A New Arms Race? Explaining Recent Southeast Asian Military Acquisitions

By Bitzinger, Richard A. | Contemporary Southeast Asia, April 2010 | Go to article overview

A New Arms Race? Explaining Recent Southeast Asian Military Acquisitions


Bitzinger, Richard A., Contemporary Southeast Asia


Is Southeast Asia currently in the grip of a regional arms race? On the surface, there are five main empirical developments that may suggest that the possibility for such an arms race is overwhelming and ominous. First, Singapore has recently acquired F-15 jet fighters from the United States, while Malaysia and Indonesia have bought Su-30s from Russia, and Thailand has ordered Gripens from Sweden. Second, Singapore and Malaysia have all bought new or additional submarines, which in Singapore's case have been outfitted with advanced propulsion systems for long endurance, submerged operations. Vietnam has reportedly signed a contract with Russia for the supply of 6 Kilo-class submarines. Third, in 2002, Malaysia ordered 63 heavy main battle tanks from Poland; in an apparent attempt to match this purchase, Singapore in 2007 bought approximately 100 German-made Leopard-2 tanks. Fourth, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand have all recently placed large orders for modern armoured personnel carriers (APCs) from a variety of domestic and foreign suppliers. Fifth, Singapore matched Malaysia's purchase of the ASTROS-II multiple rocket launcher (MRL) from Brazil by acquiring the HIMARS MRL system from the United States.

These recent arms purchases have been accompanied by a significant growth in regional defence spending. According to data provided by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Malaysia's military budget more than doubled between 2000 and 2008, from US$1.7 billion to $3.5 billion (as measured in constant 2005 dollars). Indonesian defence spending over the same period went from $2.2 billion to $3.8 billion, a 72 per cent increase, while Thailand increased military expenditure by 43 per cent, from $2.1 billion to $3 billion. Singapore's defence budget rose 26 per cent, from $4.6 billion in 2000, to $5.8 billion in 2008 (again, in constant 2005 dollars--in current dollars, Singapore's 2008 military budget totalled around $7.5 billion). Altogether, regional military spending rose by at least 50 per cent in real terms between 2000 and 2008. (1)

Certainly these developments could be interpreted as pointing to a rather disturbing trend in the regional security calculus. Some have even argued that Southeast Asia could be in the midst of a new, potentially destabilizing arms race. (2) Consequently, calls to limit arms transfers to the region or to encourage local authorities to practice self-restraint when it comes to defence acquisition, so as to reign in or reverse this supposed arms race, have taken on more salience in recent years.

Is it accurate to describe these recent arms acquisitions as a genuine arms race? In fact, this is unlikely, as they do not meet the requirements of an arms race as laid out by leading theories of such behaviour. If not an arms race per se, however, then how can we explain this current process? The intensity and pattern of reciprocal arms acquisitions among certain Southeast Asian nations is clearly more significant than just replacing old military equipment with new systems, given the ratcheting-up in military capabilities that comes with these purchases. As such, the resulting tit-for-tat arms competition, which itself may be the result of an "arms dynamic", as described by Buzan and Herring, (3) is no less worrisome and potentially destabilizing, over the long run, when it comes to regional security.

Recent Southeast Asian Arms Acquisitions

As mentioned, many Southeast Asian militaries have been on a veritable shopping spree over the past decade. In addition to advanced "fourth-generation" or "four generation-plus" fighters, submarines and main battles tanks, countries in the region have acquired modern air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons, large surface combatants, amphibious assault vessels, anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), and new command, control, communications, computing, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems. …

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A New Arms Race? Explaining Recent Southeast Asian Military Acquisitions
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