In May the world was jolted to learn that China sank Vietnamese vessels that were trying to stop Beijing from putting an oil rig in the South China Sea (SCS). Along with its vast reserves of untapped natural gas, the South China Sea is also important as a shipping route. The Republic of Korea (ROK), a rising regional power and close economic partner to China, has a vested interest in any conflict in the SCS. South Korea’s economic growth strategy in the last decade has been heavily export oriented, and currently, exports account for over half of the country’s GDP. This increased dependence on exports has affected the ROK-China relationship. Last year, China accounted for over a quarter of South Korea’s total exports.
From China’s perspective, its biggest challenge is not dealing with its nearest neighbors, but rather the international community that has come to support these smaller nations. With a $122 billion budget in 2013, China is only second behind the U.S. in defense expenditures. An unchecked China could easily overpower its neighboring countries that have considerably weaker defense systems, and the recent attack on the Vietnam vessels is a clear example of this case. However, such increasingly violent interactions could trigger an armed conflict, which would potentially draw in relatively unrelated, yet more powerful nations, such as the United States, through its military commitments to the Philippines.