By Dzirhan Mahadzir, freelance defence journalist based in Malaysia, and Malaysia correspondent for Janes Defence Weekly.
Joshua Kurlantzick has a post up on Asia Unbound about a Southeast Asian naval arms race. He argues that countries in the region are sending a message to China through their purchases of military materiel. Vietnam may be doing that. But for the other countries cited– Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia– that’s far from the case.
In fact, it is questionable whether it can even be said that there is an arms race in the region. Kurlantzick cites the Stokholm Institute for Peace Research (SIPRI) database in noting that arms spending has doubled between 2005 and 2009. I would use caution in consulting the SIPRI database for these purposes, as it does not take into account inflationary pressures and the rising cost of military equipment. SIPRI’s definition of arms is also pretty wide, including fighting ships and combat aircraft, as well as non-lethal assets such as transport planes and military training equipment. So it does not necessarily follow that spending increases documented by SIPRI represent a “race” to build up combat capabilities.
Southeast Asian nations are, however, gradually building up their conventional capabilities, befitting their increased level of development. The primary impetus for particular purchases, though, is not China, but similar purchases by neighboring states. This isn’t to say that China of no concern, but it’s not the main factor.
Take submarines, for example. Singapore has always sought a steady military build-up to ensure regional superiority, so recent purchases and developments are not anything out of the ordinary. Singapore purchased four Challenger class submarines in 1995. Their two Archer class submarines were talked about going back to 2000, and signed for in November 2005. Malaysia’s two Scorpene class submarines were ordered in 2002, driven by the purchases in Singapore– and Malaysia has been careful not to use these boats to send China any signals. When I spoke to the Royal Malaysian Navy Chief, Admiral Tan Sri Aziz, on the recent test-firing of an Exocet missile by the RMN submarine KD Tunku Abdul Rahman, he was quick to stress that the firing and associated RMN training exercise were conducted well within East Malaysian waters—and nowhere near the Spratly Islands, claimed by China and several Southeast Asian states.
The same goes for the other two states working on their submarine fleets. The chief of the Royal Thai Navy has said clearly that the Thai Navy sought submarines because regional neighbors had bought submarines. Noticeably no mention of China in the Admiral’s remarks– and in fact, China has been said to have offered two second-hand Song class subs to Thailand. In Indonesia, the talk by the Indonesian military has been all about violations of sovereignty by Malaysian ships in the Ambalat area, and by Australian ships in the waters of East Nusa Tenggara, rather than any Chinese threat. Indonesia’s quest for additional submarines lies more with Malaysia’s new submarines, and plans for Australia to build up its submarine fleet.
Even as other decisions by regional governments may be directed toward China, we should be careful not to assume that all of them are. This one is not.