One of the most contentious issues in SE Asia these past few years has been China’s island building projects in one of the region’s biggest flashpoints – the South China Sea, most of which Beijing claims as its own. Its claims to the waters are not going unchallenged – on October 27 the USS Lassen led the first freedom of navigation (FON) patrol to challenge China’s territorial claims. Tensions with Vietnam and the Philippines have been especially pronounced – China conquered the Paracels from Vietnam in the 1970’s and has claimed and seized numerous islands, reefs, and shoals in the Spratlys, claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei. These waters may contain substantial hydrocarbon reserves, besides the vast fish stocks. Some of these reefs are being converted into artificial islands – in effect “unsinkable aircraft carriers” via the construction of runways, harbours, and probably hosting surveillance listening posts. Since the bulk of maritime trade between East Asia and Europe and the Middle East must pass through the South China Sea, it may be China’s response to a Malacca strait challenge since it would too be in a position to tighten the noose. Naval skirmishes between China and rival claimants to the water continue. The Philippines scored a small victory in October after the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration agreed to hear claims made by the country against China’s attempts to justify almost complete sovereignty over the South China Sea via its “9 Dash Line” and claiming its artificial islands are eligible for a 200 nautical mile EEZ, contrary to UNCLOS.
Sino-US Rivalry In South East Asia
An increase in US- Chinese competition for SE Asia in the next decade is likely. U.S. strategic interest in the region declined with the end of the Cold War, its attention mainly diverted to crises in the Middle East and Europe, and later to a significant engagement with the Muslim world as part of its War on Terror. But a rising China has re-engaged America’s attention: in 2003 Thailand and the Philippines were named Major Non-NATO Allies (MNNA) allowing closer defence cooperation with the U.S. In 2011 it announced an increase in military deployments in the region as part of it’s ‘Asia Pivot’. The U.S. has been able to take advantage of regional discontent with Chinese bellicosity to encourage an unofficial balance of power coalition formation including Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan and extra-regional states such as Australia and India. Vietnam has been particularly irked by Chinese actions – the state has fought numerous skirmishes with the PRC since 1979, including a military defeat in the Paracels in 1974. The intensely independent state, which seems to enjoy nothing more than fighting great powers, has acquired a number of high-tech Kilo-class submarines from Russia, although this appears part of a generally upward trend in naval armaments in the region. The Philippines has reversed its anti-American position of the early 90’s – in April 2014 it signed a 10-year Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement granting the U.S. temporary access to Philippine military bases.
Sino-Japanese Rivalry In South East Asia
Japan has sought to counterbalance China’s expanding reach in the Asia Pacific realm by putting pressure on it in the South China Sea via security cooperation with some states in the region. This forms part of a balance of power logic but may also be a response to China’s pressure upon Japan in the East China Sea and claims on Japan’s Senkaku islands. Japan is also increasing its investment levels in SE Asia to balance Chinese investments, most recently China’s ‘Maritime Silk Route’ initiative which runs parallel to its Eurasian integration schemes. Japanese PM Abe has also pushed for military normalization via constitutional reform which would allow the removal of restrictions on its use of armed forces which many see as motivated by growing Chinese power. Japan is also negotiating access to an airbase in the Philippines as well as donating military equipment and assisting the country with defence modernization. These developments may translate into increasing geopolitical risk going forward but have to be seen as the necessary workings out of regional geopolitics in a post-Cold War environment compounded by a rising China.