The Network of ASEAN Defense and Security meets in Vientiane, Laos, on Thursday, 24 March. Delegates will have a lot to talk about, particularly China’s miltarization of the Paracel and Spratley Islands in the South China Sea.
This militarization has launched a new arms race, as well as strategic jockeying between the USA and its allies, ASEAN members and Japan.
In February, satellite images detected China’s deployment of surface to air missiles (SAMs) on Woody Island in the Paracel group. This escalation follows China’s creation of seven new islands in the Spratley group by dredging sediment from the seafloor on to the top of reefs. These artificial isles now feature long runways and deepwater harbours suitable for warships and fighter jets.
In addition, China has installed military radar more than 600 miles from the Chinese Island province of Hainan on the southernmost of its seven artificial islets. In theory, this radar will improve the ability of China’s so-called carrier-killer missile, the DF-21D, to strike faraway targets and complicate United States Navy efforts to develop countermeasures against it.
The problem for ASEAN is that individual member states also claim ownership of the Spratley islands and offshore continental shelf.
This is even although ASEAN member states can’t agree amongst themselves about who owns what in the Spratleys. For example, Malaysia claims three islands in the Spratleys, but these islands are also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam.
The only unifying factor for ASEAN is that, despite conflicting territorial claims, all are opposed to China’s militarization of the area.
The stakes are very high. In terms of oil and natural gas, the South China Sea has proven oil reserves of seven billion barrels, and an estimated 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Other surveys estimate these reserves much higher.
The other issue is strategic. The South China Sea is the ‘throat’ of the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans. More than half of the world’s merchant fleet tonnage and a third of all maritime traffic worldwide pass through here from the Malacca Strait.
The oil transported through the Malacca Strait from the Indian Ocean en route to East Asia through the South China Sea, is triple the amount that passes through the Suez Canal and fifteen times the amount that transits the Panama Canal.
No wonder China is building an underground submarine base on Hainan Island, and no wonder submarines have become the new “bling” for ASEAN nations.
Vietnam has already taken possession of four new Kilo class submarines from Russia as part of a $2.6 billion deal agreed with Moscow in 2009. A final two are yet to be delivered.
The South China Sea is rapidly becoming the world’s newest hotspot. How hot, is an interesting and vexing question for everyone, particularly for ASEAN.