Military Maneuvers

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Saeed Khan / AFP /getty images

Strike one Malaysia's new sub, its first, docking on Sept. 3

Has Christmas come early to southeast Asia? That's what it must feel like to military leaders across the region, as they contemplate the bounty of an unprecedented shopping spree.

Indonesia has just taken delivery of the last of six Russian fighter jets worth $300 million. Thailand has received the first of 96 Ukrainian armored personnel carriers ($125 million), with the first of six Swedish fighter jets and two other aircraft ($574 million) arriving in early 2011. Singapore will soon launch the second of two Swedish attack submarines ($128 million), while Malaysia has already spent $1 billion on two Franco-Spanish subs of its own.

The acquisition of sophisticated weapons indicates two things: First, that Southeast Asian nations are more wary of each other than fraternal declarations at ASEAN meetings suggest. Second, that a region that publicly welcomes China's soft power is also quietly tooling up for the hard version.

The numbers are startling. Between the periods of 2000 to 2004 and 2005 to 2009, arms imports to Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia rose by 84%, 146% and 722%, respectively, reports the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). These imports included long-range fighter jets, warships and submarines, all with advanced missile systems. "The current wave of Southeast Asian acquisitions could destabilize the region, jeopardizing decades of peace," warns SIPRI's Asia expert Siemon Wezeman.

Singapore became the first Southeast Asian country to make SIPRI's list of the top 10 arms importers since the end of the Vietnam War. Its recent purchases, which include stealth frigates, reflect the vulnerability felt by a tiny island state on one of the world's busiest shipping routes. Elsewhere in the region, the arms race is driven by the rapid and secretive expansion of China's military and its claims over almost the entire South China Sea. At least six countries claim these disputed waters, which are rich in oil and minerals and have been the scene of deadly naval clashes in the past.

Vietnam has made no secret of its opposition to what it calls Chinese hegemony in the South China Sea. Last December it ordered six Russian submarines in a deal worth $2 billion or more; two months later another $1 billion was spent on 12 Russian fighter jets. Malaysia might be less vocal about its China anxiety, but its decision to base its new Scorpène-class subs on the island of Borneo, with its strategic outlook over the South China Sea, speaks volumes.

There are two main beneficiaries of China's muscle-flexing: The first, of course, are weapons manufacturers. The second is the U.S. Last month the U.S.S. George Washington, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, cruised into Vietnamese waters to mark the 15th anniversary of normalization of relations between two once warring nations. It also sent a signal to Beijing that Vietnam is seeking closer military ties with the U.S., whose Defense Secretary Robert Gates visits Hanoi next month. Even as Southeast Asia seeks a modus vivendi with China because of its growing wealth and might, the region is signaling to Washington that the U.S. remains needed as a counterweight and honest broker.

It's not just fear of China, however, that fuels this arms-buying spree. Southeast Asian nations also distrust one another. Thailand's relations with Burma and Cambodia are often bellicose, while a six-year-old antigovernment insurgency rages along its border with Malaysia. Another reliable source of regional tension is the hazy maritime frontier between Malaysia and Indonesia. Last month, a Malaysian police patrol boat fired warning shots before arresting three Indonesian maritime officers.

Yet another reason why generals buy weapons is because they can. The military still plays a central political role in many Southeast Asian countries. The obvious example is Burma, a military dictatorship where defense spending devours perhaps a third of its gross national product. Another example is the battered democracy of Thailand. Since 2006, when the military toppled an elected government, defense spending has more than doubled to $5.5 billion. It is tempting to see this as the price the current Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, must pay to ensure his generals' loyalty.

Southeast Asian nations must make arms acquisitions more transparent not only to their own people, says SIPRI's Wezeman. Vital to keeping the peace is "telling your neighbors what you have bought and where you might station it," he says. Unfortunately, most countries in the region are reluctant to articulate their defense capabilities and concerns. But then so is their biggest neighbor. The opaqueness of China's military buildup "increases the potential for misunderstanding and miscalculation," the Pentagon warned last month in its annual report to the U.S. Congress. It also increases the insecurity on which Southeast Asia's burgeoning arms trade will continue to thrive.