MANILA — The Philippines and Vietnam each received warships Tuesday to beef up their navies as they face tensions with China about disputed islands, raising the prospect of an escalating arms race in the South China Sea.
The two Southeast Asian nations also are shopping for additional military assets, including submarines for Vietnam and air defense radar for the Philippines, as the impoverished nations try to gain leverage with their huge northern neighbor while staying within their budgets.
The Philippines has turned to second-hand U.S. hardware: A decommissioned U.S. Coast Guard cutter was formally unveiled Tuesday in Manila's port as the most modern vessel in the dilapidated Philippine fleet.
Vietnam, meanwhile, received its second new Russian-made guided missile cruiser in the Cam Ranh naval port on Monday, state media reported.
The two countries are at loggerheads with China over disputed Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea, which Beijing claims in its entirety on historical grounds.
Authorities in Manila and Hanoi repeatedly have accused Chinese vessels this year of interfering with their oil and gas explorations and harassing fishermen within their 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zones.
Beijing has named the South China Sea one of its "core interests," meaning it could potentially go to war to protect it. Last week, it launched sea tests of its first aircraft carrier, a refurbished former Soviet vessel.
Along with aircraft carriers, China's navy is adding advanced submarines, including those equipped with nuclear weapons, along with new destroyers and amphibious assault ships.
China's fisheries surveillance and coast guard are benefiting, too, from new vessels and greater funding, making them increasingly important players in regional disputes.
In July, China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which includes the Philippines and Vietnam, agreed to work toward a formal code of behavior in waters straddling about 100 Spratly islets, reefs and atolls and one of the world's busiest ship lanes.
China previously has rejected such a formal mechanism, preferring to deal with individual countries where its sheer size, economic clout and growing military strength give it an advantage.
China's defense budget has steadily increased to become the world's second highest after the U.S., spending $91.5 billion last year and fielding a military vastly superior to those of any of its Southeast Asian neighbors.
"Even if we are three times more prepared than we are now, we [would be] defeated because China ... can blow us out of the water easily," said security analyst Rex Robles, a retired Philippine navy commodore.
He said an arms race in the region is counterproductive because if hostilities erupted, every side stands to lose, especially economically.
"If war breaks out there, China's development will also be stunted," he told the Associated Press. "China's resources are quite huge, but maybe not enough to sustain a war there."
The Philippines, a U.S. defense treaty partner, is relying on Washington to help modernize its aging fleet, which includes many World War II vessels, one of which is among the oldest active warships in the world.