South-east Asia naval expansion and its risks

A Republic of Singapore Navy submarine and a rigid hull inflatable boat in action during a dynamic display at the Navy Open House at Changi Naval Base in May 2013. Regional navies have particularly benefited from an increase in military expenditures
A Republic of Singapore Navy submarine and a rigid hull inflatable boat in action during a dynamic display at the Navy Open House at Changi Naval Base in May 2013. Regional navies have particularly benefited from an increase in military expenditures in South-east Asia.ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

GROWING defence budgets have underwritten a sizeable arms build-up in South-east Asia since around the turn of the century. Regional navies have particularly benefited from this increase in military expenditures. As a result, many South-east Asian navies are in the process of transforming themselves from modest forces oriented mainly towards coastal defence to modern fleets capable of projecting considerable firepower into local "green waters".

As IMDEX Asia approaches, it would be appropriate to reflect upon the impact of rising defence budgets and their impact on regional naval modernisation. The maritime defence event takes place in Singapore next week.

In general, South-east Asian navies are experiencing growth in three broad areas. In the first place, many have acquired, or are in the process of acquiring, largish surface combatants. In the past, most regional navies consisted mainly of coastal patrol boats and fast-attack craft, geared mostly towards littoral combat. Today, however, many of these forces are being outfitted with larger, longer-range warships, usually of the corvette or frigate class.

Second, there has been a major expansion in regional submarine fleets. Many South-east Asian navies which did not possess a single submarine 15 or 20 years ago are now operating or acquiring quite impressive fleets of undersea vessels. Singapore has bought six used-but-upgraded submarines from Sweden; it is also buying two brand-new Type-218S boats from Germany. Malaysia has taken delivery of two submarines from France, while Vietnam has bought six Kilo-class submarines from Russia. Indonesia will get at least three submarines from South Korea.

Finally, many local navies are also acquiring new ships for expeditionary warfare. Singapore operates four locally built Endurance-class amphibious operations ships, and it is building another for the Thai navy. Indonesia and the Philippines are both acquiring Korean-designed Makassar-class amphibious ships, while the Thais operate the only full-fledged aircraft carrier in South-east Asia.

Of course, this build-up in South-east Asian naval capabilities would not have been possible without a significant increase in regional defence expenditures. According to data put out by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri), military spending by Asean nations more than doubled from 2000 to 2013, from US$15.7 billion to US$34.9 billion (as measured in constant 2011 US dollars). Indonesia's military budget more than quadrupled between 2000 and 2013, from US$1.9 billion to US$8.4 billion (S$11.2 billion), while Malaysian defence spending essentially doubled in real terms, going from US$2.4 billion in 2000 to US$4.8 billion in 2013. Over this same period, Thai military expenditures grew by 75 per cent, to reach US$5.6 billion in 2013, and Singapore's defence budget grew by nearly a quarter, to US$9.1 billion in 2013.

At the same time, the remarkable economic growth experienced by most South-east Asian nations over the past 20 years or so has meant that the burden of defence spending has remained manageable, even as military expenditures have increased. In fact, according to Sipri, defence spending as a percentage of GDP was more or less constant for most Asean nations between 2000 and 2013: Indonesia, 0.9 per cent; Malaysia, 1.5 per cent; the Philippines, 1.4 per cent; Thailand, 1.5 per cent; Vietnam, 2.4 per cent. In Singapore, the military burden actually went down, from 4.6 per cent of GDP in 2000 to 3.4 per cent in 2013.

The arms build-up in Southeast Asia over the past 10 to 15 years is undeniably significant, especially as it might impact the ongoing rise in tensions in and around the South China Sea. In the first place, recent acquisitions by regional navies constitute something more than mere modernisation; rather, the new types of armaments being procured and deployed promise to significantly affect regional seaborne warfighting capabilities. Local navies are acquiring greater lethality and accuracy at longer ranges - for example, anti-ship cruise missiles and modern naval guns. Additionally, local navies are acquiring new or increased capabilities for force projection, operational manoeuvre, and speed. Modern submarines and surface combatants, amphibious assault ships and even aircraft carriers have all extended these militaries' theoretical range of action. New platforms for reconnaissance and surveillance, especially in the air, have considerably expanded these militaries' capacities to look out over the horizon and better patrol territorial waters and exclusive economic zones.

In sum, many countries in the South China Sea region have added considerable capabilities to their forces (military and coast guard) over the past 10 to 15 years. Many of these capabilities - such as submarines or anti-ship missiles, long-range air-interdiction or maritime strikes - were previously lacking in these forces, and these new capabilities have greatly increased these militaries' capacities for projecting force into the South China Sea. How these increased capacities may affect tensions in the region is still uncertain, but certainly they promise to magnify any military clashes that may take place in the South China Sea. As South-east Asian navies add new capabilities for warfighting, any conflict in the region, should it occur, is likely to be faster, more intense and more lethal, and therefore perhaps more devastating in its effects.

The writer is Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Military Transformation Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.