The shape of the Asia-Pacific defence landscape continues to evolve as the ongoing moves to reorganise and re-equip armed forces in the region steadily gather momentum against the backdrop of recent economic growth – the credit crunch notwithstanding.
Although publicly the talk is of enhanced peace and stability, in private, a number of analysts point to the development of a burgeoning 'hidden' arms race. In particular, tactical weaponry and the enhancement of conventional warfare capabilities is the order of the day. Peaceful it may be, but no one it seems is taking too many chances.
In general, as a nation becomes more prosperous, it increases the proportion of GDP it allocates to its defence budget and the newly-successful Asian economies are proving to be no exception. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), total military spending in Asia and Oceania was worth $219bn in 2007 – an increase of more than 50% on the funding allocated ten years ago.
Clearly, such unprecedented spending levels represent a major potential opportunity for technology vendors. For international firms the attraction is that much brighter as high initial R&D costs for many of the sought-after systems effectively rule out domestic development programmes, leaving countries reliant on foreign procurement. As a result, business forum Asia-Pacific Defence and Security (APDS) predicts that the region will head the list for defence imports well into the next decade, with contracts estimated at some $104bn expected to be fulfilled.
The security architecture within Asia-Pacific essentially comprises a distinctly mixed bag of overlapping arrangements, typified by a series of bilateral agreements and multilateral accords. As the US National Intelligence Council (NIC) points out in Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World – published in November 2008 – an increasing wave of regionalisation within the area as a whole has been lacking in the issue of defence.
The NIC analysis further suggests that the region's long-standing security issues are gradually becoming less important. At the same time, however, new concerns are replacing them – not least the spectre of competition and conflict over resources.
Nevertheless, alliances are being made and regional collaboration features in the national security policies of many constituent states. Some of these pacts are historic while others are new – or evolving – and though closer cooperation between the Indonesian and Thai Air Forces, for example, raises few eyebrows, developments in other relationships have fuelled concerns in different quarters.
For instance, the bilateral arrangement between Japan and the US has been expanding apace over the past ten years – culminating in their recent treaty on ballistic missile defence integration. These nations view this as an essential safeguard in the region but unsurprisingly it plays rather differently to a Chinese audience. This was a point emphasised in 2007 by China's deputy chief of general staff, Zhang Qinsheng, when speaking at a conference on Asia-Pacific security in Singapore. He noted that his country was, "worried this kind of deployment would destabilise Asia and create uncertainty in terms of regional stability and peace."
However, the growing military might, economic power and political influence of China itself is a source of disquiet to neighbouring states, not least because Beijing is already involved with territorial disputes of one sort or another with most of them. China's increased defence spending, particularly focused on naval expansion, has not gone unnoticed by its maritime neighbours. As a number of analysts have commented, it is precisely this fear of a significantly extended Chinese military sphere of influence that has, at least in part, helped precipitate some of the recent trends in regionalisation.
The role of Australia is also shaping up to be an interesting and potentially pivotal one, largely because its unique historical and geo-political position naturally places it astride many of the traditional old world / new world divides. In September, the country's Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd warned of the need to prepare for, the 'increased militarisation' of the region and the likely importance that food, water and energy resources will assume as the Asia-Pacific population grows. Yet, despite pledging increased military spending to 2017-18 to meet this goal, he is also looking to extend the existing political links with Australia's neighbours to the north.
Although Rudd has described the country's long-standing alliance with the US as, "the bedrock of our strategic policy," – and something which is set to remain – he has also signalled an intent to engage with the rest of Asia-Pacific to establish a comprehensive approach to defence. There is already a consensus of method and Rudd's Australia, like the other countries of the region, will be looking to acquire appropriate military technology to help ensure future security.
Technology shopping spree
It is an obvious truism that the Pacific is as much the defining feature of regional challenges as it is of the region itself. The littoral states of Southeast Asia have a collective surface area which is less than a third that of the continental US – but a combined coastal perimeter some six times larger.
From the perspective of national security, such long coastlines equate to serious operational challenges. This, coupled with the inherent difficulties which surround despatching conventional ground forces to remote and inaccessible reaches of the seaboard, make border integrity difficult – if not impossible – to maintain.
Add the vital economic importance of sea-lanes to the burgeoning economies of the region and a focus on enhanced naval power is the inevitable corollary.
But the technology shopping spree has already begun. In 2007, Singapore commissioned its first Formidable Class frigate and at the same time Indonesia entered into a loan agreement to purchase Russian equipment including Kilo Class submarines and is now investigating possible Chinese help to acquire or develop their own cruise missiles.
China's own naval expansion over the period has seen investment in a new fleet of submarines and the procurement of advanced naval mines. However, no matter how effective a navy, ultimately territorial security depends on the ability to occupy ground. In a region widely beset with militant separatist factions, jihadist terrorists and pirates, this task asks much of respective national armies.
As the region's nation-states have continued to update and extend their conventional war-fighting capabilities, a greater understanding of the importance of situational awareness on the modern battlefield has increasingly been developed. Consequently, with military thinking shifting towards networked defence strategies, network-centric warfare (NCW) systems have become one of the major growth areas on the procurement wish list.
Geospatial mapping technologies in particular seem to hold particular promise in meeting some of the region's military challenges by maximising the opportunity for tactical and operational use of data within an evolving battle space. Additionally, for the relatively smaller regional players it holds the key to improving the collaboration and interoperability between individual ground force units and with air or sea forces, so facilitating their integration into a seamless response.
These NCW developments on the ground are also being matched with better intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capability in the air, with airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft and improved radar systems in particular being prioritised. In 2007 alone, the Asia Pacific ISR radar market was worth $381m and is expected to rise to $432m by 2014, according to analysts at Frost & Sullivan.
With the long-term strategic role of China remaining unclear and future US involvement in the region widely expected to be scaled down over the coming decades, defence remains a key issue, which is good news for the defence exporters of the world, particularly in the current economic downturn.
There may not yet be a full-blown Asia-Pacific arms race but it is clear that many of the nations are keeping a careful eye on what their neighbours are doing and responding appropriately. Despite the reassuring evidence of rising levels of cooperation it seems they have learnt the lessons of history; the interdependence of nations is no guarantor of peace.