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A balancing act

Interview: Shamil ShamsAugust 19, 2014

Southeast Asian nations are investing in their defense sector in what experts say is partly a response to tensions with China. SIPRI analysts tell DW that these countries can no longer rely on external military support.

Militärmanöver US Philippinen 30.06.2014
Image: Reuters

Tensions with China over the disputed territories in the South China Sea have spurred a number of Southeast Asian countries to boost their defense industries and decrease their dependence on US and European arms suppliers. Data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) shows that Southeast Asia's defense budget rose five percent to 35.9 billion USD in 2013 and is expected to grow to 40 billion USD by 2016. SIPRI says the region's defense spending has more than doubled since 1992.

Experts also say that Southeast Asian countries feel that a strong home defense industry is a long-term economic and security goal. But will that be able to keep China at bay? Analysts at SIPRI say in a DW interview that although the enhancement of the defense sector is a normal process, it could get out of hand in a region with a weak culture of solving international tensions through negotiations.

Logo Friedensforschungsinstitut SIPRI
Stockholm International Peace Research Institute

DW: Why do Southeast Asian nations feel the need to enhance their militaries?

There is considerable variation amongst the Southeast (SE) Asian nations in the rates of increase of their military spending, and so are the reasons for it. The countries with the largest increases in military spending in recent years in SE Asia are Vietnam (an increase of 113 percent in real terms from 2004-2013), Cambodia (105 percent), Indonesia (99 percent) and Thailand (85 percent).

Of these, only Vietnam's increase is clearly a response to China's growing military power and actions in the South China Sea. China and Vietnam have had brief outbreaks of armed conflict in the South China Sea in the past, and there has been an increase in tensions between them in recent years. Vietnam's purchase of six Kilo-class submarines from Russia, amongst other purchases, is clearly about strengthening their naval capabilities vis-à-vis China.

Cambodia and Thailand are not parties to the South China Sea disputes, and indeed Cambodia is a Chinese ally. They have had their own border dispute in recent years which has seen outbreaks of conflict, and this is probably the major driving force behind their spending increases. The 2006 military coup in Thailand also saw an acceleration in Thai military spending. It remains to be seen if the latest coup will have a similar effect. In any case, this dynamic is completely unrelated to China.

Indonesia tends to portray itself as an honest broker in the region, proclaiming good relations with all, including China. China's claims in the South China Sea do overlap Indonesia's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), but there have been much less tensions in that relationship than between China and Vietnam or the Philippines. Other countries in the region, such as Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan have made only very modest increases in their military spending in recent years.

A Chinese ship, left, shoots water cannon at a Vietnamese vessel, right, while a Chinese Coast Guard ship, center, sails alongside in the South China Sea, off Vietnam's coast, Wednesday, May 7, 2014 (AP Photo/Vietnam Coast Guard)
SIPRI experts: 'Most observers thnk that relying exclusively on the US for regional security would be a mistake'Image: picture alliance/AP Photo

Is there an imminent threat from China?

There has been increased assertiveness by China in the South China Sea (SCS), and an increasing number of incidents between Chinese naval and paramilitary vessels and shipping from other countries, and as noted, one case where China has effectively taken control of disputed territory from another country, namely the Scarborough Shoal.

China's "9-dashed line" claim to virtually all of the waters of the South China Sea as well as the islands therein has become an increasingly firm policy, as exemplified by putting the claim in a map on new Chinese passports. This is clearly highly concerning to other countries in the region, most particularly Vietnam and the Philippines with whom the territorial disputes, in particular in relation to potential resource exploration rights, are most acute.

That said, there is no evidence that China has any interest in armed conflict in the region, which could have disastrous economic consequences. More likely is that they will continue to use their overwhelming preponderance in military capability in the region to try to establish "facts on the water" and gain effective control of more of the disputed areas.

In response, countries in the region are pursuing a number of avenues: boosting their own military capabilities, most obviously in the case of Vietnam; seeking stronger relations with the US, as the Philippines is doing, although it is not clear that the US would come to the Philippines' aid over the disputed SCS territories.

Do these SE Asian countries have enough resources to boost their military capabilities?

Vietnam's economy has been growing very strongly in recent years, at 7 percent a year for many years, though that has slowed to 5-6 percent in the last few years. In spite of the rapid increase in their military spending, the share of GDP devoted to the military has only increased a little, from 2 percent to 2.3 percent from 2004-2013, and has actually fallen slightly since 2007. So their spending is not getting to levels yet that would seriously stretch their resources. That said, they cannot compete with China's militarily, although they are seeking asymmetric capabilities to seek to deter any potential attack by China, increasing its cost.

The Philippines is also enjoying strong economic growth, and its share of military spending in GDP - 1.3 percent - is quite low, and has been steady at about that level since 2005, having previously fallen significantly from the mid-1990s. The Philippines could therefore have considerable scope to increase their military spending if they so choose. However, they are still a relatively poor country with considerable social needs and, unlike Vietnam, they are a democracy which must to some extent respond to the demands of its people, and higher military spending may thus not necessarily be a top priority. Typhoon Haiyan also created acute needs for rebuilding.

To what extent can these countries still rely on US military support?

At the global level, both the region's stability and the uninterrupted use of vital trade routes still rely on US security guarantees and its military presence. However, longstanding competing territorial and sovereignty claims, such as those over the South China Sea, and what is largely perceived as increased Chinese assertiveness and use of military on these issues are increasing tensions and driving a process of weapons acquisition in the region's states.

To some extent, some of these countries benefit from US military help in the form of weapons sales. For example, the US has promised to increase military aid to the Philippines and is expected to supply large patrol vessels when they retire from the US Coast Guard.

The Chinese marine surveillance ship Haijian 51 (front) in Japanese territorial waters near the Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea on Sept. 14, 2012 (Photo: Kyodo)
SIPRI experts: 'There is no evidence that China has any interest in armed conflict in the region'Image: picture alliance/dpa

The US has also signaled a willingness to supply military equipment or even weapons - such as maritime patrol aircraft - to Vietnam. Indeed, an important part of the US' "rebalance" to Asia consists in the 'building of partners' capabilities', which also involves, along with supplying arms, negotiating new access agreements - with the Philippines - and having ships, such as the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) make stops in countries with growing regional influence such as Singapore, for instance.

Most observers seem to indicate that relying exclusively on the US for regional security would be a mistake, as partners are expected to "do their part" but going it alone is also very risky when faces with an increasingly powerful China. The US remains a central actor in the region, and this will likely remain the case for the foreseeable future.

Will this increase the arms race in the region?

The arms acquisition process is normally one of action and reaction - threat perceptions of countries change when policies of potential adversaries change and a country will adjust defense policy and strength of its armed forces to fit the new threat perception.

Several Southeast Asian countries have shown concern with the Chinese military modernization or expansion linked to Chinese claims in the South China Sea and the stronger military/para-military presence and assertiveness of China in that area.

However, the acquisition of arms and the modernization and/or expansion of the respective navies and air forces could get out of hand in a region with a weak culture of solving international tensions with negotiations and with a lack of strong structures to contain tensions or solve them (the few structures that exist - like ASEAN - have weak mandates in this field).

The likelihood of a planned all-out war is small, but the potential of unplanned incidents that grow in size or planned incidents that get out of control becomes larger when more and more naval ships and aircraft start patrolling the same area or when two or more countries start to enforce their claims with military back-up or feel they can do so with the newly acquired military back-up.

The answers are a collective response of the following experts: 1) Sam Perlo-Freeman, head of the Military Expenditure Programme at SIPRI; 2) Aude Fleurant, director of Military Expenditure, Arms Production and Arms Transfers Programme at SIPRI; and, 3) Siemon Wezeman, a senior researcher, Arms Transfers Programme at SIPRI.