On the rocks
South China Sea [LAND DISPUTE]
The South China Sea is peppered with disputed islands: China claims most of them. Some have value as fishing grounds or sources of energy deposits; others have only symbolic importance. For all their remoteness, competition for these tiny islands is intensifying. “The South China Sea is like a bathtub that’s being filled up by Chinese control vessels and other countries’ patrol vessels and submarines,” explains Carlyle Thayer, a professor at the Australian Defence Forces Academy.
Beijing usually has military superiority to reinforce claims. Countries like the Philippines and Vietnam, which have argued repeatedly with China, would be outmatched by Chinese forces if disputes escalated into conflict. But Socotra Rock, whose ownership China disputes with South Korea, is different. South Korea boasts one of Asia’s most advanced militaries, with an edge over China in many areas.
Socotra, which lies south-west of Korea and north-east of Shanghai and doesn’t even break the sea’s surface – apart from the helipad that the Koreans have built on it – but has become the focus of worsening acrimony between Seoul and Beijing. Many Koreans, already wary of China’s military expansion, felt that Beijing overstepped the mark when it commenced aerial and naval monitoring of Socotra in March.
Other South/East China Sea island disputes:
- Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands:
Japan administers the rocky, uninhabited islands; China and Taiwan claim them. The governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, recently announced his intention to buy them (see page 56).
- Paracel Islands:
Vietnam contests Chinese ownership of this cluster of islets, which the two countries briefly fought a war over in the 1970s. Oil and gas deposits make them valuable.
- Spratly Islands:
At the heart of the South China Sea’s most complex dispute, the Spratlys are claimed by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
When Tokyo committed to buying stealthy F-35 fighter jets from the US in December, many observers assumed that the dream of a Japanese-built stealth fighter had just died. But the Japanese government has since shrugged off questions over its ability to overcome the technical and financial challenges involved in developing a stealth jet by dedicating €365m to producing one of its own, the Shinshin. Main contractor Mitsubishi is expected to have the prototype in the air by 2014. However, tens, if not hundreds, of billions of euros will be needed to turn the prototype into a fleet of combat aircraft, and it may be more straightforward to buy more F-35s off the shelf.
Show of strength
The Bay of Bengal is rich in natural gas and this is delivering a twofold windfall to the Bangladeshi military. Revenues from energy sales are funding an ambitious defence modernisation plan, while the need to protect these resources from Burma, Bangladesh’s main competitor for the Bay’s assets, is boosting the navy’s claim to military funding. Dhaka has ordered 16 F-7 fighter jets from China, armoured personnel carriers from Russia and two ex-Royal Navy patrol vessels, and it’s expected to procure two Chinese naval frigates. So while Burma may be opening up, Bangladesh seems to be ahead when it comes to pressing its claims to the region’s resources.
DRC [JOSEPH KONY]
In what has to be the first military offensive in history to have been influenced by a viral online video, the African Union decided in late March to dispatch a joint force of 5,000 troops to capture or kill Joseph Kony, whose Lord’s Resistance Army continues to terrorise parts of Central Africa.
The widely viewed film – Kony 2012 – also spurred the US to confirm that it would retain 100 special forces in Central Africa to support the hunt for Kony, whose ragtag army of mostly child soldiers is currently at large in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But the mission will be challenging: the Ugandan and DRC forces comprising much of the AU force don’t get on.
As uncertainty grips the Arab world, the acquisition of two advanced warships from Germany may give the Algerian government added reason to feel secure. The MEKO A-200 frigates complete with six Super Lynx helicopters may have cost Algiers €2.5bn, but they will be among the most sophisticated naval vessels operated by any African navy. The Algerian order marked a coup for German firm ThyssenKrupp in a market that has traditionally been a stronghold for the Russian defence industry. However, Algeria is also in the process of upgrading its tank and armoured personnel carrier fleets – and Moscow remains the go-to supplier for this kind of work.