Growth spurs Asia’s military modernization

Unprecedented economic growth in Asia has spurred military modernization in most of the region’s countries where they are competing to boost their army, navy and air force capabilities, but it has not yet reached an alarming level, analysts said.

Hochiminh City Kilo class Submarine of Vietnam's Navy

China’s military spending increased by 175 percent in real terms during the period 2003 to 2012. Spending also increased in Indonesia, Vietnam, India and the Philippines.

Analysts discounted the development as evidence of an arms race. “It is premature to call it an arms race. There is competition among Asian countries to boost their military power,” Christian Le Meire, a senior fellow at the London-based think tank the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), said during a book launching in Singapore on Friday.

However, he underlined that as the struggle for hegemony between the US and China intersects with the overlapping aspirations of emerging, smaller nations “the risk of escalation to regional conflict is real.”

Le Meire and his colleague Sarah Raine penned the book Regional Disorder: The South China Sea Disputes, which put the current developments in the South China Sea in a proper perspective.

Another book titled Asia’s Naval Expansion: An Arms Race in the making? by Geoffrey Till, a professor of maritime studies at King’s College London, was also launched on the sidelines of the 12th Asia Security Summit The Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.

He said that the South China Sea issue was a complex matter. “There are four island groupings, claimed, to varying extent, by six countries,” he said.

First, Paracel Islands, which is occupied by China but claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan. Second, Pratas Islands, occupied by Taiwan, but claimed by China. Third, Spratly Islands, occupied in part by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines but claimed in its entirety by China, Vietnam and Taiwan.

Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam and Malaysia have also claimed some parts of Spratlys. Fourth, Macclessified Bank and Scarborough Reef, which are claimed by China, Taiwan and the Philippines (only Scarborough Reef).

Till said that most Asian countries were now able to upgrade their navies to maintain their territorial integrity. However, modernization had not yet reached an alarming level.

“Although the current state of naval modernization in the region has not yet become a full-fledged naval arms race, it clearly has the potential to do so. Economies are growing but the overall military spending is small in terms of their GDPs [gross domestic product],” Till said.

He underlined that transparency was important in order to avoid suspicion and conflict and to reduce the risk of an arms race.

China’s increased military spending reached a record US$166 billion in 2012 or 2 percent of its GDP, Vietnam’s military spending surged by 130 percent from 2003 to 2012. In the same period, Indonesia’s military spending increased by 73 percent. Last year, Indonesia’s defense budget was $7.01 billion, a 28 percent increase from $5.45 billion in 2011. Indonesia has allocated $8 billion for 2013.

The motivation for developing their militaries differed from country to country.

Vietnam, a claimant in the South China Sea dispute, perceived a threat from China’s aggressive gestures, whose military spending has doubled every five years.

Indonesia, an archipelagic country, aimed to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

“Indonesia and the Philippines are archipelagic nations. They need modern navies to protect their maritime borders,” Till said.

The Shangri-La Dialogue, inaugurated on Friday night with keynote address of Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, would focus on strategic transparency among Asian countries regarding their military modernization.

Indonesian Defense Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro will speak on military modernization and strategic transparency on Saturday in one of Shangri-La Dialogue’s plenary sessions.

The Jakarta Post


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