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Andrey Gubin

PhD in Political Science, Director of Scientific Programs of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies at Regional Centre for Asia-Pacific Studies, Assistant Professor at the International Relations Department of Far Eastern Federal University, RIAC Expert

The situation around the South China Sea is developing rapidly. However, asserting unambiguously that territorial disputes between China and the ASEAN countries combined with the regional rivalry between Beijing and Washington are bound to lead to military confrontation is too far-fetched. Despite growing U.S. military and political presence, countries in South-East Asia tend to favor enhanced economic cooperation with China. The overall superiority of the United States notwithstanding, U.S. leadership is reluctant to take extreme action. Amidst these developments, the region’s future seems fraught with strategic uncertainties.

The situation around the South China Sea is developing rapidly. However, asserting unambiguously that territorial disputes between China and the ASEAN countries combined with the regional rivalry between Beijing and Washington are bound to lead to military confrontation is too far-fetched. Despite growing U.S. military and political presence, countries in South-East Asia tend to favor enhanced economic cooperation with China. The overall superiority of the United States notwithstanding, U.S. leadership is reluctant to take extreme action. Amidst these developments, the region’s future seems fraught with strategic uncertainties.

The South China Sea is rapidly becoming an arena for U.S.-Chinese confrontation. Despite the lack of direct U.S. interests there, Washington has repeatedly expressed its willingness to actively support ASEAN countries in their “maritime debates” with China, strongly opposing China’s coastal protection and infrastructure construction on the disputed islands.

Using the definition offered by Jean-Marc Blanchard, the situation in the South China Sea is peculiar to “adolescent countries” which enjoy rapid growth, blurred identity and immature political behavior displaying a clear “maximalist” desire to expand their sphere of influence and raise their profile [1].This is true not only for China, but also for Vietnam, the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries, noted for their lack of restraint and excessive ambition.

Regardless of rising tensions in the South China Sea, the likelihood of a major military conflict developing remains low. Washington has repeatedly stated its unwillingness to interfere in the situation militarily [2]. Robert Kaplan suggests that the South China Sea is facing “military multipolarity,” in which none of the actors has the overwhelming force needed to establish full control. The countries aspiring to influence are not willing to conduct land operations, which would lead to significant loss of life, and instead favor Admiral A.T. Mahan’s concept of “sea power,” which does not entail direct large-scale confrontation [3].

If China uses military force to protect its territorial claims in the South China Sea, its capabilities would exceed those of the other regional states. However, the situation would be radically different if the United States were to intervene to protect its allies’ interests: China is not yet able to cope with their combined forces. Since Beijing appears interested in ASEAN as an economic ally, rather than as a military enemy, China will have to modify its “adolescent” behavior. At the same time, China's actions fit perfectly with the pattern of “regional predominant force,” which, amidst the anarchy of the international system, tends to maximize its share of power [4]. Therefore, aside from talks with the United States and ASEAN countries, and apart from intensifying economic ties, Beijing will focus on building an ocean-faring fleet, perfecting its missiles and aircraft, and deploying new weapons.

In his February 4, 2014 interview, President of the Philippines Benigno S. Aquino III somewhat emotionally compared China's current position in the South China Sea conflict with Hitler’s demands for Czechoslovakian territory in 1938. In fact, Southeast Asian countries, which could also be characterized as “adolescent” states, demonstrate a notably defiant attitude, especially where they are backed up by the U.S. Navy. However, the economic benefits of cooperation with China may hold some of them back and encourage concessions: in 2015, trade volume between China and ASEAN countries is expected to reach 500 billion dollars, which is identical to U.S.-China trade volume. Therefore, the prospect of forming a united “anti-Chinese front” in Southeast Asia is less than likely.

The situation is complicated by the emergence of a new potential “regional hegemon” - Australia. Hugh White is confident that Canberra has an interest in maintaining the status quo, namely developing trade and economic relations with China, and strengthening the American military and political presence. However, given the steady growth of China’s military capabilities, its orientation to the South, as well as Beijing’s increased economic power, the U.S. could lose its role as the “guarantor of stability.” If that were to happen, Australia would have to strengthen its military component and its position in Southeast Asian political and economic life [5]. However, it should be noted that the recent signing of the Free Trade Agreement between Beijing and Canberra poses the latter a tough question: is a turnover of 160 billion dollars worth risking for the sake of illusionary geostrategic interests?

More ships, high-quality and original

Under the influence of large-scale economic reforms and the need to protect its national interests since the late 1980s, China has been working to create its high seas fleet – naval forces capable of operating out there on the world’s oceans. Beijing prefers an asymmetric strategy of restricting access to certain areas (anti-access/area denial) and enhanced PLA Naval potential: the development of anti-ship ballistic missiles, of multi-purpose submarines, of C4ISR [6] multipurpose combat control systems, of air, sea and land-based cruise missiles, and of naval air and missile defense is already underway. Given reduced belligerence in relations between mainland China and Taiwan, as well as the change of emphasis in Washington's Pacific strategy, Beijing’s naval priorities are also changing [7].

The most powerful part of the PLA Navy is its South Sea Fleet, which includes two Marine brigades [8].

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Modern guided missile destroyers (DDG) equipped with an integrated electronic system to track and guide weapons to destroy enemy targets patterned after the US Aegis system will form the basis of the fleet. These warships are already in the fleet and can carry out a whole range of tasks in combat against air and surface enemy targets, and can also function as control vessels in an attack group, but their main task lies in the provision of early warning antiaircraft defense. Promising Type 052D destroyers (NATO code name Luang III class) boasting enhanced capabilities against enemy aircraft and rocket launchers can carry ship-to-shore cruise missiles. China’s new Type 055 guided missile destroyer, planned to be completed by 2020, will be even more technologically sophisticated and advanced.

The PLA Navy has, as yet, an insufficient number of vessels of anti-submarine forces, but this situation will change for the better in 2020, when over 30 new frigates are commissioned.

The PLA Navy's Submarine Force, especially its nuclear component, appears to be under a veil of maximum secrecy. Current estimates are two submarines on permanent patrol. According to American data, the number of submarines with ballistic missiles (SLBM) in the PLA Navy may increase to eight by 2020. According to some reports, China is developing a new generation of Type 096 submarine: this SSBN may carry 16 SLBMs and the first is expected to be commissioned in 2020. The strategic nuclear forces’ (SNF) marine component may become a key element in the strategy of having a “forward ocean line of defense.” [9]

Multi-purpose nuclear submarines are designed to destroy enemy ballistic missile submarines, to attack enemy aircraft carrier battle groups and naval forces as well as ground targets. In 2010, the number of new nuclear submarines was up to four ships, but the level of their technological readiness is under wraps. According to U.S. Department of Defense estimates, two submarines are currently on combat duty and by 2020 their number is expected to increase to six. It is likely that after the third ship, the nuclear submarines built by China are advanced Type 095 nuclear-powered attack submarines that can be fitted with offensive weapons.

China attaches great importance to diesel submarines capable of effective operation in coastal waters. According to reports, the PLA Navy has at its disposal up to 56 diesel-powered attack submarines [10]. By 2020 there will be deployed about 78 ships, mainly new models [11].

It would be an apt time to note the rising tensions in Southeast Asia, although a full-scale armed conflict in the region seems quite unlikely, as regional actors need these defensive capabilities first and foremost for mutual deterrence and to maintain their independence from Washington, Beijing, or Delhi.

The Navy’s capability for assault delivery is also growing. In 2008, an amphibious Project 071 warship (Youzhao-class) was commissioned. Today, the PLA’s Navy has three such warships and a fourth was launched in early 2015 [12]. In June 2013, China purchased from Ukraine four large amphibious hovercraft [13]. Plans to build an amphibious Type 081 assault ship, comparable with the American Wasp-class LHD (landing helicopter dock), is further evidence of the Chinese leadership’s intention to enhance the amphibious capabilities of the country’s armed forces. The first such vessel will become operational in five years’ time; and it is estimated 4 units are needed [14]. In other words, today the Chinese Navy can effectively access marine brigades’ and land troops’ potential on an unprepared coast.

China was expected to start building its own aircraft carrier in 2009, but there is no reliable information confirming that work has indeed started. On September 25, 2012 Liaoning aircraft carrier, formerly Varyag, was commissioned into the PLA Navy Surface Force. Its home port is Qingdao naval base [15]. The ship can carry up to 36 aircraft, but is not yet a full combat unit: it is currently undergoing sea trials and is used for pilot training and team building operations between the Navy and the Air Force as components of an aircraft carrier grouping [16]. According to some sources, construction work on the second aircraft carrier is due to be completed by 2020, and there are plans for four such ships to be commissioned into the Navy Surface Force.

In recent years, China has paid great attention to supplying warships capable of operating in ocean waters and builds specialized high-speed supply-ships and tankers. To satisfy the logistics support needs of amphibious operations, a significant number of roll-on roll-off ships (designed for carrying equipment and railroad trains) and merchant fleet container ships may be used [17].

China’s creation of anti-ship ground-launched ballistic missiles can also be attributed to this “asymmetric response”. The DF-21D (CSS-5 Mod-4) anti-ship ballistic missile with maneuverable re-entry vehicle was tested several times and is capable of hitting a moving surface target at a range of up to 1,500 km. According to some experts, these missiles, coupled with the development of electronic detection, targeting and guidance systems pose a serious threat to the U.S. Navy in the Western Pacific [18].

The PLA Navy’s modern development fits well into the doctrine of creating a fleet capable of operating in the near-ocean zone. It can be argued that countering U.S. Naval forces has not been put to the fore yet and the emphasis is laid on containing regional rivals and a gradual access to the high seas. The improved technical level and the growing fleet size do not give China a decisive maritime superiority in the region, but inevitably pose a threat to key countries of the Asia-Pacific [19].

Crawling tigers

South-East Asia is the most dynamic region in terms of military activity. The Southeast Asian arms market is relatively small: the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimates it collectively worth only $2 billion to $3 billion annually. However, it is quite diverse in terms of suppliers: in contrast to Northeast Asia, the United States, Russia, Britain, France, Sweden, and China do quite well in this regard. Apart from trying to pursue independent foreign and trade policies, countries across the region are also actively diversifying defense supplies, in part, to avoid dependence on any single exporter.

According to some estimates, the capacity of South-East Asia’s arms market will grow as the region's economy gradually recovers and the governments increase their defense budgets. For example, after the 2006 coup, the Thai military junta boosted military spending by 34% in 2007 and by 24% in 2008. Moreover, a ten-year plan for the armed forces’ development approved in November 2007 provides for the allocation of about $10 billion toward modernization starting from 2009, eventually increasing the budget for this item in the GDP from 1.4% to 2% in 2014. The ‘junta’ here is merely a form of ad hoc government, while the broader trend reflects the regional situation.

According to SIPRI, other countries in the region show a similar spending pattern. Thus, Malaysia almost doubled its military budget in the first decade of the century from 1.7 billion dollars in 2000 to 3.26 billion dollars in 2011, and in 2015 it amounted to $5.4 billion (1.6% of GDP), a 10% increase year-on-year. Over the same period, Jakarta tripled its defense spending from 2.2 billion dollars to 6.8 billion dollars, not counting trade credits. As of 2015, Indonesia has allocated 8.1 billion dollars to defense, a year-on-year increase of an unprecedented 14%. And in 2016, Jakarta may spend as much as $16 billion (about 2% of GDP) on defense. Singapore, whose military expenditure from 2000 to 2012 rose from 4.6 billion dollars to 9.7 billion dollars, does not intend to stop there, and is ready to purchase high-tech combat systems. In 2014, the city-state’s military spending exceeded $12 billion (3.3% of GDP).

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It is reasonable to assume that the Southeast Asian countries’ enhanced military capabilities will greatly destabilize the situation in the region. Sea block Ambalat, disputed between Indonesia and Malaysia in the Celebes Sea, is an issue involving a standoff that is bound to exacerbate tensions, if the parties fail to abandon the rhetoric of military confrontation. The situation is further complicated by competition between Malaysia and Indonesia and India’s growing interest in the region. In this regard, it would be an apt time to note the rising tensions in Southeast Asia, although a full-scale armed conflict in the region seems quite unlikely, as regional actors need these defensive capabilities first and foremost for mutual deterrence and to maintain their independence from Washington, Beijing, or Delhi.

It is also worth noting that intensified Sino-Japanese rivalry has an impact on the processes within ASEAN. Beijing and Tokyo are striving to identify new partners and to consolidate their positions. Japan is inclined to support Southeast Asian countries in territorial disputes in the South China Sea. However, ASEAN countries are not ready to get involved in a confrontation, let alone to go against their specific economic interests [20].

In terms of the technical aspects of the issue, ASEAN countries have no warships able to counter the strength of China’s ocean-going fleet even given the latter’s currently imperfect condition. Frigate-class warships that Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia all have in service are few in number and primarily perform patrol functions. The most advanced among them are six Formidable-class frigates with stealth features of the Singapore Navy and the Vietnamese Navy two Cheetahs class frigates. The “mosquito fleet” of missile boats appears much more dangerous, but due to their short operational range it is dependent on quite vulnerable coastal bases.

Vietnam pays great attention to its submarine fleet, purchasing Russia’s modern Project 636 Kilo-class diesel attack submarines (SSKs) with capacity for a wide range of weapons, including supersonic anti-ship missiles (ASM). Such submarines – the Vietnamese Navy has already three of the planned 6 boat deals with Russia – are potentially highly dangerous, given the underdeveloped nature of China’s anti-submarine forces.

Australia intends to buy Hobart-class Air Warfare Destroyers (AWD) equipped with the Aegis combat system and capable of carrying both antimissiles and cruise missiles for its Navy in the near future. Canberra is reviewing the issue of buying advanced non-nuclear submarines in Japan (if restrictions on the export of military products are lifted) or in one of the EU countries. In general, China finds the activity of the Royal Australian Navy in the South China Sea highly undesirable, while any counteraction is hampered by Canberra’s status as Washington’s ally.

It is also possible that Manila’s confrontational stance, ranging from comparing China’s actions with those of Nazi Germany to provocations at sea, is clearly inspired by a Washington that is taking advantage of the political dependence of its Filipino allies. Apart from indirectly provoking China with its allies’ help and uncomfortable conditions for it, this allows the Americans to further strengthen their position in the region by decocooning old bases and establishing new ones in the Philippines (or elsewhere).


Today the whole area of the South China Sea appears to be an arena for U.S.-Chinese confrontation. Some ASEAN countries follow in the wake of Washington’s policy, while Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand are more inclined to support the Chinese, opting for concrete economic gains rather than ephemeral benefits from the control over uninhabited islands. The situation is complicated by an acute intra-regional competition, which could well be fueled by Beijing, as well as by Australia’s and India’s increased interest in the South China Sea. Fierce clashes seem unlikely and a great deal will depend on the future of U.S.-China relations, which is still uncertain. The creation of an “anti-China” coalition by ASEAN countries seems improbable given their close economic integration into China-centered cooperation schemes. However, this uncertainty can be used by both the Chinese and the Americans as a way of exerting political pressure on the countries of Southeast Asia to make them adopt a certain position against their will.

1. Jean-Marc Blanchard, “Maritime Issues in Asia: the problem of adolescence,” in Muthiah Alagappa (ed.), Asian Security Order: Instrumental and Normative Features (Stanford: Stanford University Press 2003), 426 (pp. 424-457).

2. Rommel C. Banlaoi, “U.S.-Philippines Alliance,” in Carl Baker and Brad Glosserman (eds), Doing More and Expecting Less: The Future of U.S. Alliances in the Asia Pacific (Pacific Forum CSIS, Jan. 2013), 62.

3. Kaplan. Op. cit. pp. 15-17.

4. Mearsheimer, John. The Tragedy of Great Powers Politics, W.W. Norton, New York, 2001. pp. 2, 168.

5. White, Hugh. Power Shift: Australia’s Future between Washington and Beijing, Global Asia, Seoul, December 2010.

6. C4ISR – Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance

7. China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities / by Ronald O’Pourke. September 30, 2013. Congressional Research Service Report RL33153. 119 p. p. 8

8. Reference data on the armed forces of foreign countries // Foreign Military Review. 2010. # 7. pp. 66-112

9. A.V. Fenenko, Contemporary International Security: Nuclear Factor / Moscow, Aspect Press Publishers, 2013. pp. 403-405

10. China Naval Modernization: Implications for US Navy Capabilities / by Ronald O’Pourke. September 30, 2013. Congressional Research Service Report RL33153. p.13

11. Kaplan, Robert. Asia’s Cauldron: the South China Sea and the end of a stable Pacific… P.14

12. Jane’s Fighting Ships 2012-2013, pp.166-167.

13. Minnie Chan Experts dismiss PLA Navy’s landing craft from Ukraine as giant toys. // South China Morning Post, June 25, 2013.

14. Ted Parsons Chinese shipbuilder unveils possible Type 081 design. // Jane’s Defence Weekly, March 28, 2012; New Chinese ships causing alarm. // Taipei Times, May 31, 2012

15. China Carrier Permanent Base is Qingdao // Associated Press, February 27, 2013.

16. China plans new generation carriers as sea disputes grow // Bloomberg News, April 24, 2013.

17. Robert Beckhusen China Now Using a Cruise Ship to haul Troops and Tanks. // Danger Room (, August 31, 2012.

18. Cit.: Andrew S. Erickson Ballistic Trajectory – China develops new anti-ship missile. // Jane’s Intelligence Review, January 4, 2010

19. M.S. Barabanov, V.B. Kashin, K.V. Makienko. China’s Defense Industry and Arms Trade. Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, Russian Institute for Strategic Studies. Moscow, 2013, p. 272 pp. 50-51

20. Yu.A. Kryachkina. New trends in Japan's defense policy // Problems of National Strategy. 2014. # 5. pp. 136-151


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