SYDNEY (Dow Jones)–China’s expanding military reach is fuelling the risk of war on Asia’s seas as governments in the region tussle over territorial waters rich with oil and gas reserves, Australian think tank the Lowy Institute said in a report Tuesday.
Asia’s sea lanes are crowded and contested, with Chinese forces showing “troubling” signs of assertiveness, the report warned.
“As the number and tempo of incidents increases, so does the likelihood that an episode will escalate to armed confrontation, diplomatic crisis or possibly even conflict,” Rory Medcalf and Raoul Heinrichs wrote in the report titled “Crisis and Confidence: Major Powers and Maritime Security in Indo-Pacific Asia.”
Much of the tension originates from the South and East China seas, with the former claimed in whole or part by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei, and Malaysia. On Monday, Beijing said it had reached a deal over its dispute with Vietnam, though Vietnamese officials didn’t comment on the announcement.
Pressure on resources, sovereignty disputes, nationalism and tensions between the U.S. and Chinese militaries are at the core of the troubled outlook, according to the Lowy report, which was based on consultations with security experts and practitioners in China, Japan, the U.S., and India.
If a war did erupt it could quickly draw in the U.S. and other powers and spread across the wider Indo-Pacific region, the Lowy report warned, urging China to embrace greater military dialogue with the U.S., Japan and India, including the establishment of maritime hot lines.
“The risk of major-power conflict arising from maritime incidents is centered on China’s frictions with the United States, Japan and other nations in East Asia. But maritime tensions could reach across the wider Indo-Pacific region, as the power and interests of China and India expand,” the report said.
The U.S. navy is active in Asia’s seas and is scheduled to hold naval exercises with both the Vietnam and the Philippines, having recently conducted exercises with Australia. A string of maritime incidents in recent years has heightened awareness of growing tensions, most notably a clash between a Chinese fisherman and Japanese authorities in 2010, which sparked a diplomatic crisis.
The Sydney-based think tank’s report comes as Australia launches an inquiry on whether to redeploy its military resources to better protect energy infrastructure and counter Asian powers including China extending their strategic influence across the region.
A far-reaching review of Australia’s military deployment will cover “the growth of military power projection capabilities of countries in the Asia Pacific region” and “energy security and security issues associated with expanding offshore resource exploitation in our North West and Northern approaches,” the defence ministry said last week.
Canberra already has plans to spend more than US$50 billion over the next 20 years on projects that include purchasing air warfare destroyers, submarines, frigates and F-35 aircraft to counter growing regional threats.
-By Enda Curran, Dow Jones Newswires