Tension mounts in the South China Sea and why the US "peace dividend" might need redefinition.
Everybody loves a tropical island, especially when it’s surrounded by rich fisheries, major shipping lanes and the promise of untold mineral wealth. The Spratly Islands chain in the South China Sea is a case in point, with Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam all squabbling over ownership – Brunei being the only claimant without a military footprint there.
As a result, regional relationships are politely described as tense, with conflicts occasionally flaring up and regular confrontations ranging from petty to serious in the one-upmanship race to prove who has a stronger presence. For example, Malaysia and China have established mobile-phone networks to reinforce their sense of connection around the islands to “home”, while in mid-2011 reports emerged of Chinese vessels opening fire on Vietnamese craft.
However, China’s latest scheme ups the ante to unprecedented levels. The 6,017-tonne cutter suction dredger Tian Jing Hao – the largest in Asia – has been hacking up three major reefs and depositing the spoils to create new islands from the usually submerged reefs.
Specialist shipping-intelligence organisation ihs Maritime’s ais Live ship-tracking service has plotted Tian Jing Hao’s movements across Cuarteron Reef, Gaven Reefs, Union Reefs and Fiery Cross Reef since December 2013. Subsequent satellite imagery of the region has confirmed the presence of the new islands.
As if this wasn’t sufficiently reminiscent of a Bond villain’s scheme, plans from the China State Shipbuilding Corporation’s No 9 Design & Research Institute envisage a jet airbase and other strategic installations in the region.
Other claimants are building on their own islands – Vietnam has built a harbour on Southwest Cay, Taiwan now has an airstrip on Itu Aba and the Philippines plans to upgrade its airport on Thitu – but China is the first to create a new island in pursuit of its claim.
Indonesia scored points in the Southeast Asian arms race when its first two new kcr-40 attack ships completed test firings of a new missile system, the C-705, in late July. The successful pairing of these deadly devices has provided Indonesia with one of the most powerful strike capabilities in the region.
Each of the kcr-40 ships carries up to four Chinese C-705 radar-guided missiles, which can attack naval or land-based targets up to 140km away at nearly the speed of sound. Not a lot is known about the exact performance of the C-705 missile, which was only seen for the first time in 2008. But a statement from the Indonesian Navy’s Western Fleet Command has stated that data from its tests predicted a single missile would have a 95.7 per cent chance of sinking a 1,500-tonne vessel.
The phrase “peace dividend” emerged in the aftermath of the Cold War. Nato powers calculated that with their foe vanquished they could rein in defence spending and it has recently been applied to the US’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq. But as the world awakes to the reality of the Islamic State – undoubtedly better financed than Al-Qaeda – US defence secretary Chuck Hagel (pictured, on left) has suggested that a $555bn (€420.5bn) defence budget requested for 2015 from the US Congress may not suffice. Not for the first time, an anticipated peace dividend might have to be indefinitely postponed.
The United Arab Emirates has introduced conscription for its male citizens. The law requires men aged from 18 to 30 to serve between nine months and two years, with jail terms and fines for draft dodgers.
According to defence analysts, the move is linked to the UAE’s determination to create a more nationalised defence industry. “There are significant advances going on in the defence industry here,” says Matthew Cochran, chairman of the Defense Services Marketing Council, a UAE-based defence business incubator. “It has progressed from merely bringing in technology from overseas to establishing joint ventures and now we are seeing more and more UAE-owned companies.”
“It’s hard for any country to nationalise its defence industry but one way is by involving young local citizens with good ideas, through military service.”