//Southeast Asia's growing arms race

Southeast Asia's growing arms race

By Hideaki Kaneda, Monday, Jun 12, 2006,

Southeast Asia's return to prosperity since the financial crisis of 1997 has brought a region-wide splurge on new weapons. Most Southeast Asian countries are now busily modernizing their armed forces. So far, most have done so without compromising their autonomy. But, with China's military build-up causing nervousness everywhere, many governments in the region are starting to work with outside powers.
Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has perhaps been the most assertive. In addition to becoming more active in world diplomacy, Yudhoyono will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow this month to discuss buying Russia's newest fighter jets. Indonesia is seeking to form an air-defense squadron of 12 jets, with eight Russian fighters to complement the two Russian Su-27SK's and Su-30MKM's that it already has.

Elsewhere in the region, Singapore has apparently opted to purchase 12 new F-15SG fighter aircraft from the US. Thailand's Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, met Putin late last year and tentatively agreed to purchase 12 Su-30MKM's. Malaysia has agreed to buy 18 SU-30MKM's over the next two years, while Vietnam has purchased 36 SU-27SK's.

With the exception of Singapore, it seems that Russian fighter-attack aircraft are the region's weapon of choice at the moment. Russia's growing slice of the local arms market worries the US, the world's biggest weapons supplier and still Asia's greatest military power. Last November, the US lifted its six-year embargo on military sales to Indonesia, imposed in 1999 in response to human rights abuses in East Timor. Indonesia immediately expressed its intention to purchase C-130 transport aircraft, as well as fast patrol boats to conduct "anti-terrorism and anti-piracy measures."

Yet Indonesia is also trying to align itself with Asia's rising power, China, by seeking greater defense and security cooperation. As a result of these improved relations, Indonesia has received Chinese short-range missile technology.

The possibility that Southeast Asia's governments might begin to play America and China off against each other is one of the concerns that most animates the latest US quadrennial defense review, which is intended to "focus on the Pacific Ocean" in awareness of China's growing naval power. Undoubtedly, the US will try to build closer ties with Indonesia through greater military cooperation, because Indonesia borders the region's key sea lines of communications.

Indonesia will inevitably become involved in the tug of war between the US and China for influence over the vitally important Malacca Strait. Because China must import vast quantities of oil through the Malacca Strait, that sea lane has become a central element in the country's security strategy. For this reason, China is attempting to use economic and military aid as leverage to improve relations even with countries with which it has had military confrontations with in the past, most prominently Vietnam and the Philippines.

India, too, is now joining the military build-up. It has actively led regional multilateral joint exercises, such as the naval joint exercise that India's navy hosted in the Andaman Sea, in the eastern Indian Ocean, earlier this year. Nine Asian-Pacific countries took part, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.

Both India and China are each seeking greater influence over the strategically important country of Myanmar. After Myanmar signed an agreement with China in 2005 to supply natural gas, India responded by cutting its own gas deal with Myanmar.

South Korea, too, has joined the scramble. President Roh Moo-hyun visited Malaysia and agreed to expand mutual economic cooperation mainly in information technology, biotechnology and resources and energy.

In this crowded power play, only Japan is left out, choosing for the most part to remain aloof and cultivate its relations with the US. But, despite deep historical animosity over World War II, there are increasing calls in the region for Japan to expand its influence to counterbalance China. In reality, Japan is not ready for this, because it still strongly adheres to "self-imposed restraints."

In the 1960's, Japan initiated a serious dialogue with regional players, aiming to build stronger relations with countries that it had once conquered and occupied. It is no overstatement to say that those efforts, which boosted trade and investment in the region, formed the foundation of Japan's national power today. But now Japan's political and economic influence in South East Asia is gradually declining, owing in part to its failure to exert influence over security and defense matters.

For those Asian countries that recall Japan's moderate and sensible advancement of regional policies in the 1960's, there is a growing expectation that Japan should re-think its stance. At a time of regional uncertainty about Chinese policies — including the looming prospect of China's first aircraft carrier — Japan's participation in the evolving Asian security framework is fundamental to stability.

Hideaki Kaneda, a retired Vice Admiral of Japan's Self Defense Forces, is Director of the Okazaki Institute in Tokyo.

Copyright: Project Syndicate