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An arms race in the South China Sea?

Gabriel Domínguez, Srinivas MazumdaruDecember 18, 2015

Defense spending in the Asia Pacific has been surging in recent years due to escalating tensions over a myriad of territorial feuds, a new report says. DW examines the driving factors behind this military build-up.

China Spannungen im Chinesischen Meer J-15 Kampfjet
Image: picture alliance/Photoshot/Z. Chunming

As tensions mount in the Asia Pacific, countries in the region are pouring more and more money into modernizing their militaries, concludes a new report by analytics firm IHS. The paper's authors estimate that the nations' collective defense spending will jump from $435 billion in 2015 to around $533 billion by 2020, meaning the region is set to account for a third of entire global military spending within the next five years.

The projection comes just days after the commander of the US Pacific Fleet, Scott Swift, warned of a possible arms race that could engulf the area. Asia Pacific countries are embroiled in a slew of territorial spats, particularly over the South China Sea (SCS), a key waterway through which over $5 trillion of global maritime trade passes every year.

China claims most of the SCS, arguing that it is asserting its so-called "historic rights" to maritime resources in the area. This has led to territorial feuds with neighboring nations such as Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia which lay competing claims.

Maritime lawyers note the Chinese routinely outline the scope of their claims with reference to the so-called "nine-dashed line" which encompasses about 90 percent of the 3.5 million-square-kilometers SCS on Chinese maps.

But perhaps the most irritating aspect for China's neighbors is that the East Asian giant has been creating artificial islands in the disputed waters, which defense experts say could be used as airstrips or military installations.

Karte Südchinesisches Meer Besitzanspruch China Englisch
China and a host of Southeast Asian nations lay competing claims over the South China Sea

The rising tensions "have seen a long overdue process of military modernization move up the political agenda in a number of countries," said Craig Caffrey, principal analyst at IHS. "The Philippines, Indonesia, Japan and Vietnam are all following China's lead and we see no sign of this trend coming to an end," he noted.

Signs of an arms race

There are, indeed, strong indications that tensions over the SCS are in danger of provoking a full-scale regional arms race. This became evident in the latest defense spending statistics, which indicate that, of the ten countries globally whose defense budgets grew fastest in 2015, four are states bordering the SCS. These are the Philippines, Indonesia, China, and Vietnam.

"The driver of this arms race is a classic security dilemma. That is, the attempt by one country to increase its own security by increasing its military strength has the effect of creating insecurity in neighboring states," James D. J. Brown, an expert on international affairs at Temple University's campus in Tokyo, told DW.

These neighbors then respond by increasing their own military capabilities, thereby neutralizing any advantage initially gained by the first country. Further increases in military strength then follow, creating a spiral of insecurity and a dangerous arms race.

In the case of the SCS, experts such as Brown argue that this security dilemma has been sparked by China's increased assertiveness in defending what it views as its vital national interests.

Pride and fear

As Beijing's approach becomes more assertive, experts say, other countries in the region have realized that they have to develop the capabilities that will allow them to, at least notionally, defend their territorial claims in the region. "So we're seeing a shift away from ground forces and towards air and naval forces that can be projected into the wider region," IHS analyst Caffrey told DW.

Siemon Wezeman, an expert on arms and military expenditure at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), sees this as an indication that a regional arms race may have already begun - although he notes the term is often avoided in academic and political circles because of its heavy connotation.

"In the SCS, China and other claimants - as well as Japan and the US - are upping the ante. Claims are being enforced with more and more saber-rattling either in the weapons being acquired or planned by all countries involved," he told DW.

The biggest fear, Wezeman warns, is that with more and more arms in the area, the chance of opposing forces meeting each other under conditions of tension, pride and unclear rules of engagement becomes greater.

Beijing's power projection

China, the largest economy in the region, has the second-largest military budget globally - after that of the US, which is almost three times higher than that of China - substantially ahead of Japan and very much ahead of the Southeast Asian countries.

IHS analyst Caffrey points out that Beijing is using the money to invest in all kinds of weaponry while pursuing a comprehensive military modernization program. "While China's military has long been the largest in the world, they're now trying to improve their capabilities from a technological perspective and to start to develop power projection capabilities."

In essence, Caffrey argues, this means that the kind of equipment being acquired is more useful for offensive operations than the generation of equipment that is being replaced. However, he stressed, that does not necessarily mean that these capabilities are being acquired to conduct offensive operations.

China Flugzeugträger Liaoning
Beijing is seeking to increase its fleet of aircraft carriers in the coming years (pictured here is China's carrier, Liaoning)Image: picture-alliance/AP

While it is difficult to label weapons as purely "defensive" or "offensive" - given that most arms can be used for both ends and it is thus the policy, doctrine or actual use that determines their purpose - experts point out that China is making an effort to enable its armed forces to operate over longer distances, away from mainland bases.

Expanding the navy and air force

"The Chinese navy has, over the past 20 years, developed from a coastal (brown water) force to one that can operate farther from home (blue water)," says SIPRI expert Wezeman. This transformation has accelerated in recent years, with China putting into service its first aircraft carrier in 2012 and several more set to be produced in the coming years.

The number of advanced conventional and nuclear-powered submarines has also significantly gone up, as have the number and capabilities of China's large surface combat ships such as frigates, destroyers, and corvettes, according to SIPRI.

At the same time, the Chinese air force and navy are being expanded, now using also mainly locally designed combat aircraft.

Japan's role in the dispute

While Japan is not a South China Sea littoral state and is not party to the territorial disputes over the Paracel and Spratly Islands, Tokyo views the issue as extremely important to its national security. This is because a large proportion of the country's trade passes through the SCS, including all of the vital energy resources that Japan imports from the Middle East.

Due to the importance that Japan attributes to the area, Tokyo has sought to support efforts to oppose the establishment of Chinese hegemony over the area. "This has resulted in Japan significantly easing its long-standing restrictions of arms sales and also taking the controversial step of reinterpreting the Constitution to permit the use of military force in a wider range of circumstances," said Japan expert Brown.

Moreover, added Brown, Japan has deepened security relations with other states in the region who are also concerned by China's growing power. In particular, it has agreed to provide patrol vessels to both the Philippines and Vietnam, a step which experts say is aimed at assisting these countries in their territorial disputes with China.

Further supplies of maritime equipment can be expected to follow in the near future. Just this week, Japan also held a "2+2 meeting" (of defense and foreign ministers) with Indonesia. The sides agreed to strengthen security cooperation, as well as to discuss transfers of defense equipment, said Brown.

Southeast Asian reactions

Given the uncertainty about China's motives and intentions in the SCS, Southeast Asian SCS claimants have for years been increasing their investments in military capabilities they feel they may need to protect their interests.

Between 2009 and 2013, military expenditures by major Southeast Asian states went up from $24 billion to over $35 billion, according to SIPRI. And they have gone up significantly since then.

"If you look at where the money is being spent, it is going to naval modernization, with some maritime aviation and surveillance," Zachary Abuza, a Southeast Asia security expert and professor at the Washington-based National War College, told DW, ascribing this development to Chinese behavior in the SCS.

Infografik Rüstungswachstum in Asien Englisch

"There are simply no other threats to regional security that would justify the quantitative and qualitative increases in military spending," Abuza added.

Southeast Asian SCS claimants are, indeed, focusing on purchasing equipment for maritime and air operations meant to deny an enemy the use of certain areas, according to Wezeman.

Some examples of this include Malaysia seeking to bolster its naval capabilities, and Vietnam purchasing Kilo-class submarines from Russia. "Not wanting to let the local balance of power change too rapidly, Malaysia and Vietnam appear to be aiming to increase the numbers of modern fighter aircraft, surface ships, and/or submarines in their inventories," Jeffrey Engstrom and Michael Chase, both military experts at the US-based RAND Corporation, told DW.

Albeit on a much smaller scale than what China is building now, they and the other claimants already possess airfields and also enjoy closer geographical proximity to their claims, they added.

The US strategy

Although the US has no direct territorial claims in the SCS, it plays a key role in the dispute, given its political, commercial and defense interests in the area.

Washington, for instance, has vowed to continue sending military aircraft and ships near China's artificial islands in the SCS to assert navigation rights in this commercially important waterway.

Analysts say part of the US strategy is to prevent China from being able to claim that the waters within the so-called nine-dashed line are Chinese territorial waters.

USA Zerstörer USS Lassen
The US has vowed to continue to send military ships and aircraft to the region to assert navigation rights in the SCSImage: Reuters/US Navy/CPO J. Hageman

And just recently, the US formally announced a $1.83-billion arms sale package for Taiwan - which Beijing views as a renegade Chinese province - including two frigates, anti-tank missiles, amphibious assault vehicles and other equipment, drawing an angry response from Chinese authorities.

New alliances?

But unlike in Europe, the US alliance system in Asia is only composed of bilateral alliances - for example, between the US and Japan, and between the US and the Philippines - thus preventing it from presenting a unified block against potential military threats.

That said, analysts Chase and Engstrom argue that tensions over the SCS are driving countries in the region to forge closer ties with each other, as in the case of Japan and the Philippines as well as Japan and Indonesia - a development likely to increase in accordance with ever-growing tensions and China's growing presence in the disputed area.