Preparedness for “unexpected developments” in the East Sea

VietNamNet would like to introduce the last article by our journalist Hoang Huong about the East Sea disputes. This is an interview with an American expert of politics and security in Southeast Asia, Dr. Zachary Abuza, on the defense capacity of Southeast Asian countries, the attitude of the international community and the wisest steps for Vietnam.

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Hoang Huong: Philippines president Benigno Aquino recently said that this country is “ready to start negotiations on an accord that will allow Japan's military to use Philippine bases”, and the two nations will also expand joint military exercises. What does this mean? Is a regional war coming?

Dr. Zachary Abuza: The Philippines has worked to improve relations with Japan. For the most part the relationship is economic in nature. But there has been an increase in defense relations. Recently the two coast guards had joint exercises, and President Aquino has called on Japan to play a greater role in the East Sea.  

Japan has pledged to transfer coast guard vessels to the Philippines, and Manila is hoping to receive P3 anti-submarine aircraft from Japan. President Aquino also announced that the Philippines and Japan would begin negotiating a Visiting Forces Agreement, which would allow Japan to use Philippine military facilities on a rotational basis.

But clearly there is a shared interest by both Prime Minister Abe and President Aquino for Japan playing a more proactive role in Southeast Asia; it does not mean a regional war is imminent.

Hoang Huong: Do you think it is a response to China’s recent activities? What situation that China will have to face in near future? Should China be concerned about the move?

Dr. Zachary Abuza: Of course, the Philippines pursuing closer ties with Japan is in response to Chinese aggression in the East Sea. But we have seen many countries do this: Vietnam has deepened security ties with India, Japan, and the United States.  

We know that China has a claim to 90 percent of the East Sea, and as it develops the military capabilities to enforce that, it will.  

But what is baffling to me is that by pursuing such an aggressive policy in the East Sea, China is getting everything that it said was not in its strategic interests.  

For example, China wants the United States out of the Western Pacific, and yet because of Chinese aggression, you have the pivot, deeper security ties with Japan, including new guidelines for the alliance, closer US ties with the Philippines and Vietnam.  

You also have anger in Canberra, which is increasing its own patrols in the East Sea; increased defense spending in Japan, and a more assertive foreign policy; and India wanting to play a greater role.  All of these are not in China’s strategic interests, but they are happening because of Chinese assertiveness.

At some point the Chinese should be asking whether their strategy in the East Sea is counter-productive.  Because of the lack of transparency and the pace and scope of which China has built these seven islands, which no one in the region believes are not for military purposes, China now has a trust deficit in Southeast Asia.  

Hoang Huong: U.S. defense officials said that China had put in artillery units on artificial islands. American senator John McCain recently called the US to “provide more defensive weapons to Asian countries” to cope with China. What is your comment on this?

Dr. Zachary Abuza: No country has the capabilities to manufacture islands out of nothing like China.  It has developed over 850 hectares since 2014. In addition, they are being armed. On Fiery Cross Reef, for example, China has not only put in a three kilometer runway, capable of handling a range of military planes, but it has built a taxiway; i.e. they are predicting enough plane traffic on the island that a single runway is insufficient. China has put in at least two mobile artillery units on South Johnson Reef. What concerns me is that those units are not for maritime purposes; they are not there for self defense.    

I am not sure if the US providing more weapons to Southeast Asian countries is necessarily the answer.  No matter how much the US provides, it will not deter China.

Senator McCain wants to do something, but frankly he’s too late.  It doesn’t mean that I am against sales of certain weapons to Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries, but China’s military is adding new equipment at such an alarming rate, little can be done to deter it.    

The most important thing that can be done to deter China has little to do with the United States.  ASEAN - or at least the claimant states to the Spratlys - have to come up with a common position.  

If China refuses to sign a Code of Conduct, then it’s time for ASEAN to draft it on its own and then present it to the Chinese as a take it or leave it.  

Hoang Huong: From the standpoint of security and defense, what situation will China’s activities lead to and how should the regional countries do?

Dr. Zachary Abuza: The seven reclaimed islands clearly have a military purpose. But it is counter-intuitive. In times of war, those Islands are very vulnerable and in many ways indefensible.  But in times short of war, they are essential to the enforcement of Chinese sovereignty: they give China the capabilities to enforce sovereignty, deny access, and harass other claimants resupplying garrisons or maintaining aids to navigation.  They give China the capability to deploy constantly throughout the spiritless, including its navy, coast guard and fishing vessels. China now has a permanent, 365 day a year presence in the region.

What concerns me most is that China is going to start interfering with Vietnamese resupply of their islands. I expect routine harassment and interference with fishing vessels, etc. While I do not think that a March 1988 style offensive is likely, because the diplomatic costs would be too great as it would galvanize ASEAN, if you look at where China has reclaimed its islands, several are in very key positions to deny other countries - in particular Vietnam - access. I could imagine a situation where China prevents Vietnam from supplying its bases and then backing down temporarily if ASEAN started to coalesce.

Hoang Huong: According to an annual report of the US Defense Department, China annually increased its defense budget by 9.5% in recent years. Which situations should China’s neighboring countries be aware of? Will it lead to an "arms race" in the region?

Dr. Zachary Abuza: China has had almost double digit growth in its military expenditure over the past two decades. Moreover, many things are not part of its military budget, such as its space program, research and development, veterans pay, etc.  So China’s real budget is actually much higher than its official budget. This has caused a miniature arms race in Southeast Asia.  

Between 2010 and 2014, there were net increases for all countries, averaging 37.6 percent. ASEAN spent $38.2 billion on defense in 2014. All countries saw strong increases in military spending between 2010 and 2014.

Nonetheless, there are wide disparities amongst ASEAN states in per capita military spending, military expenditure as a percent of GDP and military expenditure as a percent of overall government spending.  

Per capita military expenditure ranges from Cambodia ($18.1) to Singapore ($1,789). The average for the region is $392, but it falls to $60 if you exclude wealthy Singapore and Brunei. Vietnam’s precept spending is relatively low at only $46. Singapore (18.3 percent) led the region with military expenditures as a percent of all government spending in 2014.

Hoang Huong: How can you compare military capabilities of ASEAN states to that of China? What is a wise strategy for the countries like Vietnam?

Dr. Zachary Abuza: Military capabilities in some ASEAN states, including Vietnam, have grown substantially in the past few years. But no country could sustain a prolonged military conflict with China, including Vietnam.  

What Vietnam has done, which I think is very smart given its size, level of development and size of economy, is to develop a very sophisticated military that can cause substantial harm to China should hostilities break out.  

* Dr. Zachary Abuza is an independent consultant on politics and security in Southeast Asia. He taught political science and international relations at Simmons College in Boston and national security strategy at the National Defense University in Washington, DC. He is an advisor to the US government and US companies on issues of Southeast Asia. In 2004-2005, he was a senior fellow at the US Institute of Peace in Washington, DC.

He is the author of “Conspiracy of Silence: The Insurgency in Southern Thailand” (2008), “Political Islam and Violence in Indonesia” (2006), “Militant Islam in Southeast Asia” (2003) and “Renovating Politics in Contemporary Vietnam” (2001).

Hoang Huong

Preparedness for “unexpected developments” in the East Sea