In a sobering report released on Tuesday, the International Crisis Group said “tensions in the South China Sea can easily spill over into armed conflict.”
The South China Sea dispute between China and Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei has reached an impasse, said the report, with increasingly assertive positions among claimants pushing regional tensions to new heights.
“All of the trends are in the wrong direction, and prospects of resolution are diminishing,” according to ICG.
Fueling the tension between China and its neighbors are vast oil and gas reserves, estimated to be as large as 200 billion barrels of crude oil and 25 trillion cubic meters of natural gas.
Over the past weekend, China made double-whammy announcements, in effect, “occupying” the region with a military base and establishing an administrative body to govern roughly 80 percent of the South China Sea.
China state-run media reports did not specify the size of China’s new military base, which would most likely be established on the Xisha Islands, the closest pieces of land to China that aren’t underwater. (Unlike most everyone else in the world, China makes no distinctions between islands that are above the water, and “islands” that are underwater.)
That said, an outpost in this region could easily be as large as three regiments, or roughly 10,000 troops. According to state media, the garrison would be equipped the same as a standard army division, which implies a combination of armored, mechanized and motorized infantry and amphibious assault forces backed up by air defense and helicopter support.
Even at that level, however, the move is largely symbolic as a few thousand soldiers would be hard-pressed to play the role of enforcers in an area covering two million square kilometers. The area that China claims, of course, doesn’t have much land mass to speak of, so maneuvers on terra firma would be an exercise in futility.
Sea-based warfare is another story, as China already has a substantial naval presence in the South China Sea with surface fleet and submarine assets in place, as well as nearby ballistic missiles aimed at who knows what.
Both Vietnam and the Philippines maintain significant military presence in the disputed territory, with Malaysia maintaining a small military installation on Swallow Reef, according to ICG.
Download ICG’s report, entitled “Stirring up the South China Sea (II): Regional Responses,” here.
This post originally appeared in Forbes.
Ray Kwong is senior advisor to the USC US-China Institute, a charter member of the Asian International Business Advisory Group, a Forbes contributing writer and columnist for the Hong Kong Economic Journal. He is currently facilitating talks between China and U.S. interests on such matters as clean energy economics, nanotechnology and commercial aerospace. While it sounds way cooler than it really is, he is also a member of the Bloomberg BusinessWeek Market Advisory Board and the McKinsey Quarterly Executive Panel. You can follow him on Twitter @raykwong. Eyeball Ray's posts from Forbes ChinaTalk.
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