Asia-Pacific

Arms Race Sparked by China?

PLA Army Type 59 Battle Tank

China's announcement of a 12.7 percent hike in military spending for 2011 could add impetus to a preexisting arms-buying spree in Southeast Asia, after a year in which Beijing's growing assertiveness over disputes such as the South China Sea alarmed a number of countries in the region.

Overall, military or defense spending has increased by 50 percent in Southeast Asia since 2000, according to data compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

After a partly conciliatory meeting between Hu Jintao and U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C. in January, it was thought that China might take a less strident tone in its 2011 dealings with Asian neighbors. However, if Beijing does intend to speak more softly this year, it will do so while carrying an even bigger stick, to re-work Theodore Roosevelt's century-old aphorism.

In recent days there have been naval incidents involving face-offs between Chinese and Vietnamese ships, as well as Chinese and Filipino vessels. SIPRI researcher Siemon Wezeman says that "certainly the increasing military power and reach of China play a major role (in increased military spending) for Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia."

All told, while China says that its military spending is miniscule compared with that of the United States, the real numbers are hard to come by, and Beijing might be spending more on facets such as procurement that are not necessarily accounted for in published figures.

As is the case with China, some countries in Southeast Asia have hard-to-quantify military budgets. "In countries such as Myanmar [Burma] and Vietnam, we cannot know for sure what the real level of spending is," says Tim Huxley of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore.

Such a lack of transparency engenders distrust, says Wezeman, whose organization publishes an authoritative annual survey of arms transfers around the world. As arms buying increases across the region, the lack of clarity regarding some countries "makes other Southeast Asian countries nervous and easy to react to worst-case scenarios," he says.

Burma will again spend a quarter of its annual budget on the military, and this month will receive the first of 20 MiG-29s ordered under a roughly €400 million ($553 million) deal, part of a doubling of the country's MiG-29 capacity.

Details published in the official Burmese Government Gazette revealed that almost one-quarter of the 7.6 trillion kyat ($8.45 billion) national budget for 2011 will be allocated to defense. In contrast, education will get a 4.3 percent share, and health 1.3 percent.

Concerns have been raised about Burmese collaboration with North Korea, both on nuclear technology and conventional military assistance. With regard to the latter, Burmese purchases of Russian or Chinese hardware should be of more concern to Burma's neighbors than whatever Pyongyang can provide, says Wezeman, who adds that "North Korean weaponry is not terribly advanced, to say the least."

The latest Burmese MiG-29 purchase is based on an order placed in 2009, a seemingly common trend in regional arms procurement, with delivery of purchased goods coming after a substantial time-lag. Thailand recently received 6 Swedish-made SAAB Gripen fighter aircraft, with more due to arrive in 2012 and 2013.

Overall, defense spending by Bangkok has doubled to $5.5 billion since a 2006 coup, even though that military regime was soon replaced by an elected government. Arms buying in Southeast Asia can sometimes be driven by domestic issues not related to external threats—what Richard Bitzinger of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies calls "other nonstrategic factors" across countries in the region, "such as bribery and bureaucratic politics." Some see providing such "toys for the boys" as key to ensuring Indonesia's army's reduced role since the country started its transition to democracy back in 1998.

The China factor aside, there are separate bilateral and internal Southeast Asian factors driving the arms build-up, which analysts such as Tim Huxley are reluctant to call an "arms race" along the lines of those between Germany and Great Britain prior to World War I, or the United States and Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Singapore, a wealthy city-state comprising 5 million people, has undertaken a massive military spending increase in recent years, though it has no real dispute with China, compared with those countries with claims on the South China Sea. Singapore, listed as the second-biggest arms importer in the world for 2009 according to SIPRI, offers air and naval facilities to the United States.

One of the world's biggest and busiest ports, Singapore sits along major maritime traffic routes and is a hub for regional communications and transport.

Overall, however, the lack of transparency surrounding some of the arms build-ups suggests that there is what Bitzinger terms an "arms competition" taking place. This could potentially, he believes, "heighten regional tensions and bilateral/multilateral suspicions and concerns, and therefore have a debilitating effect on regional security."

All of this belies the refrains of "non-intervention" and fraternal cooperation heard at the region's Association for Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summits held twice each year. Recently, Thailand and Cambodia engaged in fighting along their common border near the Preah Vihear temple, and there have been naval tensions, verging close to fighting, between Vietnam and the Philippines, as well as between Malaysia and Indonesia.

This article was originally published by The Irrawaddy: http://www.irrawaddy.org/.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Simon Roughneen.

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