ASEAN’s new arms race: nations scramble to rearm as concerns over security grow

China's navy conducting drills in the South China Sea. 2013China's navy conducting drills in the South China Sea. Asitimes / Wikimedia Commons

As national leaders wobble over how to approach shifting tensions and allegiances over the South China Sea the most direct response has been billions of dollars of spending on fighter jets, boats, weapons and submarines.


Against the changing geopolitical landscape and in the face of foreign aggression, ASEAN nations have begun rearming. This has seen countries increase their defence spending – purchasing more advanced weapons systems to meet their security needs and combat the region’s piracy problem.

As a general overview, much of these military hardware purchases are a mixture of low-cost maritime patrol vessels, submarines, aircraft, and mid to long range advanced missile systems. But what does this spending tells us about the relationships and tensions in the region?

Malaysia will stay strong and not back down on territorial claims

“We will not change our stand, and if that requires a push back, it does not matter what our relationship is with the superpowers,” said Malaysia’s defence minister Hishammuddin as he reiterated his country would take tough measures if needed.

True to that, Malaysia has increased military collaboration with China, South Korea and Japan, aiming to build its ability to produce its own warships in the future. The government also recently ordered 14 of China’s newest littoral class C82A combat vessels; complete with Chinese technology, which will patrol shorelines and fight piracy. Prime Minister Najib also plans to increase his total submarine count to three.

Next-door neighbour Singapore has already ordered two additional submarines, to be delivered by 2020, to supplement the four anchor class submarines it already has. They are also working with Boeing to develop the F-15SG; a class of fighter jets tailored to Singapore’s needs.

The Philippines is looking to expand its arsenal while being sensitive to China

Behind the nervousness of many leaders are the moves by China to reclaim and upgrade islands in the South China Sea; while leaders such as Duterte want to be able to stand alone from their once-protectors as relations cool with America. The Philippines’ recent purchases have included the FA-50 Golden Eagle, a low-cost fighter jet from Korea, and 11 coastal patrol ships from Japan. Tokyo has also leased Manila five aircraft for training purposes.

“We are buying ships from Indonesia, aeroplanes from Korea, ships from Korea. Japan is providing us with some ships,” said Delphin Lorenzana, Philippines Secretary of Defence. He added this was due to an urge to, “expand our horizons” which would improve the country’s “very weak” defence capabilities. Over the next five years, the second phase of military modernisation would invest US$2.3 billion, he said.

Vietnam has concerns over self-defence

Another neighbour with reason to be cautious is Vietnam, which clearly remembers a series of bloody skirmishes with China and has been regularly upgrading its military hardware as Beijing resurges. Back in 2015, the construction of the oil rig Haiyang Shiyou 981 rekindled memories of old conflicts; it has also sparked concerns about the country’s ability to defend itself, or its territory.

Dinh Kim Phuc of the Open University in Ho Chi Minh City, one of Vietnam’s foremost authorities on territorial disputes emphasises that the “Chinese could probably take all our positions in the Spratly Islands in a day or two if they wanted.”

Against this backdrop, the Vietnamese military has purchased 12 units of the latest SU-35 fighter jet from Russia, and added highly advanced Russian-Indian Brahmos cruise missiles to its navy’s capacity. Due to a five-decades-old and only recently lifted US arms embargo, Russia has long-dominated Vietnam’s arms market. However, the government is now in discussions with the EU and the US about buying weapons such as F-16s and Euro tycoon fighters to reduce reliance on Russian arms.

ASEAN nations share similar defence needs 

Overall there are many similarities between the purchases made by ASEAN countries, revealing a common defence doctrine guiding these leaders. For example, the focus on littoral-class combat ships which are cheap, fast and make it easy to conduct sovereignty sail, patrols and counter-piracy operations around shallow shorelines. These are not well-suited for extended operations in the deep waters of the South China Sea.

In fact, purchases such as Malaysia’s are perfect for the Straits of Malacca. And the generous bundle of weapons technology included in the deal is an affirmation of China’s position as guarantor of safe passage in this area. These ships not only bolster Malaysia against the US naval presence in Singapore, but offer the ability to protect Chinese-funded projects on Malaysia’s shoreline such from terrorism and piracy.

The nations of the ASEAN bloc are preparing to defend themselves – with or without the US

Another common trend is the purchase of long-range weapons such as submarines, advanced missile systems, and modern fighter jets. The doctrine of obtaining such weapons is easy to understand, but politically more complex, and should be considered carefully. These types of armaments have little scope for use in anti-terrorist, militant or pirate operations – they are intended to cause as much damage as possible.

This clearly shows that while friendships are being built across disputed waters, Chinese assets such as fuel depots, drills, airstrips and telecoms towers across the South China Sea could be targeted by their neighbours. The message has to be that the nations of the ASEAN bloc are capable of defending themselves.

Adding this long-range striking capacity to ASEAN’s arsenal also has a second purpose; reducing the region’s dependence on US aircraft carriers and missile cruisers.  The inward-looking foreign policy of the incoming Trump administration has created uncertainty about American commitments in the future, so building up a long range striking capacity among ASEAN countries can fill this void. And if, on the other hand, Trump’s administration wants to take a more active role in the region, many of the recent purchases could be smoothly integrated with the American capacity to create an even stronger deterrent.

The source of weapons is less relevant than how they are used

Factually, ASEAN countries have bought weapons from a variety of sources – whether India, China, Russia, Japan, South Korea, or the US. But that does not necessarily show a difference in positions or allegiances. Instead, this could be put down to straightforward affordability. For example, Singapore and Indonesia both affirmed their cooperation on transnational security in 2016, despite the fact Singapore mainly buys its arms from the US, while Indonesia looks to Russia. Resources from different parts of the world can still be put to work together.

In the bigger picture, local weapons spending shows that ASEAN nations are not so divided ideologically. They just recognise they need to upgrade their hardware to meet the changing needs of today’s world. Although the possible withdrawal by the US seems worrying, there are also reasons to rejoice. It reminds us that the peace we enjoy today must not be taken for granted and the ASEAN bloc must assume more responsibility for regional security.

As such, the current round of rearmament is practically inevitable but should be seen as a clear positive; as an opportunity to reduce dependence on foreign power and build more rounded military forces immune to geopolitical shifts. ASEAN is standing up for itself.