Old Rivalries, New Worries Fuel Arms Race in Southeast Asia as Superpowers Lower Profiles in Region, Concern Mounts That China, Japan, India Will Fill Gap

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EVEN as cold-war tensions ease in the West, an arms race is gaining steam in Southeast Asia.

Unsettled by a retreating Soviet Union and a retrenching United States, the military-dominated Southeast Asian countries have plunged into an arms-buying spree fed by old rivalries and new worries, military observers say.

Clouding Southeast Asia's security outlook, Asian analysts say, is the expectation of a phased American pullout from its huge bases in the Philippines. A lower American profile has stirred fears among allies in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that Asia's major powers, Japan, China, and India could step in to fill the military void.

ASEAN, which includes Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines, also is being shaken by the prospect of a settlement in the 12-year-old civil war in Cambodia. While Vietnam's troop withdrawal from Cambodia last year lowered regional tensions, it also undermined the major unifying force within the ASEAN alliance.

Despite talk of forging new long-term regional security ties, traditional suspicions among the Southeast Asians themselves are reviving.

Economic uncertainty is adding to regional jitters. The Gulf crisis has stunted the area's economic boom and underscored the fierce competition in Southeast Asia for oil, gas, forests, and fish.

"The whole scene is changing," says Kusuma Snitwongse, head of Thailand's Institute of Strategic and International Studies. "As the US presence and foreign deployment draws down, differing security perspectives are starting to resurface."

The affluence of recent years has allowed powerful military interests to pursue costly modernization. Asia and Australia spend more than $60 billion on the military, analysts estimate, an amount expected to double by the turn of the century.

Singapore, with a 55,000-strong Army, spends $1.5 billion on defense - 2 percent of its budget and more than 5 percent of gross domestic product.

Despite sharp cutbacks in US arms aid, Thailand, with the second largest Army in ASEAN, continues to acquire US fighter aircraft, tanks, and helicopters. Bangkok spends more than $2 billion annually on defense. Analysts estimate that defense spending in Malaysia has risen in the past two years by more than 20 percent, to $1.5 billion.

Some Western military analysts admit the huge buildup is unnecessary and out of proportion. Except in the Philippines, communist insurgencies of yesteryear have been quashed.

Among the region's authoritarian and military-led regimes, however, prospects for internal turmoil are a major concern. Arms deals not only line military pockets but also reinforce its clout in an era of growing religious fundamentalism and deepening ethnic and economic disparities. These regimes also fear spreading democratic reforms, observers say.

"There's really no good reason for all this," a Western military expert in Bangkok says. "But if you're the Army and have to justify your existence, you had better be...up-to-date."

While a final agreement remains elusive, talks over the future of the controversial US bases in the Philippines already are reshaping security in Southeast Asia. The Philippine government insists on taking immediate control of Clark Air Base, although the phaseout at Subic Bay Naval Base would be over a five-to-seven-year period.

Manila has set a January 1991 deadline for the two governments to come to terms. …