Mil­i­tary De­vel­op­ments in South East Asia

The fun­da­men­tal im­pulse of US to shift to the Asia-Pa­cific and par­tic­u­larly South East Asia was the grow­ing in­flu­ence of China. Re­turn of the US was termed as the ‘pivot or re­bal­anc­ing’ to­wards Asia.


MIL­I­TARY DE­VEL­OP­MENTS IN SOUTH East Asia or for that mat­ter any­where else can­not be seen in isolation from the po­lit­i­cal, strate­gic and eco­nomic con­texts. Events that are tak­ing place in South East Asia are also a sub­set of what is hap­pen­ing in Asia in par­tic­u­lar and at the global level in gen­eral. While there has been an on-go­ing shift of eco­nomic power to Asia it is also quite ap­par­ent that most of the con­flict spots of the world are in Asia. Rapid rise of China and its fast tracked mil­i­tari­sa­tion has cre­ated its own geostrate­gic dy­nam­ics not only in Asia and South East Asia but also has caused re­ver­ber­a­tions at the global level. Ac­cord­ing to a re­port by the Lon­don-based In­ter­na­tional In­sti­tute for Strate­gic Stud­ies (IISS) re­leased in March 2013 Asia over­took Euro­pean mem­bers of the North At­lantic Treaty (NATO) in terms of nom­i­nal mil­i­tary spend­ing for the first time last. The South East Asian na­tions have not only to re­spond to fes­ter­ing in­ter­nal se­cu­rity chal­lenges as the process of na­tion build­ing is as yet not com­plete in most of the coun­tries they also have to deal with ex­ter­nal threat per­cep­tions.

Look­ing at the politico-strate­gic mi­lieu in South East Asian re­gion four broad trends that have im­pact on mil­i­tary de­vel­op­ments can be dis­cerned. First trend is that af­ter hav­ing in­te­grated the South East economies and strength­en­ing People’s Lib­er­a­tion Army China has now be­come more as­sertive in its sovereignty claims that ad­versely im­pact a num­ber of South East Asian na­tions. Sec­ond trend is that the US fear­ing loss of its power and in­flu­ence in Asia-Pa­cific and South East Asia has been at­tempt­ing to stage a come­back through its ‘pivot’ to Asia or re­bal­ance to Asia strat­egy which has po­lit­i­cal, mil­i­tary and eco­nomic com­po­nents. Thirdly, South East Asian coun­tries es­pe­cially those who are at the re­ceiv­ing end of China’s as­sertive poli­cies are at­tempt­ing to bal­ance China through po­lit­i­cal, se­cu­rity and de­fence co­op­er­a­tion with out­side pow­ers like the US and oth­ers. And fourthly, the South East Asian coun­tries through multi-lat­eral struc­tures like ASEAN are also at­tempt­ing to en­gage China to ad­dress their se­cu­rity con­cerns.

China’s As­ser­tion in South East Asia

While the re­cent events in South China

Sea (SCS) in­di­cate that China’s has be­come more as­sertive about its claims with Viet­nam and the Philip­pines yet these are not the only coun­tries af­fected by China’s ir­re­den­tist ten­den­cies. Bei­jing has through its car­to­graphic pro­pa­ganda shown Natuna is­land of In­done­sia that con­tains gas fields as part of China through an of­fi­cial map. Even some of the Malaysian gas fields off the shore of Sarawak are claimed by the Chi­nese. Spratly chain of is­lands be­sides be­ing claimed by Viet­nam and China are also claimed by other SCS lit­toral na­tions.

The dis­pute be­tween China and Philip­pines about Scar­bor­ough Shoal has not abated since early April 2012 when a Philip­pine Navy sur­veil­lance plane spotted eight Chi­nese fish­ing ves­sels docked at Scar­bor­ough Shoal. The Philip­pine Navy despatched a ship to ar­rest the Chi­nese fish­er­men but were pre­vented by two Chi­nese Ma­rine Sur­veil­lance ships. There were protests by both coun­tries and fi­nally by July 2012 China erected a bar­rier to the en­trance of the Shoal. Chi­nese sur­veil­lance ships have pre­vented Filipinos from fish­ing in the area. The dis­pute has soured the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the two coun­tries.

China has also raised the sta­tus of San­sha County in Hainan prov­ince to that of ‘Pre­fec­ture’. In ear­lier years when China Na­tional People’s Congress had passed a law to make San­sha as a county to ad­min­is­ter its claims in the South China Sea it had led to anti-China protests in Viet­nam. In ad­di­tion, a mil­i­tary gar­ri­son has also been es­tab­lished in San­sha city in July 2012 with the char­ter of mil­i­tary mo­bil­i­sa­tion but the Chi­nese say that it is only for de­fen­sive pur­poses. PLA Navy is also strength­en­ing its naval base of Hainan (near city of Sanya).

China has also re­struc­tured its coast guard and mar­itime forces. The new re­struc­tured body com­bines the func­tions of China Ma­rine Sur­veil­lance, the coast guard forces un­der the Min­istry of Pub­lic Se­cu­rity, the fish­eries law en­force­ment com­mand with the Min­istry of Agri­cul­ture and mar­itime anti-smug­gling po­lice of the Gen­eral Ad­min­is­tra­tion of Cus­toms.

China has been reg­u­larly warn­ing out­side pow­ers like the US and even In­dia and oth­ers not to in­ter­fere in the on­go­ing dis­putes in the SCS. In Septem­ber 2013 Wang Guanzhong, Deputy Chief of Gen­eral Staff of the PLA, dur­ing a meet­ing with James N. Miller, US Un­der Sec­re­tary of De­fense for Pol­icy, in Bei­jing cau­tioned that “The US should not give the wrong sig­nals to sup­port or al­low rel­e­vant coun­tries to do what­ever they want…. China hopes the US will not be­come a third party in is­sues re­lated to the Diaoyu Is­lands and the South China Sea”. On the other hand James Miller ap­pealed to all sides in­volved to main­tain re­straint and said the US sup­ported China in solv­ing ter­ri­to­rial dis­putes through diplo­matic chan­nels.

Dec­la­ra­tion by China of a new over­lap­ping Air De­fence Iden­ti­fi­ca­tion Zone (ADIZ) over con­tested is­lands of Diaoyu/Senkaku in end Novem­ber 2013 be­sides rais­ing the ten­sions be­tween Tokyo and Bei­jing have raised ques­tions about China’s in­ten­tions and its pol­icy of peace­ful de­vel­op­ment. Fur­ther, PRC also ex­pressed its in­ten­tions of declar­ing ADIZ in other con­tested zones like the SCS. What is of in­ter­est to China’s negh­bours both across the land and mar­itime borders is how China would be­have as it continues to rise. China’s uni­lat­eral an­nounce­ment of its new ADIZ which over­laps the ex­ist­ing one has cre­ated con­cerns about China’s con­tin­ued as­sertive poli­cies.

Re­bal­anc­ing of the US to Asia-Pa­cific

Af­ter Pres­i­dent Obama took over in Jan­uary 2009 his ad­min­is­tra­tion has been pay­ing con­sid­er­able at­ten­tion to Asia-Pa­cific. Be­fore 2009, there was gen­eral feel­ing among the South East Asian coun­tries that Amer­ica has with­drawn from the South East Asian re­gion. The fun­da­men­tal im­pulse of the shift to the Asia-Pa­cific and par­tic­u­larly South East Asia was the grow­ing in­flu­ence of China. Re­turn of the US was termed as the ‘pivot or ‘re­bal­anc­ing’ to­wards Asia. The ob­jec­tive was to en­hance the cred­i­bil­ity of the US as only su­per­power de­spite the con­straints im­posed by econ­omy.

In March 2012 the US came out with a new De­fence Strate­gic Guid­ance which ex­panded on the theme. The plans in­cluded additional de­ploy­ment of troops from Aus­tralia to Sin­ga­pore in a phased man­ner. Its new Asi­aPa­cific strat­egy be­sides Asia-Pa­cific re­gion also ex­tended to In­dian Ocean lit­toral. The mil­i­tary di­men­sion of the pivot was as a re­sponse to grow­ing mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­i­ties of China and its in­creas­ing as­sertive­ness that has im­pli­ca­tions for free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion and Amer­ica’s abil­ity to project power in the re­gion.

The map on pre­vi­ous page in­di­cates the likely US mil­i­tary de­ploy­ments from Sin­ga­pore to Aus­tralia. A large por­tion of the US Naval fleet (60 per cent) that in­cludes air­craft car­ri­ers, sub­marines and other com­bat ships would be based in Asia-Pa­cific. Sin­ga­pore would have fi­nally four lit­toral com­bat ships de­ployed; Philip­pines is ex­pected to have 500 ro­ta­tional troops de­ployed be­sides al­low­ing Amer­i­can sur­veil­lance planes to fly from its air­bases. Aus­tralia has al­ready started host­ing Amer­i­can marines at Dar­win. In ad­di­tion there have been other de­ploy­ments else­where which can be con­sid­ered as a re­sponse to pos­si­ble chal­lenges and threats aris­ing out of China’s mil­i­tary mod­erni­sa­tion and its mus­cu­lar poli­cies in South China Sea and East China Sea. Fur­ther, the US forces have also worked out con­cepts to meet the chal­lenges of PLA’s anti-ac­cess and area de­nial strate­gies.

Added to the above is the Amer­i­can ef­fort to forge co­op­er­a­tive de­fence ties with the South East Asian na­tions through joint ex­er­cises, sup­ply of weapon sys­tems and joint train­ing. This is also be­ing sup­ple­mented by Amer­ica’s ex­ten­sion of po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic sup­port to the ASEAN mem­bers es­pe­cially to those who are much af­fected by China’s as­sertive poli­cies es­pe­cially Viet­nam and Philip­pines.

Re­sponse of the South East Asian Na­tions

Coun­tries in South East Asia are at­tempt­ing to rise to the heavy-handed tac­tics of China through po­lit­i­cal, diplo­matic and to an ex­tent through de­fence co­op­er­a­tion with out­side pow­ers. At the po­lit­i­cal level while some of the ASEAN mem­bers whose in­ter­ests are not im­me­di­ately af­fected have been ac­com­mo­dat­ing China on the other hand oth­ers whose vi­tal in­ter­ests are af­fected have re­sponded with mod­ernising their mil­i­taries, form­ing quasimil­i­tary al­liances with the US and ob­tain­ing de­fence equip­ment from a wide va­ri­ety of sources. The ASEAN mem­bers also con­sider the multi-lat­eral in­sti­tu­tions as the best way to en­gage China rather than solve the prob­lem of the SCS through bi­lat­eral mech­a­nisms. China on the other hand, know­ing its ad­van­tage has pre­ferred to deal with the mar­itime dis­putes on a bi­lat­eral ba­sis.

Viet­nam and the Philip­pines both rat­tled by China’s ag­gres­sive poli­cies have been grad­u­ally mov­ing to­wards ce­ment­ing their de­fence ties with the US. The US and Viet­nam had signed an agree­ment on de­fence co­op­er­a­tion in 2011 and 2012 Leon Panetta was will­ing to take it fur­ther. Panetta had re­marked that “It will be par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant to be able to work with part­ners like Viet­nam, to be able to use har­bours like this [Cam Ranh Bay] as we move our ships from our ports on the West Coast, (and) our sta­tions here in the Pa­cific”. Both are hold­ing reg­u­lar de­fence pol­icy di­a­logue and there is a deep­en­ing of US-Viet­nam joint naval en­gage­ments; Viet­namese of­fi­cers are also be­ing sent to US staff col­leges.

In last six years or so Viet­nam has been im­port­ing mil­i­tary hard­ware from Rus­sia and largely naval ves­sels to in­clude six Kilo class sub­marines, four frigates, some corvettes and some Su-30 MK2 and Su-27 air­craft air­crafts have been pur­chased. In ad­di­tion it has strength­ened its de­fence re­la­tion­ship with In­dia.

The Amer­i­cans who had with­drawn from their Su­bic Bay naval base over two decades ago are now re­turn­ing to the Philip­pines. A mini-Su­bic Bay naval base at Oys­ter Bay which is 550 km south-west of Manila has been planned. The Philip­pines also has re­vived plans to mod­ernise and Su­bic Bay air and naval base with an ex­pen­di­ture of $1.8 bil­lion. The United States is also help­ing to up­grade and mod­ernise the Philip­pine mil­i­tary. Ear­lier in July 2013 US Sec­re­tary of De­fence Chuck Hagel vis­ited Manila and ob­served: “We are us­ing a new model of mil­i­tary-to-mil­i­tary co­op­er­a­tion be­fit­ting two great al­lies and friends”. Be­fore Chuck Hagel’s visit the two mil­i­tary chiefs Gen­eral Em­manuel Bautista and Gen­eral Martin Dempsey, signed a joint state­ment in Wash­ing­ton af­firm­ing both sides’ com­mit­ment to the 1951 Mu­tual De­fence Treaty. An­other high­light of the en­hanced de­fence re­la­tion­ship was that from only 50 ship vis­its in 2010, over 90 ships had vis­ited the Philip­pines since Jan­uary to early Oc­to­ber 2013.

Around 600 US Spe­cial Forces troops have been de­ployed to the Philip­pines for over a decade to as­sist in the fight against a lon­grun­ning Mus­lim in­sur­gency on the south­ern is­land of Min­danao. Wash­ing­ton has sta­tioned sur­veil­lance planes there and promised up to $30 mil­lion in sup­port for build­ing and op­er­at­ing coastal radar sta­tions.

So far as In­done­sia is con­cerned the de­fence re­la­tion­ship with the US has been on up­ward tra­jec­tory. On the side­lines of Shangri La di­a­logue of June 2013 De­fense Sec­re­tary Chuck Hagel af­ter meet­ing his In­done­sian coun­ter­part Purnomo Yus­giantoro stated that “the two lead­ers reaf­firmed the im­por­tance of deep­en­ing ties [and] re­viewed progress made in re­cent years to in­crease ex­er­cises and train­ing, as well as reg­u­lar de­fense pol­icy dia­logues,” and dis­cussed Amer­i­can sup­port for In­done­sia’s mil­i­tary mod­erni­sa­tion, in­clud­ing through US for­eign mil­i­tary sales.

In Au­gust 2013 US De­fence Sec­re­tary dur­ing a visit to In­done­sia, Malaysia, Philip­pines and Brunei had an­nounced a deal worth about $500 mil­lion be­tween the United States and In­done­sia to sell eight new Apache AH-64E at­tack he­li­copters and Long­bow radars to In­done­sia. Fur­ther, In­done­sia and the United States have also

been reg­u­larly hold­ing joint mil­i­tary ex­er­cises for over last five years. In June 2012 a joint ex­er­cise code named Garuda Shield 2012 in­volv­ing 450 In­done­sian and 100 US troops was held; the ob­jec­tives were counter-ter­ror­ist and counter-piracy op­er­a­tions. In­done­sia also par­tic­i­pates with the United States in a num­ber of re­gional ex­er­cises, in­clud­ing Cobra Gold in Thai­land. The United States is pro­vid­ing For­eign Mil­i­tary Fi­nanc­ing funds to up­grade age­ing In­done­sian C-130 cargo planes and is sell­ing Jakarta two dozen re­fur­bished F-16s.

The other coun­tries of the ASEAN have also been mod­ernising their mil­i­taries and co­op­er­at­ing with out­side pow­ers though their mo­ti­va­tions for spurring their de­fence ex­pen­di­tures could be dif­fer­ent. Myan­mar, for in­stance, is be­com­ing more open and its mil­i­tary has ex­pressed in­ten­tions to in­crease de­fence co­op­er­a­tion with the Amer­i­can mil­i­tary. Sim­i­larly, Malaysia, Brunei and Thai­land are mov­ing to­wards up­grad­ing their mil­i­taries due to a va­ri­ety of im­pulses.

Fol­low­ing the Amer­i­can lead coun­tries like Aus­tralia, Ja­pan and the western na­tions like France, the UK and Canada are also shor­ing up their de­fence en­gage­ment with some of the ASEAN na­tions. For in­stance, Canada is plan­ning to set up a lo­gis­tics fa­cil­ity in Sin­ga­pore, in or­der to sup­port the US coali­tion. In ad­di­tion in its ‘pivot to Asia’ con­cept the US looks upon In­dia and Ja­pan, among oth­ers, as part­ners.

Fur­ther, In­dia has also been de­vel­op­ing its de­fence re­la­tion­ship with ASEAN as part of its ‘Look East Pol­icy’ that pre-dates the un­veil­ing of the Amer­i­can pivot to Asia par­a­digm. Though In­dia does not wish to get in­volved mil­i­tar­ily in the on­go­ing dis­putes in the SCS it has been sup­port­ing the free- dom of nav­i­ga­tion and the UN Con­ven­tion on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS).

En­gag­ing China Mul­ti­lat­er­ally

To ad­dress their se­cu­rity con­cerns the ASEAN had es­tab­lished the ASEAN De­fence Min­is­ters Meet­ing ( ADMM) Plus Eight mech­a­nism that in­cludes China, US, Rus­sia, In­dia, Ja­pan, South Korea, Aus­tralia and New Zealand be­sides ASEAN mem­bers. Over­all goal was to ex­plore ar­eas of co­op­er­a­tion and min­imise ar­eas of dis­so­nance in se­cu­rity is­sues. One of the ma­jor rea­sons for ini­ti­a­tion of such a frame­work had been the transna­tional na­ture of threats that makes it very dif­fi­cult for a sin­gle na­tion to deal with in isolation. Threats re­lated to vi­o­lent ex­trem­ism, mar­itime se­cu­rity, vul­ner­a­bil­ity of SLOCs, transna­tional crimes have a di­rect and in­di­rect bear­ing on the tra­jec­tory of eco­nomic growth. Apart from this the ex­is­tence of ter­ri­to­rial dis­putes es­pe­cially on the mar­itime front plus the is­sues re­lated to po­lit­i­cal dif­fer­ences and rise of China have added to the se­cu­rity dilemma in the re­gion giv­ing rise to ar­eas of po­ten­tial con­flict.

ASEAN mem­bers en­vis­aged that ADDM+8 could be a use­ful plat­form in dif­fus­ing se­cu­rity con­cerns es­pe­cially when the po­ten­tial for cri­sis ex­ists, how­ever, so far only non-con­ven­tional se­cu­rity is­sues have taken the cen­tre stage on its agenda. Though its mul­ti­lat­eral ar­chi­tec­ture could have a damp­en­ing ef­fect on any ag­gres­sive or as­sertive mem­ber who may chose to take re­course to arms to set­tle dis­putes. It is per­ceived that ADMM Plus Eight could pro­vide a plat­form for mu­tual un­der­stand­ing, mil­i­tary trans­parency, im­prov­ing mil to mil re­la­tions, con­fi­dence build­ing and di­a­logue to dis­cuss most of the long-stand­ing is­sues. One such pro­posal in the con­cept paper of ADMM Plus Eight was to carry out joint ex­er­cises and train­ing to fa­cil­i­tate un­der­stand­ing and friend­ship es­pe­cially among the de­fence es­tab­lish­ments of the re­spec­tive coun­tries. Lastly it seems that the in­clu­sion of USA, Rus­sia and even In­dia to some ex­tent is in con­so­nance with the need to bal­ance the as­sertive ten­den­cies of Bei­jing es­pe­cially in the South China Sea and else­where.

Here it is im­por­tant to men­tion that dur­ing an in­ter­view the Chi­nese De­fence Min­is­ter told the People’s Daily that South China Sea can­not be on the agenda for ADMM Plus Eight and this par­tic­u­lar plat­form will not be used to dis­cuss the is­sue of South China Sea. This was in ref­er­ence to the in­au­gu­ral con­fer­ence of the plat­form in 2010.

In June 2013 a joint mil­i­tary ex­er­cise in Brunei un­der the aegis of ADDM Plus Eight (a to­tal of 18 coun­tries i.e. ASEAN plus six, Rus­sia and the US) that fo­cused on five pri­or­ity ar­eas of co­op­er­a­tion: hu­man­i­tar­ian as­sis­tance and dis­as­ter re­lief (HADR), medicine, mar­itime se­cu­rity, peace­keep­ing and counter-ter­ror­ism was held. How far it has been able to build con­fi­dence be­tween the mil­i­taries of mem­ber na­tions is an­other mat­ter. But the fact of the mat­ter is that China is more com­fort­able with bi­lat­eral en­gage­ment in ad­dress­ing se­cu­rity is­sues or dis­putes.


Fu­ture course of mil­i­tary events would largely de­pend upon how the US-China, US-ASEAN and China-ASEAN re­la­tion­ships evolve. While In­dia has also been strength­en­ing its politi­comil­i­tary re­la­tion­ships with the ASEAN it is un­likely that it will proac­tively get it­self in­volved in a pos­si­ble mil­i­tary con­flict in the SCS.

Fur­ther even though the USA has in­di­cated its de­sire to re­turn to Asia-Pa­cific there are views that due to its eco­nomic con­straints there might be a re­think. How­ever, so far the United States does have a su­pe­rior mil­i­tary which can sup­port its geopo­lit­i­cal aims in the Asia-Pa­cific re­gion. There­fore, coun­tries in South East Asia who feel threat­ened by China’s ris­ing mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­i­ties would nat­u­rally grav­i­tate to­wards Amer­ica as a bal­anc­ing ex­er­cise against China. While China re­alises that main­tain­ing peace and sta­bil­ity in the re­gion is im­por­tant for eco­nomic growth it is also in­creas­ingly be­ing im­pacted by ris­ing na­tion­al­is­tic ten­den­cies and as­pi­ra­tions fu­elled by its eco­nomic and mil­i­tary growth. Re­cent years have seen ex­pan­sion of China’s core in­ter­ests and a cer­tain will­ing­ness to co­erce the weaker con­tenders mil­i­tar­ily.

In com­ing years the South East Asia re­gion is likely to emerge as a keenly con­tested re­gion be­tween the United States and China. The US has also been urg­ing In­dia to be more proac­tive in its ‘Look East Pol­icy’ as a part of US hedg­ing strat­egy against a rapidly ris­ing China. While the US po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary lead­er­ship has de­scribed In­dia as a ma­jor cog of its Asia-Pa­cific strat­egy, in the evolv­ing strate­gic mi­lieu In­dia would have to find an ap­pro­pri­ate role for it­self and es­tab­lish a mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial re­la­tion­ship with the South East Asian na­tions to re­alise its na­tional in­ter­ests. China’s ag­gres­sive poli­cies along its pe­riph­ery also have im­pli­ca­tions for In­dia and there­fore, New Delhi can­not af­ford to over­look its mil­i­tary mod­erni­sa­tion pro­gramme which needs to be fast tracked.

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