STATE DEPARTMENT— Asian countries are expanding their navies -- at a time of competing maritime claims over fishing rights and oil prospects. China is leading the way.
China is modernizing its navy with new spending on destroyers, frigates, submarines, and aircraft carriers. But Beijing still has a long way to go, said King's College professor Geoffrey Till.
"The Chinese navy is, if you like, in many ways the new kid on the block facing a very steep learning curve," he said.
Till said anti-piracy operations in East Africa have improved China's long-distance naval capabilities. But it is closer-to-home territorial disputes that most concern U.S. allies. "If China focuses exclusively on the defense of its near seas -- in the East and South China Sea -- it would pose a serious -- "risk" is the wrong word -- but a constraint on the freedom of operation of the U.S. navy in those particular areas," Till explained.
The United States is boosting security spending in the Asia-Pacific -- with the biggest single increase going to the Philippines. Till said it is not yet an Asian arms race, but greater military spending does increase risks. "Any day in the disputed East and South China Sea could easily generate a crisis that turns a mild competition in risk-taking into a full-blown international crisis at sea," Till stated.
Chinese claims in the South China Sea are marked on maps by what Beijing calls a "nine-dashed line."
Johns Hopkins University professor Ruth Wedgwood said Washington could push back harder. "It really is nice to just say "Howdy, Howdy" every so often by cruising through the South China Sea, blundering through those nine dashed lines and urging China to resolve those issues in a legal, neighborly fashion," she said.
President Xi Jinping said China's navy will defend its maritime boundaries. American Enterprise Institute analyst Michael Auslin said Washington's influence here is limited. "The more pressure that's brought to bear I honestly don't think is going to change Beijing but it will make starker the differences in approach," he stated. "And quite frankly, the question Beijing needs to ask not only about the South China Sea but about Japan and the Senkakus [islands disputed with Japan] and about North Korea is: Does it want to be at odds with all of its neighbors?"
Auslin said China is facing a clear choice. "It's got tensions with India. It's got tensions with Russia. It's got tensions with Mongolia," he added. "Is that the world that Xi Jinping wants to inhabit for the next ten years? I don't think so."
He said countries that fear Beijing's navy still want to trade with China -- while they seek greater security cooperation with the United States.