Southeast Asian nations may be struggling to get their act together over how to present a united front in response to China’s territorial claims, but this isn’t stopping some of them preparing for potential military eventualities.
Jane’s Information Group has compiled data for Vietnam that suggests the country is significantly boosting defence spending this year, in large part because of concerns about China.
As Jane’s noted last week, deciphering what exactly Vietnam’s budget numbers mean is no easy task—the government views defence spending as a state secret, and it’s unclear what exactly is included in the numbers that are actually released. Still, Jane’s notes: ‘In January 2011 Defence Minister Phung Quang Thanh told the 11th National Party Congress that Vietnam's defence budget would increase to VND52 trillion ($2.6 billion) in 2011. The allocated expenditure represents an increase of 70 percent over 2010 spending.’
One of the key concerns for countries like Vietnam are what appear to be China’s expansive claims to most of the South China Sea (with a little intimidation of Vietnamese fishing vessels thrown in for good measure).
Last March, there was speculation that China had explicitly referred to the South China Sea as a ‘core interest’ in the same way it sees Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang. This view was given some additional weight after reporters were briefed following a closed-door meeting between US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and influential Chinese State Councillor Dai Bingguo that Dai had described the South China Sea as ‘a core national interest.’
But according to China military analyst Michael Swaine, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, this information has been misreported. He says:
‘As Beijing sought to limit US interference in territorial disputes in the South China Sea and as tensions rose with its neighbours during 2010, news surfaced that China was for the first time labelling the South China Sea a core interest on par with Taiwan and Tibet. This, however, is a misreading of the facts. Despite news reports to the contrary, China did not explicitly identify the South China Sea as a core interest.’
Still, despite the story making a splash around the world last summer as tensions in the region mounted, China appears to have done little to correct this misunderstanding—if indeed that is what it was. The consequence is some smaller neighbours believing they need to do a little muscle-flexing of their own.