Global Challenges
Issue no. 1 | February 2017
South China Sea: War on the Horizon?
Global Challenges
Issue no. 1 | February 2017
South China Sea | Article 6

Arms Race in the South China Sea: What Threshold?

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Having registered a sustained build-up of arms over the past few decades, virtually all countries surrounding the South China Sea now possess considerable air and naval capabilities. Considering the heightened national sentiment in many regional powers over competing territorial and maritime claims and an increasingly assertive China, the region is at risk of becoming further embroiled in an arms race as armament acquisition and modernisation become more competitive.

Have the countries involved in land and maritime disputes in the South China Sea passed the threshold from armaments for routine maintenance and modernisation to a veritable arms race?

An arms race is usually characterised by an action-reaction chain whereby states increase the quantity and quality of their armaments in reaction to perceived threats about other states’ actual or expected military strength, potentially leading to a spiral of reciprocal arms build-up and upgrading. The Anglo-German naval race preceding World War I is one of the first illustrations of such an action-reaction dynamic that come to mind. A similar dynamic is claimed to be playing out in the region, alternatively between a rising China and the other states adjacent to the South China Sea, or between China and the United States.

A Period of Economic Growth and Military Modernisation

Up until the 1980s the riparian countries of the South China Sea had been primarily preoccupied with internal security threats ranging from smuggling to separatism. However, starting in the 1990s, these countries have significantly restructured and modernised their military, enhancing their power projection capabilities in the region.

The increased military spending and modernisation in East and Southeast Asia has been following the trend of economic growth. Whereas defence spending Whereas defence spending declined in most parts of the world after the end of the Cold War, military expenditures of East and Southeast Asian countries have registered a steady increase. declined in most parts of the world after the end of the Cold War, military expenditures of East and Southeast Asian countries have registered a steady increase. The riparian countries of the South China Sea now spend on defence almost three times as much as they were spending in 1992 (see Figure 1 ).

China Stands Out

One country has registered a remarkable increase dwarfing all the others: China’s military spending grew almost eightfold between 1992 and 2015, with double-digit annual growth in defence spending registered from 1996 onwards. The data shows that over over the past decade China has been consistently spending more on military power than all the other East and Southeast Asian states combined. the past decade China has been consistently spending more on military power than all the other East and Southeast Asian states combined. Nevertheless, in 2015 China’s military expenditures still remain approximately three times lower than those of the United States (see Figure 2 ).

The desire for surveillance and control over expansive and potentially resource-rich maritime zones in the South China Sea – over which states in the region have overlapping claims – has pushed countries in the region to focus on air and naval capabilities by acquiring, or preparing to acquire, fighter aircrafts, submarines and other warships, sophisticated weaponry including anti-ship cruise missiles, as well as high technology surveillance and communications systems.

China has been at the forefront of improving not only the quality and quantity of its armaments, but also the strategic deployment of its forces. It has built up a strong navy, complete with an impressive submarine force, including a significantly greater number of maritime law enforcement vessels than other countries in the region (see Figure 3a , 3b  and 3c ). The crown achievement of Chinese naval development was the sailing of its first aircraft carrier, Liaoning, in 2012. The development of a second aircraft carrier exclusively built domestically is reportedly underway.

China’s assertiveness in the pursuit of its land and maritime claims in the South China Sea has made its military build-up especially worrisome. Extensive land reclamation has been carried out by China in the past few years to build artificial islands on reefs, rocks and other maritime features in disputed marine zones. A latecomer to the island-building activities, Chinese land reclamation has begun in 2013 and by far surpassed that of other countries like the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam that have been constructing outposts on maritime features they occupied in the disputed zones. In addition to reinforcing Chinese sovereignty claims over most of the South China Sea, including its insular features, Chinese land reclamation activities seem to be designed to create strategic military outposts – equipped with runways, radars and potentially surface-to-air missiles – that further enhance China’s power projection capacity and its ability to restrict the freedom of movement of other navies operating in the region. And while it may be doubted whether the neighbouring states would be able to counter such advances in a regional arms race, they could so far count on the United States as an external balancer. 

Future US Posture Key Determinant of Regional Armament Dynamic

The United States presently seems to be the only force that can check Beijing’s military supremacy over the South China Sea.The United States presently seems to be the only force that can check Beijing’s military supremacy over the South China Sea.  This not only raises the possibility of a direct standoff between the United States and China, but may also embolden other states in the region to dig in their heels in reaction to extensive Chinese claims, leading in turn to heightened tensions and the possible escalation of minor incidents.

China could argue that its military development is a response to the military presence of the United States in the region. The United States has various military bases in the region, most notably in Japan (see “South China Sea Map”, accessible through the info menu). There are also military alliances committing the United States to the defense of Japan, South Korea and the Philippines. The Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia may have triggered additional Chinese concern and counterpoise. Indeed, the various capabilities China has been developing to inhibit the freedom of action of other states (anti-access and area denial capabilities) seem to be tailored to hold the United States quite literally at bay. The recent development of a joint air-sea battle concept – allowing the United States to target potential adversaries with anti-access and area denial capabilities in their homelands as well as in space and cyberspace – may further embolden China to improve its own anti-access and area denial capabilities.

A turning point for the American involvement in the South China Sea was the speech given by the then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Hanoi, on 23 July 2010. The speech laid out the Obama administration’s position on the South China Sea, and unequivocally expressed the country’s interest “in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons, and respect of international law in the South China Sea”. The United States has carried out at least four Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the past few years, with its navy sailing close by the maritime features claimed by China. Such actions may increase in scope and frequency.

The Unites States has also sought to strengthen its security ties, not only with allies like the Philippines, but also with former foes like Vietnam. In recent years, the United States lifted its arms embargo on Vietnam, and agreed with South Korea on the deployment of a missile defence system. Most notably, the United States and the Philippines concluded the “Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement”, a defence deal that would allow the United States to use Philippine bases for the purpose of rotating ships, aircraft and personnel. In an overt show of force, in the days preceding the award of the Arbitral Tribunal in the South China Sea Arbitration case, the United States sent two of its ten aircraft carriers to the Philippine Sea for joint exercises.

Although the fate of the Washington-Manila deal seems to be unclear, given President Rodrigo Duterte’s apparent resolve to distance the Philippine foreign policy from the United States and form closer ties with China, other Southeast Asian nations such as Vietnam and Singapore that remain wary of Chinese advances in the South China Sea are likely to look to the United States for support.

In conclusion, if the region’s countries feel increasingly threatened by China, and especially if the United States reduces its presence, we may be set for an intense regional arms race, with a likely build-up of forces on the part of Vietnam and the Philippines. Or, these countries may judge that without American help such a race is lost and find ways to accommodate Chinese demands. This could put the brakes on competitive armaments. In the end, it appears that outside involvement – especially the US military posture – will prove to be crucial in shaping the further evolution of armaments in the region.

By Umut Yüksel,
PhD candidate and teaching assistant,
Department of International Relations/Political Science,
The Graduate Institute, Geneva

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Header image caption: A Chinese Navy submarine attends an international fleet review to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Liberation Army Navy.

Military Expenditure of Riparian Countries of the South China Sea, 1992–2015 in Constant (2014) USD Million

Source: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)
Note: Click on countries to refine chart.

Military Expenditure of the United States and of China, 1992-2015 in Constant (2014) USD Million

Naval Combatants, 2015

Sources:  for all states except Taiwan: US Department of Defense, The Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy; for Taiwan:   "Republic of China Navy", Wikipedia.

Maritime Law Enforcement Vessels, 2015

Sources: for all states except Taiwan: US Department of Defense, The Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy; for Taiwan: "Coast Guard Administration (Taiwan)"Wikipedia. 

Regional Combat Aircraft, 2015

Source: Flight International, World Air Forces 2015

Info Box

Submarine Race in the South China Sea

The Chinese submarine fleet is one of the fastest growing and modernising forces in the world with 70 boats in 2016, with plans to add 20 more within the next 10 years. It consists of 5 nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs), 4 nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), and more than 50 diesel-electric attack submarines. According to the US Office of Naval Intelligence, 4 Type 094 Jin-class SSBNs are currently operating. The Type 094 is capable of carrying nuclear warheads and providing China with a sea-based nuclear strike capability. According to experts, the next generation (Type 096) will be equipped with powerful JL-3 intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the US territory by being launched from the South China Sea. Moreover, China is constructing a great underwater wall – using drones and robots – whose main mission would be to detect the presence of potential adversaries’ submarines.

The Philippines have expressed interest in acquiring submarines. In addition to its two submarines, Indonesia has recently acquired 3 submarines from South Korea, 2 of which are expected to be in service by 2017 and the other by 2019. Vietnam bought 6 submarines from Russia under a 2009 deal, 5 of which have been delivered. Singapore ordered 2 submarines from a German company in 2013, to be delivered in 2020. Malaysia has 2 submarines, ordered in 2002 and in service as of 2009.

Info Box

The American Presence in the South and East China Seas

The South and East China Seas fall under the area of operation of the US Seventh Fleet, mainly based in Yokosuka, Japan. The Seventh Fleet deploys from 50 to 70 ships and submarines (including 10–14 destroyers and cruisers, 8–12 nuclear-powered submarines, 4 amphibious ships and 4 mine countermeasure ships), 140 aircraft and 20,000 sailors at any given time, and comprises an aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, permanently deployed in the region. Another aircraft carrier can also be temporarily attached to the Seventh Fleet.

In February 2016, the USS John C. Stennis (an aircraft carrier with its own strike group) was deployed in the region. On 18 June 2016 – two weeks before the South China Sea arbitration award delivered on 12 July), it commenced dual exercises with the USS Ronald Reagan Strike Group. Such dual strike group operations had been previously conducted in the region in 2012, 2009 and 2001.

Info Box

The Militarisation of Islands in the South China Sea

China has been rapidly reclaiming land and building infrastructure in and around land and maritime features in the Spratly Islands since December 2013. Chinese land reclamation had reached 2,900 acres as of June 2015, which is extremely high compared to the total land reclaimed by Vietnam (about 80 acres), Malaysia (70 acres), the Philippines (14 acres) and Taiwan (8 acres). The Chinese airstrip at Fiery Cross Reef is significantly longer than the airstrips constructed by Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam on features under their control. The outposts established by China will reportedly be used for both civilian and military purposes. Satellite images suggest that China could build point-defence capabilities and even deploy anti-ship missiles on these outposts.

South China Sea: Elementary Data


East Asia


3.5 million km²

Riparian countries

Brunei, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam.


Petroleum, natural gas and fisheries products.

Major route of world maritime trade

Each year, USD 5.3 trillion of trade passes through the South China Sea; US trade accounts for USD 1.2 trillion of this total.

Main islands

The South China Sea contains over 250 small islands, atolls, cays, shoals, reefs and sandbars, most of which have no indigenous people, many of which are naturally under water at high tide, and some of which are permanently submerged.

Source: by Galvin and whybe.ch.

The Disputed Islands

The Spratly Islands

The Spratly Islands are a disputed group of 14 islands, islets and cays and more than 100 reefs, sometimes grouped in submerged old atolls. The archipelago lies off the coasts of the Philippines, Malaysia and southern Vietnam. The islands have no indigenous inhabitants, but offer rich fishing grounds and may contain significant oil and natural gas reserves. Some of the islands have civilian settlements, but of the approximately 45 islands, cays, reefs and shoals that are occupied, all contain structures that are occupied by military forces from Malaysia, Taiwan, China, the Philippines and Vietnam. Additionally, Brunei has claimed an exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

The Paracel Islands

The Paracel Islands are a group of islands, reefs, banks and other maritime features. They are controlled (and occupied) by China, and also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam. The archipelago is surrounded by productive fishing grounds and a seabed with potential, but as yet unexplored, oil and gas reserves.

Scarborough Shoal

Scarborough Shoal is a disputed territory claimed by China, Taiwan and the Philippines. Since the 2012 Scarborough Shoal standoff, access to the shoal has been restricted by China. Scarborough Shoal forms a triangle-shaped chain of reefs and rocks with a perimeter of 46 km. It covers an area, including an inner lagoon, of 150 km2. The shoal’s highest point, South Rock, measures 1.8 m above water during high tide.

The Pratas Islands

The Pratas Islands are an atoll in the north of the South China Sea consisting of three islets about 340 km southeast of Hong Kong. Excluding their associated EEZ and territorial waters, the islets comprise about 240 ha, including 64 ha of lagoon area. China claims the islands, but Taiwan controls them and has declared them a national park. The main island of the group, Pratas Island, is the largest of the South China Sea islands.

Macclesfield Bank

Macclesfield Bank is an elongated sunken atoll of underwater reefs and shoals. It lies east of the Paracel Islands, southwest of the Pratas Islands and north of the Spratly Islands. Its length exceeds 130 km southwest-northeast, with a maximal width of more than 70 km. With an ocean area of 6,448 km2 within the outer rim of the reef, although completely submerged without any emergent cays or islets, it is one of the largest atolls of the world. Macclesfield Bank is claimed, in whole or in part, by China and Taiwan.

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