Tag Archives: South China Sea

Growing Tensions in the South China Sea

Competing territorial claims over islands in the South China Sea are intensifying tensions between the United States and China. Last week, the United States flew a military surveillance plane over disputed waters—a move described by the Chinese as a threat to Chinese sovereignty. China has been expanding natural reefs and constructing man-made islands in the sea in an effort to assert greater control over the region, particularly in light of competing territorial claims by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. The Chinese military are also using the new islands to construct forward observation posts and airbases to support operations in the region.

In response to the US mission, the Chinese Ambassador to the United States lodged a formal diplomatic complaint and called on the US to stop its operations in the South China Sea. The Chinese Defense Ministry said it would expand operations in response to US actions. The danger is that both countries reach a point at which the cost of backing down is too high, and the fear of losing face leads to escalation on both sides, creating the possibility of unintended direct conflict.

What do you think? How might the United States and China deescalate tensions in the South China Sea? How do the interest of other regional actors, including Taiwan, complicate efforts at de-escalation? How would you advise the Chinese Premier or US President to handle the situation? Why?

The South China Sea Arms Race

The Financial Times last week carried a story discussing the increasing level of arms purchases by several Southeast Asian states. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Singapore recently placed an order for two new submarines and twelve fighter jets to supplement previous deliveries which included six frigates and 32 fighter aircraft. All told, between 2005 and 2009, Singapore’s spending on arms imports increased 146 percent. Not to be outdone, Indonesia increased its spending by 84 percent, and Malaysia increased its spending by 722 percent (and no, that’s not a typo).Vietnam and Thailand have also announced intensions to increase military spending.

Though many have not publically stated the reason for the increases, most observers point to growing tensions over disputed territories in the South China Sea and dramatic increases in Chinese military spending as the primary causes.

The current South China Sea arms race provides a classic example of the security dilemma [glossary], in international relations. From the perspective of each individual actor, the rational course of action is to increase defense spending in order to facilitate greater security. However, the increase in the armament level of one state leads neighboring states to feel less secure. They therefore increase their own defense spending, leading to a regional arms race. The end result is that, while pursuing rational actions intended to increase their own security individually, all states wind up feeling less secure than they would have felt absent the increase in total military spending.