Why are Southeast Asian member-states spending billions of dollars to upgrade their military capabilities at a time when many are still struggling with the effects of a global economic downturn? The answer lies both within the region, where competing claims to offshore oil and gas reserves are increasing tensions, and beyond, with growing concerns that a rising China is seeking to expand its influence in its backyard
At least four members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) have made substantial additions to their armed forces in recent months. Burma is buying Russian fighter planes, while Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand have either bought or plan to buy submarines.
Malaysia is spending more than US $990 million on two high-quality diesel-powered submarines, while Vietnam—which still cannot supply electricity to all its citizens—is committing more than $2 billion on Russian-made fighter planes and six submarines. Meanwhile, according to Russian media reports, impoverished Burma has spent $600 million on 20 Russian MiG-29 fighter planes.
Thailand is so strapped for cash that it aims to buy a cheap secondhand submarine first so that it can join the new submariners club, but ultimately Bangkok also plans to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on several subsea vessels.
Ironically, this scramble to acquire more weapons comes as Asean moves toward European Union-style economic and social unity with zero-tariff trading. But with rapidly rising demand for energy fueling offshore exploration for oil and gas in disputed territory—particularly in the South China Sea, where four Asean members and China have staked conflicting territorial claims—national interests appear to trump regional fraternity.
Political tension among Asean members over other issues is also complicating efforts to resolve competing claims amicably. Thailand recently canceled an agreement with Cambodia to talk about a decade-old dispute over territorial claims in the Gulf of Thailand because of its neighbor’s relations with fugitive former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Large, untapped reserves of oil and gas are thought to exist in the disputed waters.
Elsewhere in the region, Burma is in dispute with neighboring Bangladesh over maritime boundaries in the Bay of Bengal, where both countries want to explore for gas. Their small navies have already confronted one another over an exploratory drilling rig authorized by the Burmese junta in waters claimed by the Bangladeshis.
The costly arms buildup—in countries where millions still live on less than one dollar a day—is also fueled by rivalry between the armaments industries of China and Russia, although European countries are also suppliers. Singapore, for instance, buys German arms, and Malaysia is buying French-Spanish submarines.
Malaysia’s expensive submarines purchase comes as the country’s biggest income source, the state-owned oil and gas producer Petronas, announced a fall of more than 15 percent in its contribution to government coffers for 2009-10—amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars.
Other countries are even more hard-pressed to meet the cost of this recent round of military expansion, but this hasn’t prevented them from trying to keep up with others in the region.
Submarines in particular are a “necessity” to strengthen Thailand’s economy, insists Thai navy chief Adm Kamthorn Pumhirun. They will protect natural resources, fisheries and oil exploration, he said in a statement on Jan. 1 that outlined navy policy in the coming decade. As part of its long-term plans for boosting its naval capabilities, Thailand may buy a second-hand, Chinese-made submarine to train crews before investing in a small fleet.
Meanwhile, ongoing conflicts within national borders are also contributing to the rush to acquire new weapons, sometimes from illegal sources.
Some military experts believe that a cargo plane full of weapons seized in Bangkok in December was destined for Burma and not Iran or Sri Lanka as speculated. The plane was carrying anti-insurgency arms—rocket-propelled grenades, small missiles and small arms ammunition—from North Korea, which has a history of clandestine dealing with the Burmese junta.
Since last year, Naypyidaw has intensified its drive to eliminate active resistance by groups such as the Karen National Union, which has waged an ethnic-based insurgency for more than six decades. The regime has also been preparing for a showdown with cease-fire groups that have so far refused to accede to demands to form themselves into border guard forces under Burmese military command.