Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Naval Modernization in Southeast Asia: Under the Shadow of Army Dominance?

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Naval Modernization in Southeast Asia: Under the Shadow of Army Dominance?

Article excerpt

Using a historical institutionalist approach, this article addresses the future of Southeast Asia's naval forces. Much analysis on this subject employs a linear Realist model in which Southeast Asia's navies are expected to be the beneficiaries of declining internal security challenges and a deteriorating external threat environment. However, to date neither of these factors, including increasing Chinese assertiveness in the maritime domain, appear to have significantly accelerated naval force development in Southeast Asia. While there have been some capability increases in areas such as submarines, growth has mainly been in patrol boat and fast attack craft classes. Numbers of larger offshore surface combatants like frigates have fallen. This article argues that in countries where army dominance has become institutionalized, and civil control of the military is weak, governments may be unwilling or unable to reallocate funding away from armies to maritime forces. In a funding environment in which national economic growth is moderate, and spending on defence is a lower priority, naval modernization and expansion can be blocked. This article examines the cases of Thailand, Indonesia and Myanmar to demonstrate how their armies became dominant and how this may have diminished the growth prospects of their navies.

Keywords: ASEAN, Southeast Asia, navies, armies, force structure.

Expectations of Southeast Asian naval development generally follow two lines of thought, both rooted in the Realist paradigm of International Relations. The first is that Southeast Asian nations will respond to a deteriorating threat environment--marked by China's increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea--by investing more in defence forces, including naval forces. For example, Australian strategist Hugh White argues that "Indonesia's growing economy will allow it to spend more on its armed forces, especially on sophisticated aircraft, ships and submarines, and it may feel compelled to do so as Asia's wider strategic environment changes." (1) The second view is that as Southeast Asian states overcome their internal security problems, they will seek to develop more externally oriented military forces, thus resulting in increased spending on naval forces. In the 1990s, observers believed that Southeast Asian nations were displaying increasing interest in sea control capabilities. (2) Thailand, it was thought, was typical of Southeast Asian countries that in the 1980s had begun to shift away from a focus on counterinsurgency capabilities to those required for conventional warfare. (3)

This article questions whether bigger and more powerful Southeast Asian navies are inevitable. Instead it proposes that institutionalized army dominance, in combination with weak civilian control and low economic growth, could significantly inhibit naval expansion in Southeast Asian states. The article begins by surveying the modest naval growth in Southeast Asia exhibited to date. It then offers an account of Southeast Asian force development that considers the effects of army dominance amidst weak civilian control. The article employs concepts from historical institutionalism to show how army dominance arose in the cases of Thailand, Indonesia and Myanmar, and what the consequences have been for their respective navies.

Why have these three countries been selected and not other regional states? It must be admitted that case selection for Southeast Asia is inherently problematic given the region's vast disparities in terms of population, political systems, levels of economic development and history. That aside, the author chose Thailand, Indonesia and Myanmar for the following reasons. Firstly, if an explanation based on institutionalized army-dominance does not apply to these three countries whose armies have played highly significant historical roles, the theory is unlikely to be useful for other countries. In other words, these cases will provide a useful first litmus test for the plausibility of historical institutionalism as a tool for understanding force structure phenomena. …

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