Oct 8, 2010 | Article

Several high profile defence acquisitions, perhaps combined with a heightened Chinese assertiveness over its maritime territorial claims, have prompted some pundits to claim an arms raise in Southeast Asia. Of course, they’re wrong.

The purchases include Vietnam’s order from Russia last December of six Kilo-class submarines and an initial tranche of 12 Sukhoi Su-30MKK fighter aircraft, as well as three maritime patrol aircraft from Canada. Thailand bought Gripen fighters and Erieye airborne early warning aircraft from Sweden, along with Ukrainian armoured personnel carriers. Malaysia and Singapore have new submarines, and Indonesia new Russian fighters.

The simplified punditry is typified by a recent piece in Time magazine, which you can read here. It refers to this activity as an “unprecedented shopping spree”.

Well, not really.

There are various reasons driving these military acquisitions, not least among them ageing equipment. The new fighters for Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam are replacing kit dating back several decades. Some, like the Singaporean submarines, represent a maturing of the armed forces while Vietnam’s submarine purchase fulfills a requirement delayed since the mid-1980s by economic factors.

But the key measure lies in overall defence spending levels, which much of this commentary distorts.

“The numbers are startling,” the Time Magazine piece states. “Between the periods 2000-2004 and 2005-2009 arms imports to Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia rose by 84%, 146% and 722% respectively, reports the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute [SIPRI].”

SIPRI is a reputable outfit. It has since 1968 tracked from open sources international arms transfers involving major conventional weapons, with equipment produced locally and small arms excluded, and a five-year average is used to smooth annual fluctuations.

Sensationalized talk of an arms race in Southeast Asia is rooted in its truncated press release rather than SIPRI’s arms transfer database itself. The latter provides missing context.

The SIPRI data clearly shows how harshly the 1997 economic crisis impacted defence imports in Southeast Asia. With the base period 1995-1999 ascribed 100 points, the ASEAN total was 44 points for 2000-2004 and 104 points for 2005-2009. This compares with global figures of 75 and 92, respectively.

The comparative numbers for Indonesia are 64 and 118. For Malaysia they are 17 and 137, and Singapore is at 73 and 179. Thailand is well behind at 29 and 7, with Vietnam also continuing to fall short at 51 and 68. The other five Asean countries, taken together, are at 50 and 20 when compared with the 1995-1999 base period.

The economic downturn was shrugged off by several major powers in the Asia-Pacific region. The comparative arms transfer figures are 274 and 222 for China, 158 and 147 for India, and 183 and 152 for Australia. But Japan saw a steady slowdown at 39 and 39, South Korea ended up at 53 and 94, and Taiwan slid to 12 and 11 from the 100-point base.

So the spectacular growth in ASEAN defence spending during the period 2005-2009, noted in the Time report and elsewhere, was a recovery following the sharp drop after the 1997 economic crisis. ASEAN as a whole is roughly back to where it stood a dozen years ago, although a few individual countries have come out ahead.

See for yourself, here.

Military Manoeuvres, Time magazine, 27 Sept/10. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2019534,00.html#ixzz10nImtI

SIPRI arms transfer database. http://www.sipri.org/research/armaments/transfers/armstransdefault/?searchterm=arms

Author

Robert Karniol is a veteran military affairs journalist and was Asia-Pacific Editor of Jane’s Defence Weekly from 1988-2007. He is now a columnist for the Singapore Straits Times.