US military resources are being stretched further in the Middle East after tensions with Iran nearly escalated into conflict earlier this month. On January 3, President Trump gave the go ahead for a devastating strike which killed Iran’s most important military figure – Qassem Soleimani. In response, Iran hit Ain al-Assad airbase in Iraq, which many believed were holding US soldiers, with at least 10 ballistic missiles.
While no US soldiers were hurt thanks to pre-strike warnings, the US has nevertheless had to allocate more military resources to the Middle East as the standoff between Tehran and Washington continues to boil.
Meanwhile, another prominent South China Sea rival to China – Australia – has been engulfed by destructive wildfires, destroying more than 300 homes, killing at least 28 people and nearly half a billion animals.
At the beginning of January, the Australian military was called upon to help deal with the crisis.
Around 3,000 army reservists, along with aircraft and naval ships, were made available to help with the evacuation and firefighting efforts.
The scale of the military operation was bigger than any seen in Australia since World War 2, dragging much needed resources away from conventional operations.
With both crises still rumbling on, China could be presented with an opportunity to seize control of the South China Sea at a time when opposition to Beijing in Asia is growing.
The US has not only sent warships through contested waters in recent months, but has also given much needed support to smaller nations such as Vietnam and the Philippines, whom are both looking to dedy Chinese Navy encroachment.
The US has used the Philippines as a platform from which to stake its own claim in the region as Washington tries to aid smaller nations from further encroachment.
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A Chinese oil survey vessel that had been embroiled in a tense, three-month standoff with Vietnamese vessels in the South China Sea left contested waters in October.
While smaller nations have been boosted by US efforts to stop Chinese aggression, the situation in the Middle East has become a priority for President Trump.
This means that military assistance from Washington could become less dependable, allowing the heavily armed Chinese Navy to become more ambitious in the South China Sea.