One reason that America is being drawn into the South China Sea dispute is the fact that all of the other “claimants” – Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, and the Philippines – are in such an inferior naval position relative vis-à-vis to the PRC that there is no bona fide counterweight in the region save for the United States. China’s naval supremacy is overwhelming and absolute, and there is no real power among the ASEAN states that can put up competitive resistance should Beijing decide to enforce its will unilaterally by might with no regards for others.
To illustrate, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) possesses nearly twice as many surface combatant warships as all of the rest of the claimants combined and more than twenty times as many submarines. Such numbers do not belie the individual qualitative superiority of the PLAN warships, another factor in their favor. The PRC also has 11 naval bases already constructed in the area, giving it an embedded advantage in the region. In addition, the recent commissioning of the Varyag aircraft carrier, with more carriers likely on the way, gives the PLAN the potential to sustain a deployable airpower presence in the South China Sea that, even with its modest air wing, could outmatch nearly all local airpower in the region.
In short, a major conflict in the South China Sea would be bloody, but the PRC would doubtlessly come out on top. ASEAN nations have been bulking up their navies in recent times but this is expected to make little difference in the overall security equation, all the more so given the PLAN’s own rapid increase of strength from Beijing’s swelling defense budgets.
Unsurprisingly, the United States is willing to step in and has greatly increased its presence in the Sea since the beginning of the century, with many naval exercises held together with nations such as the Philippines, Singapore, and Malaysia. Such policy may indicate that the U.S. is seeking to develop a military alliance in the region to counteract against China and keep Beijing in check. Notably, the Russian Navy, formerly one of the great strategic players in the Pacific, appears to have withdrawn almost completely from the South China Sea region and plays little to no role in the game today.
a. The “Freedom of Navigation” (FON) program