With bases, discord in the South China Sea

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption Eight of the 10 Asian members of the ASEAN group of nations want to build military bases and boost their conventional arms

There are fears that the willingness of Asian nations to move military bases closer to each other is leading to an increase in tensions.

Eight of the 10 Asian members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) want to build bases and boost their conventional arms.

But ASEAN has not been an ideal organisation, whose members have tended to speak with one voice when they are at loggerheads.

There are now two armed camps: ASEAN camps – with ASEAN taking the lead on regional defence policy – and the rest of the region – with China likely to see its rise in military presence as an opportunity to build up its grip.

China has shown little concern for territorial claims in the South China Sea – where 11 of the ASEAN countries are involved.

“There is not much concern from China’s point of view, because you have the ASEAN and the US at loggerheads, saying everything is status quo quo,” says Francisco Jow, Associate Dean of the National University of Singapore’s school of international studies.

There are fears that the region could evolve into a powder keg, he adds.

“Most of these countries are not so keen to military build-up but maybe they have too much to lose to simply ignore it, and I think they are going to face a serious crisis one day.”

Can ASEAN keep it together?

Cambodia and Myanmar have already started to build military bases – and Laos has a pre-fabricated building on its soil.

Arms building has expanded in Thailand – and some analysts believe it is due to China’s growing influence.

Previously ASEAN members took their cues from the US, says Mr Jow.

But “China and the US are very different entities and I think they each realise that they need a regional organisation to understand the common concerns and challenges that they face”.

Image copyright AFP Image caption Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is building an air base near the border with Vietnam

ASEAN is working towards making its members and the Chinese government aware of the threats they face.

On 9 October, Secretary-General Le Luong Minh of the group held talks with Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing, where he discussed how the region can maintain a balance between security and economic cooperation.

At the summit in August, the group agreed to keep a close eye on China’s ambition to develop its artificial islands and navy bases.

On 10 October, ASEAN holds its annual meeting in Manila, where one of the main agenda items will be militarisation, amid fears that China is creating a military base across the South China Sea.

The Philippines, Vietnam and other ASEAN nations have brought their claims to the court of the Philippines.

The court ruled in May that China’s territorial claims were illegal, but this was not the first time the dispute has been used as an excuse for war.

So far there is no concrete evidence of aggression, but several countries are wary of the new Chinese presence.

One of the more anticipated topics of the meeting will be the 10 ASEAN members’ intentions in relation to their defence policies.

Meanwhile the warning that tensions were likely to worsen was reinforced when the White House said on Monday that it was taking a “very aggressive posture” against China in the region.

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