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The Subtle Opening of Pandora’s Box

Jul 06, 2023
  • Luo Liang

    Assistant Research Fellow, National Institute for South China Sea Studies

In September 2021, the United States, United Kingdom and Australia entered into the AUKUS security partnership, setting a significant precedent for nuclear and non-nuclear states to collaborate on building nuclear-powered submarines. Additionally, the agreement reflects America’s perspective that the Asia-Pacific region is a central arena for conducting a new cold war against China. In this context, many experts have expressed concerns over a potential arms race and heightened risks of crises in the region.

The U.S. government released its budget for the 2024 fiscal year in March, revealing a significant increase in defense spending. Despite President Joe Biden’s commitment to reducing the budget deficit, defense spending has surged to a staggering $842 billion, up by 3.5 percent. This underscores America’s stance on tackling the so-called “challenges and continuous threats” posed by China.

The Indo-Pacific Strategy has led to a strong U.S. military presence in the region and to frequent joint military exercises with allies and partners, heightening tension in the region’s security environment. As a result, some countries in the Asia-Pacific region are augmenting their military capabilities, escalating regional concerns.

Several countries in the region are currently driving the most significant arms race since World War II, expanding their defense budgets to acquire various weapons and equipment, including nuclear submarines, conventional submarines, fighter jets and surface ships. The arms trade market has always been an indicator of major-power games and the international security situation.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) report points out that the Asia-Pacific region has seen a substantial advancement in military procurements, accounting for 41 percent of global weapons purchases from 2018 to 2022. East Asian countries’ arms imports increased by 21 percent, with America’s two largest allies — the Republic of Korea and Japan—recording the highest augmentation of 61 percent and 171 percent, respectively. Australia, the largest arms importer in Oceania, witnessed a 23 percent increase. Following this trend, the Pandora’s Box of a new arms race in the Asia-Pacific region has now been opened, raising the possibility of new tensions or localized conflicts.

Indonesia is the largest economy and most populous of the 10 ASEAN nations. As part of its defense modernization plan, it aims to acquire 274 green-water navy vessels, 12 fighter jet squadrons and 12 new diesel-electric submarines by 2024. In February last year, Indonesia signed an agreement with France to collaborate on submarine development and is set to acquire two Barracuda-class submarines.

Further, Indonesia procured 42 Rafale fighter jets from France in April, valued at $8.1 billion, initially ordering six jets. Interestingly, the United States also announced a competitive plan to sell F-15ID fighter jets and accompanying equipment to Indonesia, including radar and warning systems, at a staggering total cost of $13.9 billion.

Last year, the Philippines increased weapon imports by 64 percent. At the beginning of 2022, it sealed a deal with India to purchase three sets of BrahMos shore-based anti-ship missile systems worth $375 million. What’s interesting is that the BrahMos anti-ship missile has excellent anti-interception capabilities, giving the Philippines the ability to remotely launch missiles and target naval vessels. Since 2022, the Philippine Navy has purchased eight fast missile boats from Israel, totaling approximately $503 million. Additionally, in February and May last year, Japan built the multi-purpose response vessels Magbanua and Aquino, which will become the largest law enforcement vessels for the Philippine Coast Guard.

With their larger displacement and navigability, these vessels will undoubtedly enhance the operational capabilities of the Philippines in the South China Sea. Before this, Japan had sold up to 10 multipurpose fast-response patrol boats to the Philippine Coast Guard. During the previous presidency, relations between the Philippines and the United States and Japan moved closer, whereas tensions between China and the Philippines have been high because of disputes over territories such as the Ren’ai Reef and the Niu’e Reef in the South China Sea. Therefore, the recent actions of the Philippines are of great importance and merit attention.

Vietnam has developed air and sea power capabilities as part of its defense strategy to address the South China Sea situation. The U.S. lifted a 50-year arms embargo on Vietnam, allowing it to buy American-made weapons. In 2021, the U.S. began providing Vietnam with air force training systems. In April this year, Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Vietnam to commission the third Hamilton patrol vessel in the country.

Moreover, Vietnam has acquired more equipment and technology from Israeli defense companies, with Israel gradually overtaking Russia as Vietnam’s main arms exporter. It purchased three Barak-8 medium-to-long-range air defense missile systems from Israel’s IAI in September, amounting to roughly $500 million. Vietnam also expressed interest in acquiring air-launched BrahMos missiles, with which they intend to equip Su-30 aircraft.

In February this year, Malaysia announced the purchase of 18 ROK-made FA-50 light fighter jets worth approximately $920 million. The deliveries will commence in 2026, with another 18 aircraft of the same model planned for procurement, raising the overall quantity to 36. Based on the annual budget proposal submitted to Malaysia’s parliament, the country’s defense expenditures for 2023 are expected to be approximately $3.99 billion, mainly for the purchase of new equipment, including offshore combat vessels.

The U.S. is actively promoting its Indo-Pacific Strategy, magnifying military deployment in the Asia-Pacific region and intensifying pressure on China’s security. The Pacific Deterrence Initiative, highlighted in America’s fiscal year 2024 defense budget, was allocated $9.1 billion, a record that indicates a clear focus on the region. Additionally, funds of up to $2 billion were allocated to “strengthen Indo-Pacific partnerships to counter Chinese influence.”

There is no doubt that all this will continue to accelerate the efforts of countries in the Asia-Pacific region to strengthen strategic autonomy and provide for their own security in response to current security concerns and anxieties.

(Translated by Tong Xiaohua)

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