Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Threat of War in South China Sea

The territorial dispute in the South China Sea is a flashpoint of a major conflict waiting to happen. Key players in this territorial spat -- Vietnam, China, and the Philippines -- are beefing up their armed forces to all new heights. Is this a threat to the region's stability?

For instance, Vietnam ordered half a dozen Kilo class submarines and a Sukhoi aircraft from Russia a year ago. And this year, the two countries agreed to jointly develop anti-ship missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles. These are all in addition to the more than a dozen frigates and corvettes Vietnam plans to purchase within the next decade, and the eventual production of a local variant of the Kh-35 Uran missile, a weapon its missile boats already wield. Since 2002, Vietnam's defense spending steadily increased to its current level, $3.1B.

Meanwhile, the Philippines defense budget soared more than a hundred percent this year to $2.9B from $1.2B in 2010, and the procurement of big ticket items -- such as a multi-role vessel, fighter jets, attack helicopters, a long range patrol aircraft, among others -- are expected to start rolling out this year. Within a few years, these items would be in its armed forces' arsenal. And continued support from the United States expedites the Philippine navy's much needed modernization; a corvette was received in 2011, a second one is expected to arrive by the end of 2012, and another one in 2013, according to an anonymous source. The source asked not to be named because of ongoing negotiations.

However, China's defense budget dwarfs both Vietnam and the Philippines combined. At $106B, which historically doubles every 5 years, China is the official juggernaut. While its neighbors squeeze their budgets to acquire new and/or used armaments developed in other countries, China is venturing out with the big boys to build 21st century technologies -- such as its own modern aircraft carrier, interballistic missiles, 5th generation aircrafts, submarines, and advanced radar systems -- locally.

China is the sole nuclear power among the three countries. The Philippines enjoys US nuclear umbrella protection through the Mutual Defense Treaty. Vietnam, on the other hand, continues to warm up relations with key regional players, including Russia, the United States, and Singapore in order to rebalance the Chinese might.

Deadly confrontations have already happened in the past between China and Vietnam. While in recent years, intrusions have significantly increased between the Philippines and China. As each country beefs up its armed forces, the inadvertent dangers accompanied with military build up amidst ongoing tensions continue to linger: The threat of war. Is it worth it?

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