SINGAPORE Oct 8 Indonesia is buying submarines
from South Korea and coastal radar systems from China and the
United States. Vietnam is getting submarines and combat jets
from Russia, while Singapore - the world's fifth-largest weapons
importer - is adding to its sophisticated arsenal.
Wary of China and flush with economic success, Southeast
Asia is ramping up spending on military hardware to protect the
shipping lanes, ports and maritime boundaries that are vital to
the flow of exports and energy.
Territorial disputes in the South China Sea, fuelled by the
promise of rich oil and gas deposits, have prompted Vietnam,
Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei to try to offset China's
growing naval power.
Even for those away from that fray, maritime security has
been a major focus for Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore.
"Economic development is pushing them to spend money on
defence to protect their investments, sea lanes and exclusive
economic zones," said James Hardy, Asia Pacific editor of IHS
Jane's Defence Weekly. "The biggest trend is in coastal and
maritime surveillance and patrol."
As Southeast Asia's economies boomed, defence spending grew
42 percent in real terms from 2002 to 2011, data from the
Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) shows.
High on the list are warships, patrol boats, radar systems
and combat planes, along with submarines and anti-ship missiles
that are particularly effective in denying access to sea lanes.
"Submarines are a big thing," said Tim Huxley, executive
director for Asia at the International Institute for Strategic
Studies. "They can do immense damage without being seen, without
being anticipated, and they can do that anywhere in the region."
For decades, much of Southeast Asia spent little on weapons
other than guns and small tanks. Most threats were internal and
the umbrella of U.S. protection was deemed enough to ward off
any potential aggression from overseas.
With China's growing muscle and more funds available, the
shopping lists are getting more sophisticated. Most countries in
the region are littoral, so the emphasis is on sea and air-based
Malaysia has two Scorpene submarines and Vietnam is buying
six Kilo-class submarines from Russia. Thailand also plans to
buy submarines and its Gripen warplanes from Sweden's Saab AB
will eventually be fitted with Saab's RBS-15F
anti-ship missiles, IISS says.
Singapore has invested in F-15SG combat jets from Boeing Co
in the United States and two Archer-class submarines from
Sweden to supplement the four Challenger submarines and powerful
surface navy and air force it already has.
Indonesia, a vast nation of islands with key sea lanes and
54,700 km (34,000 miles) of coastline, has two submarines now
and ordered three new ones from South Korea. It is also working
with Chinese firms on manufacturing C-705 and C-802 anti-ship
missiles after test-firing a Russian-built Yakhont anti-ship
missile in 2011.
While it is not an arms race, analysts say, the build-up is
being driven by events in the South China Sea, long-standing
squabbles between neighbours and a desire to modernise while
governments have the money.
Piracy, illegal fishing, smuggling, terrorism and disaster
relief also play their parts, along with keeping the influential
military happy in places such as Thailand and Indonesia.
There is a "general sense of strategic uncertainty in the
region" given China's rise and doubts about the U.S. ability to
sustain a military presence in Asia, said Ian Storey, a senior
fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
"Southeast Asian countries will never be able to match
China's defence modernisation," he said, citing Vietnam's push
for a deterrent. "If the Chinese did attack the Vietnamese, at
least the Vietnamese could inflict some serious damage."
SIPRI says Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand took
the lead in boosting their defence budgets by between 66 and 82
percent from 2002 to 2011.
But the region's biggest spender with the best-equipped
military is Singapore, a tiny island that is home to the world's
second-busiest container port, a global financial centre and a
major hub for oil, gas and petrochemicals.
The wealthy city-state, along with Malaysia and Indonesia,
sits on the Strait of Malacca that links the Pacific and Indian
oceans. A teeming shipping route, the strait is also a narrow
"choke point" with huge strategic implications for the energy,
raw materials and finished goods flowing east and west.
At $9.66 billion, Singapore's 2011 defence budget dwarfed
Thailand's $5.52 billion, Indonesia's $5.42 billion, Malaysia's
$4.54 billion and Vietnam's $2.66 billion, IISS says.
The situation is far less intense than in North Asia where
China, Japan, the United States, Russia and the two Koreas are
involved. But Southeast Asia seems to be following the trend of
pursuing military systems that can be used offensively.
"It's an indefinite process," said Huxley at IISS.
"Governments are likely to go on devoting resources - that are
increasing in real terms - to defence and military
Official data on the amount and purpose of the spending is
often opaque - how much goes to boots, bullets and salaries and
how much to advanced hardware that can project power?
The defence spending figures also may not tell the full
story. Countries such as Vietnam and Indonesia have used credit
arrangements or the sale of energy exploration rights in the
past to fund arms imports that did not appear in the defence
budget, analysts say.
"Vietnam has stopped reporting defence and security budgets
as part of its budget reporting, leaving a suspicious gap
between total budgeted expenditure and the sum of the reported
spending areas," said Samuel Perlo-Freeman, director of SIPRI's
Military Expenditure and Arms Production Programme.
BUYING AND BUILDING
With defence budgets in many Western nations under pressure,
Asia is attractive for makers of weapons, communications gear
and surveillance systems. Lockheed Martin and Boeing's
defence division both expect the Asia-Pacific region to
contribute about 40 percent of international revenues.
"The maritime environment in the Pacific has everybody's
attention," Jeff Kohler, a vice president at Boeing Defence,
said at the Singapore Airshow in February.
Vietnam got 97 percent of its major weapons - including
frigates, combat planes and Bastion coastal missile systems -
from Russia in 2007-11 but is looking to diversify by talking to
the Netherlands and the United States, SIPRI says.
The Philippines, which relies on the United States for 90
percent of its weapons, plans $1.8 billion in upgrades over five
years as it sees a growing threat from China over the South
China Sea squabble.
The focus is on the country's naval and air forces that
analyst Sam Bateman sees as "rather deficient".
"The particular requirement of the Philippines is air
surveillance," said Bateman, principal research fellow at the
Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security.
Anti-submarine capabilities are a priority, a Philippine
defence department planner told Reuters.
Thailand, whose military has staged 18 successful or
attempted coups since 1932, has built a patrol vessel designed
by Britain's BAE Systems. It plans to modernise one
frigate and, within five years, buy the first of two new ones.
"We are not saying these will replace submarines but we are
hoping that they can be equally valuable to Thailand," defence
ministry spokesman Thanathip Sawangsaeng told Reuters.
Singapore buys mostly from the United States, France and
Germany but also has its own defence industry, centred on ST
Engineering. The state-owned group supplies the
Singapore Armed Forces and has many customers abroad.
"Most countries are either interested in or actively
pursuing their own domestic arms industry," said Storey.
"It's cheaper than buying from overseas, long-term they're
looking at developing their own export markets and, certainly
this is true for Indonesia, it insulates them from sanctions
from countries like the United States."
(Additional reporting by Neil Chatterjee in JAKARTA, Rosemarie
Francisco and Manny Mogato in MANILA and Martin Petty and Amy
Sawitta Lefevre in BANGKOK; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)