Defense spending in Southeast Asia is bouncing back from massive cuts that followed the Asian financial crisis in 1997. With the emergence of new threats, such as terrorism, defense acquisitions have become more selective and are increasingly centered on maritime and air supremacy. But some analysts warn the arms build-up could destabilize the region.
Many Southeast Asian countries are reviving military modernization plans, postponed when the region's financial crisis struck five years ago.
This year, five Southeast Asian nations are expected to pour $12.8 billion into defense. The U.S. defense research firm Forecast International says that is up nine percent from 2001.
In June, Malaysia announced a deal for its first fleet of French submarines. It also is awaiting delivery of new Polish tanks and missiles from Pakistan. Over the past year, Singapore beefed up its air force with new U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets and attack helicopters. And with U.S. assistance, the Philippines is getting new helicopters and high-technology intelligence systems.
In the past, arms purchases by members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) largely focused on fighting a potential threat from communist China. In the 1960's and 1970's, Beijing was suspected of fostering communist rebellions in the region. More recently, Chinese military posturing in the mid-1990s near disputed islands on the South China Sea left the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei scampering to protect their claims.
Professor Ian Storey, a defense expert from Deakin University in Australia, has said ASEAN is still watching China's military build-up closely. "What they are concerned with is where China would be 20, 30 years down the line, when about that time perhaps, China will have increased its economic, military and political power. Will it for instance try to resolve the territorial claims in the South China Sea by force?" he said.
No ASEAN member has the power to match China's military resources. Some countries, the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore, rely on mutual defense treaties with the United States to keep the balance of power in the South China Sea.
Recently, China purchased eight Russian Kilo-class submarines, which can threaten all kinds of ships, including U.S. aircraft carriers. Analysts say this new fleet has the potential to destabilize the region.
But over the past few years, the Chinese threat has been overshadowed by problems closer to home, cross-border terrorism, piracy, gun smuggling and illegal immigration. These are largely played out in the region's sea lanes, through which half the world's trade travels.
Maritime and air supremacy have become paramount in dealing with the new problems.
Overlapping national interests bring rivalry and distrust to the surface. Aside from disputes over the Spratly and Paracel islands on the South China Sea, ASEAN countries face other territorial disagreements.
Indonesia and Malaysia's rivalry over two islands off Borneo could spark tensions along the Sulu Sea, also a major trade route for the southern Philippines. Cross-border crime and illegal immigration from Indonesia and the Philippines to Malaysia could strain relations among those countries.
Analysts say the rising military power of some ASEAN nations could force others to keep up to protect their own interests. And that, they say, could lead to an unnecessary arms build-up.
Panitan Wattanyagorn is a defense expert from Thailand's Chulalongkorn University. "The situation now is closer to a classic situation causing an arms race, with only the exception that these countries are not enemies. But they are becoming real competitors," he said.
One example often given is Malaysia and Singapore, the two governments try to match each other's military capabilities.
They have been peaceful neighbors since Singapore separated from the then Malayan Federation in the 1960s. But economic rivalry, and water and border disputes irritate the relationship.
Michael Pinto, an Asia analyst with the defense research firm, Forecast International, said transparency among Southeast Asian countries is needed, so governments see beyond just the arms build-up. "You have to have more transparencies, or everyone's always going to be nervous. One country goes after the Spratly islands, everyone goes after them. And lurking in the background is always China," Mr. Pinto said.
Mr. Panitan in Thailand warns the situation increases the risk of a violent showdown in the region. "If the situation is not managed carefully, it could get out of hand and particularly, there are certain territorial disputes in the region, unclear demarcations, and now transnational crimes, cross-border activities and disputes in the resource management at sea. These are the things that, if not carefully managed, military capability may be used to decide the conflict," he said.
Over the past several years, ASEAN and its neighbors, including China, have attempted to create an atmosphere of trust through the ASEAN Regional Forum. Defense experts say, more than ever, the ARF, which meets later this month in Brunei, should take more concrete steps toward a security alliance in the face of the region's new threats.