the western Pacific Ocean.
In comparison, the more armed US is forced to divide its navy between two, the Pacific and Atlantic oceans as it has naval interests in both regions. Only 60 percent of the entire US Navy is currently deployed in the Pacific Ocean. Should a crisis occur necessitating the US to reallocate its forces, moving ships across different oceans will be slow and may not be fast enough to fight in quick naval battles.
However, the US is aware of this and so developed its own advantage, allying with nations such as Australia and the UK (AUKUS) as well as Japan with their own standing navies to support the USN. China does not have allies with significant navies to support the PLAN.
At best, North Korea has a brown-water navy only capable of patrolling its own rivers. In support of the US, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force, the Royal Australian Navy and the UK’s Royal Navy also operates in the Pacific. This allows the US to still maintain a significant naval check against China’s maritime interests without deploying completely in one ocean.
With both of these super powers projecting their naval might across the Indo-Pacific from both the East and West, it calls into question whether Indonesia and its navy are prepared to protect its own maritime interests in the region. KRI Nanggala 402’s sinking and the slow rate of progress on President Joko Widodo’s maritime vision for the navy do not show that is the case. Today the Indonesian Navy cannot help but look a lot smaller, older, and stuck between the larger Chinese and US navies.
Despite being an archipelagic country, and being considered a ‘middle power’ in diplomacy as well as a middle-income country, Indonesia does not have the naval strength to match its size. At 150 ships consisting of only four submarines, seven frigates and fourteen corvettes as front-line vessels, the Indonesian naval fleet is dwarfed by the US and China.
Though Indonesia’s naval capacity can be called ‘green-water’ or capable of operating off-shore until Indonesia’s Littoral Zone and EEZ, for a country with so much coastline it is severely inadequate. Indonesia has even been labelled an ‘inward looking maritime country’. Moreover, as was the case with the Nanggala 402 submarine a lot of Indonesia’s navy were commissioned in the 60s-70s, making its ships now mostly over 40 years old.
Naval ships, especially submarines are often said to be working in a ‘hostile environment’ all the time and so need the highest quality of maintenance. This obviously gets more difficult as ships get older and so they have lifespans, submarine lifespans usually being 25-30 years long. It is clear that Indonesia’s navy has been overdue for modernization a very long time.
Historically, this is the case especially due to the New Order under former President Soeharto when he took power in the mid-1960s. Under his rule, Indonesia’s maritime defense was overlooked for three decades, instead raising the army to combat coups and separatists as well as to consolidate his own power at the expense of the navy and air force. Now, since his election in 2014, President Joko Widodo has declared his maritime vision for Indonesia.
President Joko Widodo has voiced his vision to strengthen the county’s navy to secure outer-most islands, improve law enforcement overseas, protect Indonesia’s rich marine resources and facilitate transportation to remote islands. Though a very impressive maritime defense rhetoric, seven years since today its development has been slow.
Nowadays Indonesia spends only 0.6-0.7 percent of its GDP on its military and is still very army-oriented. This has been a point of concern for analysts because Indonesia faces many security threats over water, particularly in sea piracy and tensions in the South China Sea. As expected, this has led to several naval ship commissions to be behind schedule.
Indonesia does not necessarily need a gargantuan blue-water navy capable of threatening rivals across the ocean like the US and China. However, in times of rising tensions in the Indo-Pacific today and for its own dignity as a maritime country Indonesia needs a navy strong enough to display its presence and importance in the region, deterring conflict and maintaining world order.