Malaysia's first submarine, 'KD Tunku Abdul Rahman',
arrives at Port Klang outside Kuala Lumpur in this
September 2009 file photo. REUTERS/Bazuki Muhammad/Files
Indonesia is buying submarines from South Korea and
coastal radar systems from China and the United States. Vietnam
is getting submarines and combat jets from Russia, while
Singapore - the world's fifth-largest weapons importer - is
adding to its sophisticated arsenal.
Wary of China and flush with economic success, Southeast Asia
is ramping up spending on military hardware to protect the
shipping lanes, ports and maritime boundaries that are vital
to the flow of exports and energy.
Territorial disputes in the South China Sea, fuelled by the
promise of rich oil and gas deposits, have prompted Vietnam,
Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei to try to offset China's
growing naval power.
Even for those away from that fray, maritime security has
been a major focus for Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore.
"Economic development is pushing them to spend money on
defence to protect their investments, sea lanes and exclusive
economic zones," said James Hardy, Asia Pacific editor of IHS
Jane's Defence Weekly. "The biggest trend is in coastal and
maritime surveillance and patrol."
As Southeast Asia's economies boomed, defence spending grew
42 percent in real terms from 2002 to 2011, data from the
Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)
High on the list are warships, patrol boats, radar systems
and combat planes, along with submarines and anti-ship
missiles that are particularly effective in denying access to
"Submarines are a big thing," said Tim Huxley, executive
director for Asia at the International Institute for
Strategic Studies. "They can do immense damage without being
seen, without being anticipated, and they can do that
anywhere in the region."
For decades, much of Southeast Asia spent little on weapons
other than guns and small tanks. Most threats were internal
and the umbrella of U.S. protection was deemed enough to ward
off any potential aggression from overseas.
With China's growing muscle and more funds available, the
shopping lists are getting more sophisticated. Most countries
in the region are littoral, so the emphasis is on sea and
Malaysia has two Scorpene submarines and Vietnam is buying
six Kilo-class submarines from Russia. Thailand also plans to
buy submarines and its Gripen warplanes from Sweden's Saab AB
will eventually be fitted with Saab's RBS-15F anti-ship
missiles, IISS says.
Singapore has invested in F-15SG combat jets from Boeing Co
in the United States and two Archer-class submarines from
Sweden to supplement the four Challenger submarines and
powerful surface navy and air force it already has.
Indonesia, a vast nation of islands with key sea lanes and
54,700 km (34,000 miles) of coastline, has two submarines now
and ordered three new ones from South Korea. It is also
working with Chinese firms on manufacturing C-705 and C-802
anti-ship missiles after test-firing a Russian-built Yakhont
anti-ship missile in 2011.
While it is not an arms race, analysts say, the build-up is
being driven by events in the South China Sea, long-standing
squabbles between neighbours and a desire to modernise while
governments have the money.
Piracy, illegal fishing, smuggling, terrorism and disaster
relief also play their parts, along with keeping the
influential military happy in places such as Thailand and
There is a "general sense of strategic uncertainty in the
region" given China's rise and doubts about the U.S. ability
to sustain a military presence in Asia, said Ian Storey, a
senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
"Southeast Asian countries will never be able to match
China's defence modernisation," he said, citing Vietnam's
push for a deterrent. "If the Chinese did attack the
Vietnamese, at least the Vietnamese could inflict some
SIPRI says Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand took the
lead in boosting their defence budgets by between 66 and 82
percent from 2002 to 2011.