Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Revisiting Armaments Production in Southeast Asia: New Dreams, Same Challenges

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Revisiting Armaments Production in Southeast Asia: New Dreams, Same Challenges

Article excerpt

Armaments production in Southeast Asia has always been long on ambition and short on reality. Going back to the 1960s, several states in the region have attempted to manufacture their own arms, but not much ever came of these efforts. Indonesia, for example, invested considerable resources into establishing strategic enterprises covering aerospace, shipbuilding and land systems, but they produced little in the way of useful military products, and they failed to become self-sustaining ventures. Vietnam and the Philippines have constructed naval vessels, Thailand has assembled light trainer jets and Malaysia has attempted to leverage its few niche capabilities in defence and aerospace manufacturing to become a player in the global supply chain. However, except for Singapore--whose indigenous defence industry has benefitted from relatively high levels of defence spending--Southeast Asia has produced few success stories when it comes to arms manufacturing.

After more than a decade of neglect and decay, however, there are indicators that Southeast Asia's defence sectors may be rebounding. There is a newfound ambition and effort underway in several states in the region to revitalize and rebuild their ailing defence industries, or attempt to create new centres of armaments production. Vietnam and Thailand are considering efforts to expand indigenous arms manufacturing, and the Philippines is exploring new military roles for its shipbuilding industry. Indeed, as regional defence spending grows and, subsequently, regional arms acquisitions also increase, Southeast Asia may be on the cusp of a rebirth in armaments production.

However, before becoming too sanguine about the future of the region's defence industrial capacities, it is important to keep in mind the extremely high barriers to advanced armaments production that still exist. Desire and determination are insufficient substitutes for arduous effort, technology, and, above all, money, when it comes to arms manufacturing. Significant challenges--many of them of long standing--still come in the way of regional states becoming successful arms producers, as will be illustrated by the recent experiences of the three leading weapons-producing states in Southeast Asia--Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore--and their recent experiences and efforts to renew or expand local arms industries.

Why Do Nations Produce Armaments?

As with other nations, Southeast Asian countries have many reasons for producing armaments. (1) Often, the most critical rationale is security of supply. In general, countries desire a reliable source of arms with which to defend themselves, and that secure source is usually a domestic one. Consequently, if they are capable of doing so, achieving some degree of self-reliance in arms procurement can be a key strategic goal. This requirement is particularly felt when a nation has no allies or patron-state providing an external security guarantee. In the case of Southeast Asia, for example, the withdrawal of British forces in 1971, as well as the promulgation of the Nixon Doctrine (which asserted that US allies were largely in charge of their own security), resulted in a heightened sense of strategic isolation and insecurity, and therefore provided regional states with a powerful new incentive for arming themselves--and with domestically produced weapons, if possible. (2)

Parallel to this aspiration for self-reliant defence is the fear that depending too heavily on imported weaponry risks exposing a country to arms embargoes, cut-offs and other types of supplier restraint, thus weakening a nation's military capabilities and undermining its national security. Foreign dependencies for armaments can also leave the buyer-state exposed to attempts by the supplier to withhold arms deliveries in order to coerce the former into making concessions on issues both national (such as human rights) or international (such as combating terrorism and drug trafficking or opposing a common regional threat). …

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