- The Washington Times - Monday, October 16, 2000

SINGAPORE After three years of reduced defense spending, Southeast Asian nations are engaging in a military buildup, boosting fears of a renewed regional arms race, analysts warn.

Many Southeast Asian countries slashed military budgets in the wake of the financial crisis that began in 1997. But defense analysts say several of them, including Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia, have begun purchasing military hardware again.

Although spending has yet to reach pre-1997 levels, Singapore has purchased eight Apache attack helicopters, while Thailand last month bought 18 F-16 fighters from the United States. Burma has obtained 12 Karakoram aircraft from Pakistan, and Malaysia has said it plans to purchase submarines.

Vietnam signed an agreement with Ukraine earlier this year under which the former Soviet state will help Hanoi build warships.

"The prospects for conventional arms control in Asia are not good," said a report released by the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, based in Hawaii.

This rise in arms purchases is the result of several factors, analysts say.

"Southeast Asian nations are building up defenses because they are very concerned about regional instability, especially the possible breakup of Indonesia," said Samantha Ravich, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Southeast Asian states also are buying weapons to create a token defense against China, Ms. Ravich said.

Beijing has expanded its operations in the South China Sea, where it claims the disputed Spratly Islands, which also are claimed by several Southeast Asian nations.

"But of course if China wanted to attack a state like Malaysia, those nations could not really defend themselves," Ms. Ravich said.

"Security in Southeast Asia is likely to be degraded by the purchase and deployment of up to 60 new destroyers and frigates and 40-odd submarines by China," said Carlyle Thayer, a Southeast Asia analyst at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies.

Several Southeast Asian leaders are concerned that new weapons purchases could trigger a regional arms race similar to the one in the 1980s.

"The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is very much concerned about arms buildup," Thai Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan said at a recent meeting of ASEAN ministers.

Southeast Asian regional organizations such as ASEAN and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), known for noninterference in member-states' affairs, have reportedly done little to address this militarization, especially regarding the Spratly Islands.

"Little has been done to resolve the worsening territorial disputes concerning overlapping claims in the Spratly archipelago," said the Asia-Pacific Center report. "The increased military presence in the area could lead to militarization of the islands, and in turn, further escalation of regional tensions," it said.

Ms. Ravich said groups like ARF, "because they're based on noninterference … have been shown to be ineffective in dealing with the challenges the region has faced."

Mr. Thayer said, "The lack of ASEAN defense cooperation will lead to greater stress on defense self-reliance. This may create a classic security dilemma for some states and lead to an 'action-reaction' arms race."

Given the failings of regional organizations, the United States has been encouraging Southeast Asian states to join U.S.-led ad hoc multilateral military exercises, which are supposed to improve coordination among Asian militaries and decrease the chances that Southeast Asian nations will stumble into conflicts.

The United States this year expanded its annual Cobra Gold military exercises with Thailand to include Singapore's armed forces and has proposed that other Southeast Asian states such as Malaysia take part in Cobra.

"I think the way ahead in Asia is more ad hoc cooperation when we can," said Adm. Dennis Blair, commander in chief of the U.S. troops in the Pacific.

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