Mind the neighbours

The first 250 US Marines are due to arrive in Darwin in early 2012 and build up to 2,500 by 2016-17. They will combine with US warships and aircraft operating out of Western Australia.

China
Beijing claims practically all of the South China Sea – even that which falls within the widely recognised 200 mile exclusive economic zones of other littoral states. This is a major cause of regional friction.

The Philippines
Rattled by aggressive Chinese behaviour in 2011, Manila is turning to the US and South Korea to help rebuild its outmoded military.

Vietnam
History ancient and modern means that Hanoi will never accept Chinese domination of the South China Sea, and it is re-equipping its military to push back against Chinese expansion.

The Spratly Islands
These tiny Pacific territories sit atop valuable resources. Claimants include China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

Indonesia
Southeast Asia’s biggest country is slowly assuming its rightful place as the region’s main military player. Indonesian neutrality could be key to maintaining stability.

The US position

Washington’s decision to base Marines in Darwin is the latest move in a strategic game with two complex dimensions: the growing rivalry between China and the US in the Pacific and Indian Oceans; and the contest for the South China Sea between China and its Southeast Asian neighbours.

Besides Darwin, Washington intends to base warships in Singapore, a similar naval station in the Philippines is likely, and Vietnam will soon host American ships at the Cam Ranh Bay naval base. Factor in alliances with Japan and India, and the American position appears strong.

China so far lacks the US’s strategic footprint. There is no doubt, though, that China outguns its smaller neighbours to the south; and as tensions have risen in the disputed South China Sea, Southeast Asian militaries have started bulking up.

Most significant of all, however, could be the emergence of Indonesia. Though removed from the South China Sea dispute, Jakarta upped its defence budget for 2012 by 53 per cent, ordering new aircraft and submarines. On good terms with China and the US, but allied with neither, a resurgent Indonesia could prove key to keeping Asia’s choppy waters calm.

Monocle 24

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