The United States is reportedly set to send its largest aircraft carrier to Asia in which may be an indication of the deepening threat of an armed conflict in one of the world’sbusiest shipping lanes. According to US Navy Rear Admiral John Alexander the USS Ronald Reagan is due to arrive in “later in the fall” to become the new flagship of the American carrier group based in Yokosuka, Japan. The aircraft carrier is considered to be a “floating US Air Base” because of its immense size and capacity, being able to carry sixty five warplanes at the same time.
With Beijing claiming almost the entire South China Sea, the move is expected to escalate tension in an area that has for years been considered as a potential flashpoint due to overlapping claims by several countries that border the rich and strategic maritime region. Aside from China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan claims all or part of the South China Sea.
China’s aggressive moves in the disputed area in the past few years has pressured neighboring countries to adopt a more vigorous defense policy aimed at rapid modernization of their respective armed forces. The creation of several artificial islands by Beijing has prompted Southeast Asian governments to increase their defense spending, which, according to IHS Janes Defense Weekly, will most likely reach $52 billion by 2020.
“As their capabilities rise in the maritime space expands, it means the range and lethality of (Southeast Asian) strike forces will also increase. If there is a confrontation, and it escalates, there is a potential for a more lethal conflict,” warns Tim Huxley, executive director of the International Institute of Strategic Studies in Asia.
In addition to the geopolitics, the problem of piracy and human trafficking has become another critical issue among the countries in the South China Sea area. With virtually porous maritime borders, Southeast Asian countries have perennially dealt with the problem of human smuggling, illegal trading and marauding. With the recent influx of Rohingya refugees loaded in boats into Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia, the demand for tighter maritime patrols has become all the more compelling.