Damen contributes to arms race in Chinese Sea region

Recently, the Dutch (military) shipbuilder Damen opened the Song Cam Shipyard, a joint venture with a Vietnamese partner, not far from the Chinese border and in the direct vicinity of the headquarters of the Vietnamese Navy in Hai Pòng. The wharf is one of the largest in the Damen Group. Pim Schuurman, Managing Director of Damen Holding Vietnam stated: “We have successfully built 226 vessels in Vietnam with our partner yards. Vietnam has a lot of shipbuilding knowledge, the people are very hard working.”

Damen has already sold four Sigma major surface vessels to the Vietnamese navy. The first two ships will be built in the Netherlands (Flushing), the next two in Vietnam. The ships will be fitted with missiles (8x Exocet and 12 x Mica SAM) of European missile company MBDA (owned by the Airbus Group, BAE Systems and Finmeccanica), three Italian Oto Melara guns (1 x 76mm and 2 x 30mm) and will be equipped with Thales Netherlands sensors, fire control and combat management system. The ships can harbour one Russian Ka-28 anti-submarine helicopter.

“Almost every Asian nation is building up its capacity in the air and on the sea. The people of the region must hope that it is a complete waste of money,” wrote David Pilling in the Financial Times. His contribution - 'Asia follows China into an old-fashioned arms race' - argues, like many observers do, that the trend will gather pace in the coming years. This arms race obviously opens export possibilities for arms companies. Dutch shipbuilder Damen took the opportunity by establishing a wharf where the action is. Vietnam is not the only location in Southeast Asia where Damen is active. Near the Indonesian city of Surabaya, East Java, Damen closely cooperates with PT Pal in building naval vessels of steadily bigger size.

(Photo: 40.000 people protest in Tokio against Abe's military reform plans)

“Be not mistaken; the navy is the key issue,” wrote neocon writer Robert Kaplan in his recent book on security in the Chinese Sea region*. One look at the map shows clearly why the 21st century will be “the century of the navy:” Asia is full of long coastlines, many islands, important shipping routes, conflicts for reefs and barriers (because of natural resources like oil and fish) and Chinese claims for a bigger share of the region's wealth. They provide the ingredients for blue water maritime military ambitions in the region.

In the linear world view of Kaplan, a shift in economic power will - as if guided by the invisible hand of Ares, the God of War - automatically lead to more conflict, more arms procurement armaments and possibly war. According to Kaplan, China has the right to have bigger claims and stronger armed forces. But this will change the balance of power and cause a weaker position of the United States in the region. Other countries must take responsibility and Vietnam can and will play a key role in this power struggle by balancing China, writes Kaplan. One can conclude that the Dutch shipbuilder has chosen the right spot for expansion.

However, other world views are possible. One can also argue that in regions of tension it is better to build on dialogue and create confidence, mutual understanding and stronger regional organisations including all countries. War is not the inevitable outcome when a changing balance of power is managed with care. But for certain, an arms race in a region with many disputes brings this region closer to serious armed conflict.

The Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe recently wrote: “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.” He continued, “that is particulary true where Asian security is concerned. (…) The fruits of prosperity should be reinvested in improving peoples lives, not in weapons that can take them.” These are wise words, and Abe says he wants to cooperate with regional allies and partners, “including the US and ASEAN.” Unfortunaltely he forgets to include the biggest regional player of all, China, in the “rock-solid zone of stability” he is aiming at. The Japanese Prime Minister also relaxed Japanese arms export policies, which is helpful neither.
Tension is growing in Southeast Asia. The influx of more European arms will not make it any better.

Martin Broek 02/07/2014

* Asia's Cauldron. Author used the Dutch version: Het Aziatische Kruitvat; Het einde van de stabiliteit in de Grote Oceaan, Spectrum, 2014.