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