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Underwater arms race looms between Asean and China

Neighbours need to sit down together and with Beijing to calm security fears

A quarter of a century ago it was easy for policymakers in charge of defence policy to talk about threat perception. The world was engaged in the Cold War where the line between the two opposing forces was clearly drawn and threat perception was neatly presented.

Many of the wars on the ground were proxy in nature - a fight between Russia and the United States. And in some way it was easy for the defence planners to sell whatever ideas to the public, no matter how outrageous it may be, because ordinary people had also buy into the official explanation as to who or what was said to be a national security threat.

But in the aftermath of the Cold War the line in the sand is not as clear as it used to be. Foes have become friends and no-go areas are now investment opportunities. Moreover, the Killing Fields in Indochina have been transformed into a market-place. The same could be said for Communist China, as well as Russia.

And while threats or threat perceptions are still part of national planning, leaders and policy-makers cannot be as blunt as they used to for fear that a frank assessment may offend newfound friends. But it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that the ongoing race in procurement of military weapons, namely the submarines, in Southeast Asia is picking up at an unprecedented rate.

Military strategists can claim that modernisation requires strategists to look decades ahead to assess what the security situation would be like and make their plans accordingly. Policy for submarine procurement is no different.

In today's security challenge, defending a coastal area is no longer adequate; a nation must be able to project its authority far away from one's territorial water into the distant ocean to protect international sea lanes, resources and, if needed, to flex one's muscles to show others that "We mean business".

Incidentally, this appears to be the case between a number of Southeast Asian countries and China, because of territorial disputes, although no one country would admit that their naval modernisation is aimed at containing or countering Beijing's assertiveness over the contested areas.

Vietnam just received its first of six Russian Kilo-class submarines, while Thailand is expected to follow suit. Myanmar is planning to establish a submarine force by next year while Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia plan to add more submarines to their existing fleets. The Philippines, which needs to build up its naval forces because of its vast water area, has not acquired any new submarines.

But it's unlikely that ongoing modernisation of naval and military weapons in Southeast Asia will halt the China's expanded military projection in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. If anything, China is likely to beef up its anti-submarine capabilities. Japan's advanced submarine fleet has done nothing in terms of curbing China's assertiveness.

Needless to say, expansions are often countered by counter expansion, thus, adding to the regional suspicion. Asean nations must work together on this and act collectively before the situation gets out of control and the region finds itself in an unwanted arms race with China.

Military modernisation is a natural phenomenon. But when a nation builds its defence capability in response to another, it becomes a cause of concern.


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