From: Military Balance IISS
Most Asian states have been expanding their military budgets and attempting to improve their armed forces’ capabilities in recent years. This is largely a result of increasing uncertainty about the future distribution of power in the region and widespread suspicions, in some cases increasing tension, among regional armed forces. While these efforts are intended to deter potential adversaries, there is substantial evidence of action-reaction dynamics taking hold and influencing regional states’ military programmes.
Analysts were waiting at the end of 2012 to see what effect China’s once-in-a-decade leadership change might have on the wider Asian region. New capabilities displayed in 2012 provided further evidence of China’s efforts to expand the capabilities of its People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The United States’ ‘rebalance’ to the Asia-Pacific and associated Air–Sea Battle concept were both widely seen as responses to Beijing’s growing power and assertiveness in the region.
Concerns about Beijing’s growing assertiveness were also reflected in rising tensions over maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas. China’s maritime agencies have continued to send paramilitary vessels to promote and defend its extensive but ill-defined claims in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, China finally commissioned its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, in September 2012. Some Chinese commentators emphasised the significance of the Liaoning’s commissioning in relation to the maritime disputes around China’s littoral, and the Liaoning’s commissioning certainly affected other regional states’ assessments of Chinese power.
North Korea continued efforts to develop its nuclear-weapons capability and its closely related long-range missile arsenal. Japan has made significant, if incremental, capability improvements in the face of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes and the escalation of maritime disputes. Many factors, not least the deterrent effect of the US–Japan alliance, militated against the likelihood of open conflict, but the continuing deterioration of Japan’s regional strategic environment provided impetus for efforts to implement the ‘dynamic defence force’ idea.
India’s defence policy retained a substantial focus on deterring Pakistan, primarily through the larger country’s nuclear-weapons capability, but its defence planners increasingly view China as a potential strategic challenge and New Delhi has continued to invest in developing its military capabilities.
Southeast Asian states party to the dispute in the Spratly Islands have focused on using diplomacy, particularly through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and related institutions, to constrain Chinese adventurism. Nevertheless, continuing tensions in the South China Sea have unnerved several Southeast Asian governments, contributing to a greater or lesser degree to their attempts to improve their military capabilities.
In the Philippines, a funding shortage continued to stymie armed-forces modernisation. The 2013 military modernisation budget, approved in September 2012, only provided one-third of the US$120 million which the armed forces required annually for the latest five-year modernisation programme. In April 2012, Manila requested military assistance from the United States in the form of second-hand F-16 combat aircraft, naval vessels and radar systems. However, by the following month, the potential cost of operating F-16s had apparently led to this idea’s abandonment; new plans for reviving the air force’s combat-fighter capability involved acquiring 12 TA-50 advanced trainers from South Korea. In May 2012, the US transferred a second former Hamiltonclass Coast Guard cutter to the Philippine Navy. The first ship of the class to be transferred, commissioned in March 2011, was involved in a stand-offin April 2012 with Chinese maritime surveillance paramilitary vessels offthe disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. Navy plans call for the frigates to be fitted with new weapons, including Harpoonanti-ship missiles.
The announcement in October 2012 of a framework agreement between the Philippine government and the country’s major armed opposition group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, raised the prospect of peace in Mindanao in the southern Philippines,where a 40-year conflict had claimed an estimated 120,000 lives and required a major counter-insurgency commitment. This development could facilitate the armed forces’ reorientation towards conventional warfare. However, internal security threats from other sources, notably the New People’s Army and the Abu Sayyaf Group continued, and would prevent the armed forces from abandoning their watch on domestic security in the near future.
Although a claimant in the Spratly Islands dispute, Malaysia has not been particularly affected by the growing tensions in the South China Sea and has continued to pursue close relations with China. Indeed, in September 2012, the two countries held their first bilateral ‘defence and security consultation’, and agreed to strengthen ‘mutual exchange and cooperation’ in the military sphere. Defence minister Zahid Hamidi revealed that Malaysia was considering purchasing, and possibly producing, Chinese missile systems of undisclosed type.
Nevertheless, recognition of China’s growing power has been one of many factors influencing continued efforts to boost the Malaysian armed forces’ capabilities. The 2013 defence budget includes a RM 2.7 billion (US$885m) ‘development’ component, roughly 23% more than in 2012. The defence ministry will spend most of this on the four largest current procurement projects now under way, including six locally built, 2,750 tonne DCNS Gowindfrigates under the Littoral Combat Ship project. The current major procurement decision concerns a contract for 18 new Multi-Role Combat Aircraft. A decision is expected during 2013 between the Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, Saab Gripen, Sukhoi Su-30MKM and Boeing F/A-18E/F. Procuring the aircraft will almost certainly require a larger development budget or supplementary funding. In the meantime, critics continue to stress that expensive military acquisition programmes may not automatically translate into improved capabilities: in October 2012, Chief of Navy Admiral Tan Sri Abdul Aziz Jaafar was forced to refute rumours that the navy’s two Scorpenesubmarines were still not fully operational.
Singapore’s government has continued to provide the resources necessary to expand military capabilities. The Singapore Armed Forces received a steady stream of new equipment, ensuring that the citystate maintains a lead in military technology over potential regional adversaries. However, some of the most important continuing capability developments involve the low-profile enhancement of C4I capacity through the Advanced Combat Man System and the Battlefield Management System. New ISR acquisitions in 2012 included Scan EagleUAVs, to be operated from navy corvettes. Singapore’s defence ministry has also negotiated and maintained training and exercise arrangements with regional and international partners, and these contribute significantly to SAF capabilities. For example, in September 2012, for the first time, Singapore’s air force deployed F-15SG strike aircraft and G550-AEW ISR platforms to Darwin for the annual Pitch Black multinational air exercise with Australia, Indonesia, New Zealand, Thailand and the US. Defence relations with the US are closer than ever. Singapore air-force detachments there are training on F-15SG and F-16C/D combat aircraft, and AH-64D and CH-47D helicopters. Meanwhile, US deployments to Singapore will expand significantly with the arrival of the first Littoral Combat Ship, planned for the second quarter of 2013.
In Thailand, the government led by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has striven to remain on equable terms with the leadership of the armed forces (which in 2006 deposed her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra). Partly for this reason, the 2013 budget, announced in May 2012, indicated that annual defence spending would rise by 7% in 2013. However, the budget increase also occurred against the backdrop of serious border clashes with Cambodia between October 2008 and May 2011, clashes on the border with Myanmar between Karen rebel units and Myanmar’s army, and continuing violence in Thailand’s four southernmost provinces, where an obscure conflict involving Malay–Muslim insurgents, criminal gangs, and apparently unaccountable security forces has claimed more than 5,000 lives since early 2004.
Thailand’s military procurement has remained eclectic. Major projects under way during 2012 included Phase 2 of the project to acquire 12 Saab Gripencombat aircraft and two associated Saab 340 AEW platforms: the second Saab 340 AEW was delivered in October 2012, and the second batch of six Gripensis due in 2013. A related development was the award, in April 2012, of a contract to equip the aircraft carrier HTMS Chakri Naruebetwith the Saab 9LV Mk.4 combat system and with data links for communication with the Gripensand AEW aircraft.
In September 2012, the Cabinet approved funding for the next major acquisition programme, which will involve procurement of two new frigates by 2018. This supersedes the earlier priority of purchasing as many as six submarines.
Myanmar’s large armed forces are dominated by the army, reflecting their long involvement in combating numerous ethnic-minority rebel armies. After coming to power in March 2011, the partially civilian government of President Thein Sein has signed ceasefires with nearly one dozen armed groups, including the United Wa State Army and the Shan State Army–South. But although the president ordered Myanmar’s army, the Tatmadaw, to halt offensive operations against the large Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in late 2011, peace talks have failed and fighting has continued. In August 2012, the KIA claimed that more than 10,000 troops had been deployed in Kachin State and were escalating operations.
It remained unclear whether the political reforms led by the president, and supported by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, would lead to peace in Kachin State and other areas of ethnic-minority unrest, and to military reforms affecting the Tatmadaw.
However, in October 2012, there was a sign of willingness by other countries to engage more directly with the Tatmadawasa result of the country’s rapidly improving international image, when the US invited Myanmar to participate in the next annual Cobra Goldexercise in Thailand, in early 2013. The Tatmadaw used to see the Cobra Gold exercises as aimed at Myanmar, so its participation – even as an observer – would be significant. Then, in November, US President Barack Obama visited Myanmar.