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The region's seas as arena for great power contest

South-east Asian capitals are becoming favoured arenas for global sporting tournaments graced by formidable overseas teams and few or no South-east Asian participants. This April saw the return of the Rugby Sevens to South-east Asia and Singapore. September again will see Formula One racers howling around the floodlit streets of the city.

In a foreboding case of real life imitating sport, South-east Asia is becoming a major arena for major-power military competition and cooperation with little or no participation by South-east Asian states. In April, Chinese media reported that the United States, Japan and Australia had conducted a trilateral naval exercise in the South China Sea. In June, the waters of the Philippine Sea were, for the first time, the arena for the annual Malabar exercises that bring together India, the US and Japan. These exercises focused on submarines and anti-submarine warfare capabilities. Next month, the waters of the South China Sea will be for the first time the arena for bilateral naval exercises between Russia and China.

The reasons for greater major-power military activity in the region are not fleeting. Nor are the reasons for South-east Asian states' limited ability to be more than concerned spectators. This undercuts South-east Asian states' desire, as voiced through Asean and its principle of centrality, to moderate major-power activities in the region and direct them towards the interests of South-east Asian states and Asean.

China's military activities in maritime South-east Asia have grown more quickly than any other major extra-regional power. China's decision to base its nascent submarine-based nuclear deterrent at Hainan Island is the most important and disruptive change to South-east Asia's security situation. These submarines presently must sail from Hainan Island, across the South China Sea, through the Philippine Sea to the Western Pacific to pose a credible threat to the US homeland. This decision has turned the South China Sea into a major arena for the US-China military rivalry. The recent spree of military-grade artificial island building in the Spratlys and the locating of anti-ship missiles in the Paracels enhance China's sea denial and sea control capabilities over the whole South China Sea.

China's nuclear and conventional missile development and naval modernisation programmes are reducing the US' nuclear and conventional superiority in East Asia and making US forward deployed troops and assets in North-east Asia and the US homeland itself more vulnerable. Both erosive developments deepen US military interests in South-east Asia. First, to better track and potentially stop Chinese submarines in the South China Sea and Philippine Sea and second to redistribute US forward deployed assets away from their increasingly exposed locations in Japan and South Korea.

Ships from China's South Sea Fleet taking part in a drill near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea in May. Both China and the US have been conducting exercises in the South China Sea, but South-east Asian states have not taken part, as most do
Ships from China's South Sea Fleet taking part in a drill near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea in May. Both China and the US have been conducting exercises in the South China Sea, but South-east Asian states have not taken part, as most do not have the means or the will to become active players in the major-power competition. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The US rebalance to Asia has a reciprocal element to it consistent with US defence planning for the region going back decades. The US wants more assistance from its regional allies and security partners to help maintain its threatened strategic primacy in East Asia, a primacy many regional states' strategic planning has long assumed.

Australia and Japan have responded the most to this call for reciprocity, reflecting the breadth of the security interests that both allies share with the US in South-east Asia and beyond. US, Japanese and Australian military activities in South-east Asia are becoming more coordinated and "federated". Ballistic missile defence radar developments between these three allies provide them with better domain awareness of the South China Sea and Philippine Sea arenas than any littoral state in South-east Asia.

South-east Asian states have largely stayed in the grandstand for this great-power contest and cooperation playing out in the region's waters. Three reasons explain this partially passive response:

•No South-east Asian military can play in the same league as these major powers. South-east Asian militaries and defence budgets are very small. Singapore has the largest defence budget and most capable navy and air force by considerable distances. Yet Singapore only has six large combatant vessels (all frigates) compared with 46 in Japan.

• The great-power contest and cooperation is increasingly taking place underwater and in the stratosphere. No South-east Asian state is involved in the US-led regional ballistic missile defence system focused on Chinese and North Korean threats. Regional submarine and broader anti-submarine warfare capabilities are limited.

• South-east Asian states have historically hesitated getting too close to any major power, preferring strategic autonomy. Japanese, Australian and South Korean alliance relationships with the US are deeper and more central to these states' own defence planning than any relationship the US has in South-east Asia. Japan, Australia, and South Korea (and Taiwan) rely on US extended nuclear deterrence.

South-east Asian states are, with some partial exceptions, unable, unprepared and even unwilling to become active players in the major-power competition and cooperation taking place in the South-east Asian maritime arena.

In the end though, sport does not imitate real life.

Watching global sporting giants compete for glory in South-east Asia is great for the region's sports fans. Watching global military powers use South-east Asia as an arena for their own interests is clearly a cause for concern, not celebration.

• The writer is a Senior Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 11, 2016, with the headline 'The region's seas as arena for great power contest'. Print Edition | Subscribe