My argument thus far presupposes that major warfare will not break out in the area and that instead countries will be content to jockey for position with their warships on the high seas, while making competing claims for natural resources and perhaps even agreeing to a fair distribution of them. But what if China were, against all evidential trends, to invade Taiwan? What if China and Vietnam, whose intense rivalry reaches far back into history, go to war as they did in 1979, with more lethal weaponry this time? For it isn’t just China that is dramatically building its military; Southeast Asian countries are as well. Their defense budgets have increased by about a third in the past decade, even as European defense budgets have declined. Arms imports to Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia have gone up 84 percent, 146 percent, and 722 percent, respectively, since 2000. The spending is on naval and air platforms: surface warships, submarines with advanced missile systems, and long-range fighter jets. Vietnam recently spent $2 billion on six state-of-the-art Kilo-class Russian submarines and $1 billion on Russian fighter jets. Malaysia just opened a submarine base on Borneo. While the United States has been distracted by land wars in the greater Middle East, military power has been quietly shifting from Europe to Asia.
The United States presently guarantees the uneasy status quo in the South China Sea, limiting China’s aggression mainly to its maps and serving as a check on China’s diplomats and navy (though this is not to say that America is pure in its actions and China automatically the villain). What the United States provides to the countries of the South China Sea region is less the fact of its democratic virtue than the fact of its raw muscle. It is the very balance of power between the United States and China that ultimately keeps Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia free, able to play one great power off against the other. And within that space of freedom, regionalism can emerge as a power in its own right, in the form of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Yet, such freedom cannot be taken for granted. For the tense, ongoing standoff between the United States and China — which extends to a complex array of topics from trade to currency reform to cybersecurity to intelligence surveillance — threatens eventually to shift in China’s favor in East Asia, largely due to China’s geographical centrality to the region.