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As China expands its influence in the disputed South China Sea, an arms race has developed among other nations with claims in the area.

China claims most of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer South China Sea as its territory. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims in the waterway. The sea is rich in fisheries and is thought to hold valuable resources such as oil and natural gas.

Since 2010, China has stepped up its military activities in the South China Sea. It has patrolled with coast guard ships and sent its aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, to carry out military drills.

Construction is shown on Fiery Cross Reef, in the Spratly Islands, the disputed South China Sea in this March 9, 2017, satellite image released by CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)

Construction is shown on Fiery Cross Reef, in the Spratly Islands, the disputed South China Sea in this March 9, 2017, satellite image released by CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)

China has also deployed oil rigs and created artificial islands in the disputed sea. Satellite images appear to show the country has also constructed major military facilities on some of the islands. Beijing has defended its activities in the South China Sea. Security experts believe Chinese navy and coast guard expansion will continue.

According to a report by global defense publication IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly, China’s defense budget is estimated to nearly double in 2020 from 2010 levels. The report said that by 2020, China’s military budget is expected to reach $233 billion.

J-15 fighters from China's Liaoning aircraft carrier conduct a drill in an area of South China Sea, January 2, 2017. REUTERS/Mo Xiaoliang

J-15 fighters from China's Liaoning aircraft carrier conduct a drill in an area of South China Sea, January 2, 2017. REUTERS/Mo Xiaoliang

This expansion has caused other countries in the region to build up arms to be able to counter possible Chinese threats. Zack Cooper is with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, or CSIS, a research group based in Washington, D.C.

“Just to keep pace with that Chinese military modernization effort would require tremendous efforts by some of the South China Sea claimant states.”

Overall, defense spending among other states surrounding the South China Sea is estimated to reach $250 billion by 2020, according to Jane’s.

Upgrading arms capability to counter China

In Malaysia, officials announced last November that the Royal Malaysian Navy plans to replace 50 aging vessels to protect its waters from regional threats. There have already been incidents involving Chinese ships entering Malaysian territorial waters.

A Malaysian navy vessel patrols waters near Langkawi Island, on May 16, 2015.

A Malaysian navy vessel patrols waters near Langkawi Island, on May 16, 2015.

Malaysian officials have said the new littoral mission ships can also be used for anti-terrorism operations. Littoral mission ships are smaller vessels designed for conflicts happening closer to shores.

Cooper said it is interesting to note that the first of Malaysia’s new ships will actually be coming from China – the very nation the country could use the vessels against in possible conflicts.

“I think this is highly problematic when you have a country that is worried about activities by another state, and they then go ahead and buy arms from that state. You have some worries about whether major platforms are going to work. That should still be a serious concern I think for Malaysian policymakers.”

One South China Sea claimant with a large incentive to upgrade its military capabilities is Vietnam, according to Cooper.

“The Chinese efforts to reclaim land, at the seven features in the Spratlys, directly threaten a large number of Vietnamese-held features. Plus, the ongoing dispute over resource exploitation near the Paracels is a huge concern for Vietnam.”

Crewmen aboard Vietnam coastguard ship 8003 look at a Chinese navy frigate on a screen, in disputed waters close to the Haiyang Shiyou 981, known in Vietnam as HD-981, oil rig in the South China Sea, July 15, 2014.

Crewmen aboard Vietnam coastguard ship 8003 look at a Chinese navy frigate on a screen, in disputed waters close to the Haiyang Shiyou 981, known in Vietnam as HD-981, oil rig in the South China Sea, July 15, 2014.

Vietnam, along with other regional nations, is looking to cut defense costs and spend less on the military equipment it needs. This reportedly led Hanoi to consider buying surface-to-air missiles from India, which is looking to become a future world player in military exports.

However, most military experts believe it will take years for India to become a large-scale global provider of high-end military equipment. Nations expected to provide new weapons to South China Sea claimants include Japan, South Korea and Australia.

Japan was the country of choice for the Philippines in a deal to lease two TC-90 training aircraft to support its maritime defense forces. The agreement is notable because it is the first transfer of equipment from Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to another country.

A Japan Maritime Self-Defense Forces' TC-90 training aircraft is seen in this undated handout photo released by the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Forces, and obtained by Reuters on August 5, 2015.

A Japan Maritime Self-Defense Forces' TC-90 training aircraft is seen in this undated handout photo released by the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Forces, and obtained by Reuters on August 5, 2015.

The two planes, which reportedly recently arrived in the Philippines, are to be used in surveillance and patrol activities in the South China Sea.

Nuclear threat from North Korea

Another driver of the arms race across Asia is the North Korean nuclear dispute. North Korea has angered its neighbors and much of the world by carrying out a number of recent missile tests.

American forces have already begun deploying the THAAD anti-missile system to South Korea.

But Cooper says if North Korea continues its current path of fast missile and nuclear development, Japan and South Korea may eventually find the need to respond militarily.

“In Japan, you might see some more forceful responses. There’s been a growing debate about strike capability in Japan – basically developing capabilities that would give Japan the ability to respond to a North Korean missile attack. And this is a big change in Japanese defense posture, so it’s something that folks should watch closely.”

In this file photo, Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Mustin transits in formation with Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force ships JS Kirisame and JS Asayuki during bilateral training in the South China Sea, April 21, 2015.

In this file photo, Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Mustin transits in formation with Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force ships JS Kirisame and JS Asayuki during bilateral training in the South China Sea, April 21, 2015.

If approved, the government change would be historic in allowing Japan to strike overseas targets for the first time since World War II. Japan’s ruling party has also urged Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government to take steps to obtain its own missiles to counter North Korean threats.

This would also be a big change for Japan, which in the past has heavily relied on its close ally the United States to protect it. But President Donald Trump has been critical of too much overseas military funding and even threatened to pull U.S. troops out of Japan if Tokyo does not agree to pay more of the costs.

I’m Bryan Lynn.

Bryan Lynn wrote this story for VOA Learning English, based on reports from VOA News, the Associated Press, Reuters and other sources. Hai Do was the editor.

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Words in This Story

littoraladj. relating to something on or near a shore

incentiven. something that encourages a person to do something

exploitation n. using someone or something in an unfair way

maritimeadj. of or related to the sea

surveillancen. act of watching people or activities, especially by police of official agencies

posturen. attitude or feeling a person or group has about a subject

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