Southeast Asia’s Arms Race

The growing interest and involvement of India, China and the United States may well end the relatively benign security landscape that Southeast Asia has enjoyed for the last two decades.

By Brijesh Khemlani for

The Indonesian Defence Minister, Purnomo Yusgiantoro, is on a mission to add more military muscle to the archipelago's ageing armed forces. With a 2011 defence budget of up to $6.3 billion, he envisions several squadrons of the latest Sukhoi fighter aircraft, advanced frigates and submarines, a modernised airlift capability, and a regenerated domestic defence industry. Not wanting to be left behind, the rest of Southeast Asia seems to be following suit.

In the backdrop of an increasingly assertive China and lingering political and territorial disputes, Southeast Asia's imperturbable security environment is witnessing a silent change. A wave of defence acquisitions from Burma to Indonesia has accelerated a regional arms race. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute's Arms Transfers Database, arms deliveries to Southeast Asia nearly doubled from 2005 to 2009 compared to the five preceding years, with weapons deliveries to Malaysia jumping by 722%, Singapore by 146% and Indonesia by 84%. [1]

Singapore has emerged as the first Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) member among the top ten global arms importers since the Cold War. Indonesia has increased its 2011 defence budget to US$6.3 billion, potentially taking military spending beyond the 1% of gross domestic product (GDP) threshold for the first time in years.[2] Vietnam has signed a $3.2 billion dollar deal with Russia for six kilo-class diesel submarines followed by an agreement to purchase twenty long-range Sukhoi-30 fighter jets. Thailand has ordered twelve JAS Gripen fighter jets from Sweden to modernise its ageing air force. Malaysia has just received two Scorpene-class submarines to be stationed at a naval base in Borneo.

An Assertive China

Despite the region's strong economic links with China, the scramble for sophisticated weaponry is driven by the behemoth's breakneck military expansion and claims over the South China Sea. An annual Pentagon report on China's military capabilities highlights growing capabilities of its long-range missiles, naval forces and nuclear arsenal. The burgeoning yet secret military expansion drive has allowed the East Asian giant to expand its power-projection capabilities beyond its borders. Traditionally limited to conducting cross-straits operations, the People's Liberation Army is believed to be building the capacity to conduct military operations beyond Taiwan, including inducting ballistic-missile submarines and building an aircraft carrier, making regional neighbours jittery.

China's claim over the South China Sea is also a considerable irritant for certain ASEAN members. In July, China declared its 'indisputable sovereignty' over the South China Sea and conducted large-scale naval exercises in the waters as a warning to its smaller neighbours.[3] Several ASEAN nations, including Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, Philippines and Indonesia, lay claim to a share of the disputed waters, which are rich in oil and minerals and have witnessed fierce naval duels in the past. In case China's outburst during its spat with Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea in September 2010 is any indicator of things to come, Southeast Asia is bracing for a similarly volatile scenario should tensions escalate in the South China Sea. Intensifying patrols by Chinese ships in the waters have already heightened concerns as states in the region seek to counter this build-up through alliances with other major powers.

Other Players

The region's unpredictable geopolitics has attracted the attention of other regional heavyweights such as the United States and India. After years of political neglect, the US has shifted its attention back to the region with the aim of containing China's growing influence. During the Seventeenth ASEAN Summit in Vietnam in October 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton frayed Chinese nerves by offering to mediate in the heated South China Sea territorial dispute. The most striking element of this renewed American overture includes warming military ties between the US and Vietnam, its Cold War foe. The icing on the cake of this warming bilateral relationship is perhaps the civilian nuclear deal currently being negotiated by US and Vietnamese officials, which would allow the Southeast Asian nation to receive nuclear fuel and technology.

India is also actively courting the region as a part of its 'Look East Policy', increasing trade agreements and military-to-military co-operation with players like Vietnam and Malaysia. While the Indian 'Look East Policy' was originally conceived of to enhance economic and commercial ties with East Asia, it has increasingly assumed a strategic and military dimension to counter the widely-discussed Chinese 'String of Pearls' strategy in the Indian Ocean. The phrase is used to describe China's financing and construction of ports and naval facilities in countries such as Burma, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan - all of which straddle key shipping lanes.

Enjoying robust political ties during the Cold War, Vietnam is a critical lynchpin in India's Southeast Asian policy due to its strategic geopolitical location and historically adversarial relationship with China. In recent years, both New Delhi and Hanoi have intensified their military-to-military co-operation: the Indian armed forces have supplied their Vietnamese counterparts with advanced radar systems, offered repair and maintenance facilities for their common military hardware (of Russian origin), and the two have undertaken various joint-army exercises. This co-operation received a major shot in the arm during Indian Defence Minister A.K Antony's visit to Hanoi during the Asia-Pacific Defence Ministers Meeting in October 2010. In another significant yet under-reported development, the Indian Air Force concluded a two-year training program to train their Malaysian counterparts in operating the Russian-built Sukhoi-30 fighter jets in September 2010. [4]

India's growing presence in the region must also be seen in the context of its deteriorating relations with China over their disputed Himalayan frontiers. Alarmist Indian media reports of growing incursions by People's Liberation Army units into Indian territory, combined with Beijing's decision to issue different stapled visas for residents of Kashmir, have led to increasing diplomatic strains between the two Asian giants. While the recent visit by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to India last month was an attempt to mend bridges and promote trade diplomacy, the joint statement released after the meeting did not reiterate the one-China policy - a major departure from previous such statements and indicative of New Delhi's hardening stance on its larger neighbour. Fearful of Beijing's growing strategic reach and influence in its backyard, New Delhi is on overdrive to woo its smaller Southeast Asian neighbours that share similar concerns about living under the shadow of a rising China.

Regional strategic hedging by ASEAN members has raised several eyebrows in Beijing, where policymakers are largely concerned about an American-led encirclement. A July 2010 editorial in China's Global Times issued a less-than-subtle warning to ASEAN: 'Southeast Asian countries need to understand any attempt to maximise gains by playing a balancing game between China and the US is risky. China's long-term strategic plan should never be taken as a weak stand. China will never waive its right to protect its core interest with military means.'[5] While the possibility of a hot war is remote, the arms procurement drive in Southeast Asia is a signal to China that regional states will be no pushovers when it comes to protecting their strategic interests, further complicating regional security.

Deteriorating Regional Security

The burgeoning arms trade also comes at the expense of ASEAN's relative inability to craft viable security architecture in the region. Political spats, long-running insurgencies and territorial disputes cloud the region's security matrix, fuelling the arms splurge. Locked in an intractable border dispute with Cambodia, Thailand is struggling to contain a six-year insurgency in its southern provinces. Burma continues to ramp up its military arsenal due to multiple ethnic insurrections and the ruling military junta's paranoia over an external invasion. Malaysia and Indonesia are sparring over a fractious maritime frontier with increased tensions over the arrest of three Indonesian fisheries officers by a Malaysian police patrol boat in August 2010. While the region has for decades been dogged by persistent low-level conflicts, the increasing financial muscle and resurgent influence of a powerful military in countries such as Indonesia and Thailand means that additional funds are being diverted to upgrade vintage systems and cope more effectively with localised and regional threats.

The ominous discovery of Burma's nuclear and ballistic missile program has also sent alarm bells ringing throughout the region. While ASEAN has maintained a stony silence over the issue, given the lack of reliable information regarding the nature of Burma's nuclear activities, the unchecked nuclear ambitions of the ruling military junta could alter the regional balance of power and unleash a possible nuclear arms race.

As we enter 2011, the benign security landscape of Southeast Asia looks set to enter a new era of unpredictability. The key to ASEAN's peace and stability lies in its careful management of relations with China and a strong reliance on mutual political dialogue to ease bilateral tensions within the group. At the same time, increasing investment in relations with other regional giants such as India and Japan would also help to balance the growing influence of China. The memories of the tumultuous years of the Cold War are still fresh in the minds of many Southeast Asians. Simmering great-power rivalries and the persistence of internecine tensions and disputes among ASEAN states would only lead to another cycle of destabilising conflict - a scenario that the region can ill-afford to relive.

The view expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI



[1] Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (2010) New SIPRI data on international arms transfers reflect arms race concerns,

[2] Trefor Moss (2010) Jakarta set on military shopping spree, Asia Times Online,

[3] Bloomberg News (2010) China says its South Sea claims are 'indisputable',

[4] Malaysia News.Net (2010) Indian Air Force concludes Sukhoi Su30 training programme for Malaysian pilots,

[5] John Chan (2010) US-China tensions over South China Sea, World Socialist Web Site,

Photo courtesy of Peerapat Wimolrungkarat


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