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Asians talk of peace, haggle over arms

The annual Asia Security Conference, a forum for discussion, brought together some of the world’s main arms-makers with military chiefs nervously eyeing their neighbors’ moves and looking to upgrade defenses in a region full of long-running insurgencies, potential maritime disputes and growing wealth.

Japan's Defence Minister Yasukazu Hamada speaks during the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Shangri-La Dialogue security conference in Singapore May 30, 2009. REUTERS/Vivek Prakash

“Defense suppliers find it very important to be here to make a set of contacts,” said Jonathan Pollack, professor of Asian and Pacific Studies at the U.S. Naval War College.

Japan’s defense minister told the gathering that the country, anxious about North Korea’s latest nuclear test, would not strike first but it was still looking to boost its air force with Lockheed Martin F-22 fighter jets.

Top executives from firms such as Boeing, the Pentagon’s No.2 defense supplier, flew to Singapore to rub shoulders with potential clients, as they look to expand foreign sales at a time when the Obama government is starting to cap defense project spending.

“In the event that I’m meeting with any defense suppliers, it will be the last I’ll be speaking to you,” Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama told Reuters, fresh from a military success that ended a two-decade old Tamil Tiger insurgency.


Boeing’s defense chief Jim Albaugh told a briefing he saw growing Asian demand for air and naval forces as the region looks to protect its trade and territory.

Boeing met with India’s top military official Vijay Singh at one of the hotel’s private conference rooms, but the meeting was brief, and Singh later met with Britain’s BAE Systems.

Boeing may not have had much luck, as Cambodia’s Defense Minister Tea Banh told Reuters he also met Boeing but was not buying anything for now.

Boeing is vying for a $10 billion Indian contract for warplanes, one of the world’s biggest arms deals, together with Lockheed, Saab, Russia and a European consortium.

India plans to spend more than $30 billion over the next five years to modernize its largely Soviet-era weapons systems. China is spending 15 percent more on its military budget this year, leading to fears among some of an Asian arms race.

“What you do see in the region is a reaction between the military programs of certain countries,” said Tim Huxley, executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the conference’s organizer. “There are many players, each of which is looking over their shoulders.”

Indonesia, hoping to update its hardware, spoke at the meeting to U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates about buying Lockheed C-130 transport planes, and told Reuters it could be in a financial position in 2-3 years to buy jets and submarines.

The world’s fourth-most populous nation aims to raise its defense spending to 1.2 percent of GDP within five years, from 0.68 percent or $3.3 billion now, its defense minister said.

Indonesia’s southern neighbor Australia this month released a blueprint for a $72 billion military upgrade, though its defense minister told the conference spending was “rather modest” when looking across the region.

Australia’s Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was asked at the meeting if the defense plan clashed with his vision for a regional security architecture and EU-style community, and replied countries had to pursue that and a defense build-up.

“The chance of conflict can never be ruled out,” Rudd said.

Additional reporting by Candida Ng and Harry Suhartono; Writing by Neil Chatterjee; Editing by bill Tarrant