South China Sea rivals compared by Global Times
The threats posed to China by each of the other claimants in the territorial disputes over the South China Sea were outlined in an analysis piece in China's nationalistic tabloid Global Times, run by the Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily.
Over the last year China has engaged in prolonged standoffs and clashes with the Philippines and Vietnam and the rich underwater resources that the region is believed to possess will likely see each claimant build up a substantial military infrastructure to protect their claims over the next few years. The paper listed the threats posed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei; as China does not acknowledge Taiwan's sovereignty over itself, not to mention over islands in the South China Sea, Taiwan was conspicuously absent from the list. Taipei officially shares the same claim over the whole of the South China Sea as Beijing does and holds the Pratas islands in addition to Taiping, the largest natural island in the Spratly islands.
Vietnam: Military build-up on nine islands
From the early 1970s to the early 1990s, Vietnam occupied 29 islands and reefs in the Spratlys and strengthened their defensive infrastructure in the region.
Vietnam has used two defensive strategies. The first is to set up defensive positions comprising habitable and permanent defensive structures which can also serve in battle, forming a strategic defensive infrastructure. The second is establishing military outposts and guard houses on stilts, to widen the area of defense. The former are concentrated on nine islands and reefs including Spratly Island and Southwest Cay. The living conditions in these bases are reasonably comfortable, so more soldiers are stationed there. The islands of Spratly and Namyit are the core defensive strongholds of the Vietnamese army in the South China Sea.
Vietnam has 2,200 soldiers stationed in the Spratlys mainly armed with guns, tanks, anti-tank missiles and dynamic armed helicopters, but they do not have any ground-to-ship missiles, due to the complicated support system and permanent firing structure that they require which none of the islands can facilitate.
A photo set featured in the Hanoi-based Vietnam Pictorial shows nine of the main nine islands and reefs administered by Vietnam have 23mm anti-aircraft guns; six of them have 37mm anti-aircraft guns, five have 85mm cannons and two of them have 122mm howitzers and 130mm cannons; six of the islands have Russian made T-54/55 medium tanks, four have the Russian-made PT-76 amphibious light tank, totaling around 120 guns and 60 medium tanks. On Spratly Island and Namyit Island the Vietnamese army have a 122mm howitzer battalion, an 85mm cannon company, an 130mm cannon company, two to three 23mm or 37mm anti-aircraft gun companies and a tank company. Military helicopters can take off from and land on at least five of the islands and reefs.
From this configuration it is likely that when attacked Vietnam will make use of its large-caliber artillery to engage enemy warships in a long-range gunfight. The 130mm cannon has a range of 27 kilometers, a similar range to the gun on China's destroyers. The range of guns deployed by the Vietnamese troops is in preparation for long-distance, medium range and close-range defense against landing troops. To take Spratly as an example, the island has four guns with a range of over 16km, 21 guns with a range over 14km, 31 guns with a range of over 10km and 48 guns with a range of over 2km. The army can also make use of its helicopters to launch air attacks.
In addition to the nine larger islands, the Vietnamese army also has guard posts stationed at islands and reefs that are more vulnerable to attack, but these usually consist of a makeshift concrete or shacks on stilts with soldiers only armed with individual weapons.
Several special units of the Vietnamese army are said to have trained in amphibious warfare in the Spratlys and the 126th rapid response battalion, set up in 2005, is said to be Vietnam's answer to the US Navy Seals.
The Philippines: Cannot sustain low intensity warfare
The Philippines is relatively weak in terms of its economy and military power and its strategy in the region is different. Currently the Philippines administers eight islands in the region, including Thitu Island and Nanshan Island. Thitu is the second-largest island in the Spratlys and hundreds of Philippine civilians live there in addition to 40 soldiers. Conflicting reports put the total number of Philippine soldiers stationed on the islands at anywhere from 60-200.
The first group of civilians were sent to live on Thitu in 2001. The island has a town hall, a school, a clinic, a military barracks, a water treatment plant, a deep well, a small jetty, a 1,300m runway, a telecommunications base, an electricity generator and some greenhouses. There are flights between Thitu and Puerto Princesa in the Philippines.
On other islands, such as West York and Northeast Cay, the Philippines has only built a few simple structures and some islands, such as Flat Island and Lankiam Cay, are extremely small, so the army has erected a 10m tall watch tower on Nanshan and Loaita islands to watch over these islands with the naked eye, so troops are not actually stationed on them.
A documentary aired by Philippine TV station GMA7 described the daily lives of soldiers posted to the South China Sea islands. According to the documentary, there are four soldiers currently posted to Nanshan. A simple wooden structure has been erected on the island and army ships visit every month to bring fresh supplies and to change personnel. The four guards are armed with M-16 rifles and hand grenades.
In May, a high-ranking Philippine army officer told Japan's Kyodo News that the country plans to deploy two coast guard patrol boats and two surveillance craft to Thitu; as well as deploying permanent patrol boats to Nanshan and Commodore Reef; and establishing a Spratlys group (Kalayaan) army task force. The Philippine officer also said that the country plans to renovate the airport on Thitu and its bases and observation stations on Nanshan. In October, however, Manila announced that it had called a temporary halt to its renovation work on the islands in order not to influence an arbitration judgment which is still pending.
The Philippines is unlikely to be able to maintain even low-intensity warfare in the region, however. The army and the air force are mostly concerned with maintaining order domestically and tackling guerrilla fighters, while the navy is tasked with maintaining the country's territorial claims in the South China Sea. The Philippines has three main naval bases in Cavite, San Vicente and Mactan in Cebu and the majority of its warships and marine corps are located in the west of the country, bordering the South China Sea — or the West Philippine Sea, as Manila redesignated it relatively recently. According to a defense expert cited by the paper, though the Philippines has spent a large sum on modernizing the army it is still incapable of facing off against China.
Malaysia: Long-term military deployments on five islands
After engaging in military exercises with Australia, New Zealand, the UK and Singapore in August 1983, Malaysia sent marines to occupy the disputed Swallow Reef and has administered it since then. In 1986 the country also took over the administration of Mariveles Reef and Ardasier Reef and in May 1999 it took control of Investigator Shoal and Erica Reef.
Malaysia has opened a resort on Swallow Reef and has built an airport there. Currently Malaysia has just over 100 soldiers stationed on five islands and reefs, mostly at Lima Naval Station on Swallow Reef, Uniform Naval Station on the Ardasier Reef and Mike Naval Station on the Mariveles Reef.
Malaysia at one time occupied Louisa Reef, which is claimed by Brunei, but later quietly retreated from the island. Malaysia has placed emphasis on infrastructure in recent years, importing 18 MiG-29 fighters from Russia and 32 US-made F-18 Hornet and F-15 Eagle fighters, as well as buying 54 new naval vessels. Malaysia is also building up its submarine fleet, buying two Scorpene-class attack submarines and a decommissioned French Agosta-class submarine.
In its 2014 defense report, UK-based Jane's Defence Weekly stated that Malaysia is modernizing its navy. In October a Malaysian leader stated that the Royal Malaysian Air Force Butterworth base was transferring an F-16 Falcon fighter to Labuan island, to put it within closer range of Malaysia's claims in the region.
Brunei: No military presence
After Brunei declared independence in 1984, it declared sovereignty over the Louisa Reef. Brunei bought three coastal patrol boats in 1994 after China claimed the island as part of its territorial waters and then bought fighters from the UK. Although Brunei administers Louisa Reef it has no military presence on the island, or in the entire South China Sea.
Brunei has a small-scale military, owing to its small land mass and small population, so it does not present much of a threat to other claimants in the region, the paper said.
Li Mingjiang, an expert on South China Sea relations at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University's Rajaratnam School of International Studies, stated that in terms of infrastructure and weaponry Vietnam is the biggest threat to China in the South China Sea, followed by Malaysia and then the Philippines.
Li Mingjiang 李明江