Southeast Asia’s Widening Arms Race

Southeast Asia’s return to prosperity since the financial crisis of 1997 has brought a region-wide splurge on new weapons. Most Southeast Asian countries are, indeed, now busily modernizing their armed forces. So far, most have done so without compromising their autonomy in security matters. But, with China’s military build-up causing nervousness everywhere, many governments in the region are starting to work with outside powers.

Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has perhaps been the most assertive. In addition to becoming more active in world diplomacy, Yudhoyono will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow this month to discuss buying Russia’s newest fighter jets. Indonesia is seeking to form an air-defense squadron of 12 jets, with eight Russian fighters to complement the two Russian Su-27SK’s and Su-30MKM’s that it has already bought.

Elsewhere in the region, Singapore has apparently opted to purchase 12 new F-15SG fighter aircraft from the United States. Thailand’s Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, met Putin late last year and tentatively agreed to purchase 12 Su-30MKM’s. Malaysia has agreed to buy 18 Su-30MKM’s over the next two years, while Vietnam has purchased 36 SU-27SK’s, 12 of which are already in service.

With the exception of Singapore, it seems that Russian fighter-attack aircraft are the region’s weapon of choice at the moment. Russia’s growing slice of the local arms market worries the US, the world’s biggest weapons supplier and still Asia’s greatest military power. Thus, for example, last November, the US lifted its six-year embargo on military sales to Indonesia, imposed in 1999 in response to human rights abuses in East Timor. Indonesia immediately expressed its intention to purchase C-130 transport aircraft, as well as fast patrol boats to conduct “anti-terrorism and anti-piracy measures.”