China’s rise as a naval power comes with new worries in Southeast Asia

China’s rise is no longer seen as a threat, but its quiet military development of a vast reach in Asia might be rather more alarming.

In the last week China has sent ships into Southeast Asian waters, sparking concerns from regional governments. From the Philippines to Indonesia, the US Navy has conducted freedom of navigation operations in a reassertion of America’s right to sail in the area. In turn, the Chinese have denied any wrongdoing.

Most countries in Southeast Asia face little outside threat today. Yet things might be different if China keeps asserting itself in its neighborhood. Where local militaries outnumber the Chinese by hundreds, China has amassed 4,800 military assets since 2009 in an attempt to project power throughout the region. China has more than 2,000 advanced weapon systems and almost 12,000 tanks — enough to encircle Asia with Chinese firepower.

While Beijing has stopped short of filling it with armies on high alert, China continues to claim sovereignty over the region’s islands, and it is steadily upgrading its military infrastructure to build reefs and outposts with fighter jets, amphibious craft and weapons. None of these moves change the geography of Southeast Asia — China is not building air bases in Indonesia or Singapore to build its air force — but each buildup adds to the infrastructure behind the government of President Xi Jinping and increases its ability to challenge the United States, according to some experts.

China has continued to strengthen a massive oil rig that was brought to the shores of disputed waters in the South China Sea in 2014 and sank when a fire broke out. It also installed a complex radar system in the disputed Spratly Islands. The communications array also allows a submarine to operate in the contested waters.

Despite the noise from other countries, these land cranes and radar stations can be seen in virtually all maritime locations in the South China Sea, and around the world. American ships routinely accompany them.

The deployment of these sophisticated weapon systems in the Pacific have to be worrying. The United States lags behind in conventional capabilities, with more than 16,000 ground troops in Europe, and fewer than 2,000 in the Pacific. Beijing says it has entered these waters for legitimate strategic reasons, not to thwart military powers. China has expanded its naval power in order to maintain stability in the region, according to some experts.

The People’s Liberation Army’s Navy has been able to swiftly deploy patrol ships in Southeast Asia. In January, for example, Chinese ships captured a Philippine warship after the Philippine vessel entered waters that China claims as its own. No U.S. ships were present in the area, indicating that the United States has no claim to confront China on these waters.

Those fears of another Japanese war were stoked at least one other time, in 1997, when a Chinese fighter jet buzzed a U.S. EP-3 submarine surveillance plane in the South China Sea. The Chinese fighter flew close enough to the submarine, which was on its way to Taiwan, that the plane was forced to make an emergency return to its base. The EP-3 was soon to be replaced by a surveillance plane called EP-3E.

For the United States, the South China Sea is becoming a real problem in light of the actions of the Chinese, at least in the region. U.S. officials have said China’s reclamation and build up in the Spratly Islands has been so rapid that Chinese ships are chasing out Philippine marines to the East China Sea, where China has been involved in a territorial dispute with Japan over the Diaoyu Islands, also known as Senkaku.

The country claims the Senkaku as its own territory, but Japan also claims sovereignty over the Spratly Islands. The Chinese strategy of building up an island presence has coincided with its military buildup throughout Southeast Asia. They can send fast, medium and long-range units to its remote islands to operate an air and naval network throughout the region.

There are few other countries in Southeast Asia that have the ability to defend the Philippines, Vietnam, or Malaysia from a Chinese aggression. Regional nations, including the Philippines, have committed troops to UN peacekeeping missions, but most have volunteered only when they have the opportunity to make any meaningful contribution to a war. This fits the existing military balance in the region, and it is expected to remain so. At least initially, China will likely push the bounds of patience with American actions.

For now, Southeast Asia needs a greater cooperation between the United States and the region’s militaries. And America and China should work toward an arrangement that allows two navies to engage with each other within the South China Sea.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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