zondag 9 januari 2011

Southeast Asia and the arms race (1990s)

Fotobijschrift:overzicht van territoriale conflicten deze
spanningen en een wapenwedloop is een gevaarlijke combinatie. Illustratie uit.

Vandaag was het weer groot nieuws in Zuidoost Azië woedt een wapenwedloop. Het bericht kwam van SIPRI. Ik zag het vanmorgen voor het eerst via twitter, maar het stond ook in de ochtendbladen. In 1994 schreef ik er bij een tuinhuisje een artikel over. Ik heb het van internet geplukt en hieronder geplakt. Niet helemaal, maar toch nog wel grotendeels relevant. Nu zou er zeker meer China in komen.

South East Asia: armed to the teeth
Uit: STOP Arming Indonesia, (Amsterdam: ENAAT, 1994, vertaald naar het Nederland en Indonesisch), uitverkocht!

According to François Heisbourg, the build-up of armed forces in ASEAN Asia alone creates a dangerous situation which makes South East Asia look suspiciously like Europe on the eve of World War I. Heisbourg is not a peace activist looking for arguments to oppose the arms trade, but a Senior Vice President of MATRA, one of the largest defence companies in France.

In truth, it is not just the countries of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), but the region as a whole which is busy arming itself to the teeth. More and more countries can now afford large-scale military acquisitions.

During the Cold War, South East Asia and North East Asia were the domain of the politics of the superpowers. The biggest wars were fought, and the greatest defeats suffered, in this part of the world. The separation of North- and South-Korea took place against the background of a bloody war under the flag of the United Nations. France, the former superpower, and the United States, the new one, were both defeated in Vietnam. The rivalry between communism and capitalism played an important role in these conflicts. Theoretical justifications were invented for the war in Vietnam; the struggle against the Vietnamese nationalists was fought to contain
the red menace'. The French convinced the US of the danger that a communist Vietnam might lead to a series of communist revolts throughout the area. China, the United States and Great Britain gave military support to the parties in the Cambodian civil war. In 1991 in Paris a peace treaty was made, in which the different parties in Cambodia expressed their willingness to accept a peace programme under the flag of the United Nations. In February 1994 the United States
finally gave Vietnam access to the world market after a prolonged embargo. This put an end to most conflicts in the region. Nevertheless, two legacies of the Cold War remain in North East Asia: five years after East and West Germany were reunited, not only North and South Korea, but also Taiwan and China are still separated.

The rivalry between communist and capitalist powers was not only for economic influence in South East Asia itself. The region was also of great geostrategic importance. The oilfields of the Middle East lay behind this region from the perspective of Japan and of the United States. Any closure of the important sea routes throughout the Indonesian archipelago would mean oil tankers sailing around these islands, making a detour of 5000 km. Moreover, few of these channels are deep enough to allow for a safe passage of submarines. So these straits are vital to
the passage of warships and merchant vessels from the Indian ocean to the western Pacific, or vice versa.

The economic boom in most countries in this area enhanced its strategic importance. The economic expansion made the trade with this region and consequently the control of the sea lanes more important. Not surprisingly, Australia, Japan, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany and New Zealand protested vigorously against the closure of two straits (Lombok and Sunda) by Indonesia in September 1988. Indonesia did not regard them as international but as Indonesian waters. Reflecting the geostrategic significance, arms acquisitions in South East Asia tend to be of a maritime nature. Indonesia regrouped its navy in the early 1990s, with ships
no longer stationed in particular regions, but grouped in mobile flotillas, to be despatched where needed. One reason for this was to cope with the large-scale missions envisaged for the navy in the 1990s. An example is the patrol of the strategic straits through which foreign ships enter and leave the Indian Ocean, particularly the Strait of Malacca. But the sea is vital to the economies of most countries in the region: natural resources, transit and seaborne trade are important
for most of them. This was a second reason for Indonesia to regroup its navy.

The six countries of ASEAN have a maritime exclusive economic zone (EEZ) which is 2.7 times greater then the entire land mass of ASEAN. The South China Sea is, for instance, the door to Guangdong, the most important economic region in China. This is one of the reasons the islands in this sea are the principle source of conflicts in this region. The importance of the sea lanes emerges even more clearly if one considers that intra-ASEAN trade has developed slowly compared to the trade with the European Union (former European Community) and North-American Free Trade Area (NAFTA). Countries in South East Asia depend increasingly on the sea for the transport of products to other regions. As a result, the sea lanes are a source of
external and internal conflicts in the region.

The centre of world economy is shifting to Eastern Asia. Japan is the biggest economy in this part of the world, and as a result, it has great influence in South East Asia. Its economy is three times bigger than the economy of Germany, four times bigger then those of France and Great Britain and two thirds that of the United States, which is the biggest in the world. Japan is no longer regarded as just a small cluster of islands in the Far East, but is recognised as a highly skilled nation, which is the sixth most populous in the world.

It is also positioned in the region of the world with the most rapid economic growth. In a research report by the World Bank, it is stated that: From 1965 to 1990 the 23 economies of East Asia grew faster than all other regions in the world'. To elucidate further: an increase of 6% in the GNP over 10 years means that the GNP has doubled in that period. The economic strength is underlined by a further set of statistics: in 1980 the GNP of East Asia was 59% of those of the EC and the NAFTA countries combined. By 1990 it was 66% of NAFTA and 73% of the European Community. Such an increase in GNP does not necessarily reflect a corresponding increase in the wealth of the individual people in a country, but it does give an indication of national economic power.

The struggle for influence in this part of the world has not yet ended. The two main reasons for this are the geostrategic position of South East Asia and its economic boom, both already outlined. Russia, which is the main successor to the Soviet Union, today plays little part in South East Asia. However, other countries are becoming involved. It is impossible to predict the outcome as the end of the Cold War has changed the balance of power in the region drastically. However, we can look at some recent developments.

India and Japan are among the countries which extend their influence to the area, whereas China makes its presence felt mainly through the improvement of its armed forces, but also by the acquisition of a Burmese harbour as a naval navigation centre in the Gulf of Bengal. This is one of the main concerns of China's neighbours. Japan, for example, has expressed concern to Beijing and to Burma in response to reports that China supplies weapons to Burma and is looking for naval bases in the Andaman Sea. In 1986 Indonesia had a dispute with India over the recent military build-up on the Great Nicobar island in the mouth of the Strait of Malacca.

The United States is still the most influential and strongest power in the region, and South East Asia is a major concern in US strategic policy planning. The US is reducing its military presence worldwide but the larger part of this 25% overall reduction is in Europe (57%) and the smaller part in Asia (12%). There is also a change in the nature of the US presence: foreign bases are being replaced by rapid reaction forces stationed in a region. Two of the three Marine Expeditionary Units (MEU's-the most readily available forces) are stationed in Asia, in the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. The European unit, which is stationed in the Mediterranean, can easily move to Asia through the Suez Canal.

At present Japan is the biggest economic power in the region and the Japanese armed forces, officially called Self Defence Forces,' are one of the strongest armies of the world. Since 1993 Japan has improved its capability to exert influence outside its own territory by the purchase of tanker aircraft and naval transport ships and it is considering the acquisition of small aircraft carriers. Its powerful position is underlined by its official acknowledgement that it can produce nuclear arms within 24 hours. (Zie in de reactieruimte de nuancering van deze opmerking.) Japan spends a relatively small proportion of its GNP on defence: just one per cent. In absolute terms, however, 1990 figures showed Japan to be the thirdbiggest
spender on arms worldwide, after the US and the Soviet Union. At the same time, it is the only country in the region which has the technical skills to compete in the production of smart weapons technology. The biggest problem for Japan is its relations with the other countries in the region which have not forgotten the Japanese expansionism of the 1930s and during the Second World War.

India has a geographical position just outside the region of South East Asia. Yet it exerts influence by means of its large army and its ability to use its newly developed ballistic missiles. It has also built up a blue water navy-a navy which can protect the sea lanes to the areas vital to its economic and political interests-including nuclear powered submarines bought in the Soviet Union. In January 1994 India stated that it would establish closer ties to ASEAN to strengthen its position against China. China is the major threat to the stability of the region. China's position in the dispute about the Spratly islands (see below) does not reassure its neighbours. However, its weaponry is of poor quality even though it has a very large fighting force. Western
countries speculate on the Chinese defence budget. The official figure of $14 billion seems very low, viewed in the context of the military's size and compared to the expenditure of other countries. This figure is often neglected by analysts, who point to the high growth rate of Chinese expenditure. For if inflation is taken into account, the absolute figures have not increased. The funding available to the armed forces from the defence industry and the industry related to the military is another source of confusion. In May 1994 US intelligence sources reported that the funds earned by military companies are not going to the military but are reinvested, mainly in civil

It is however clear that the armed forces are being modernized. The old strategy, which was called the ant strategy' as Chinese soldiers would overwelm the adversary by their numbers, belongs to the past. The military said: "Provided we concentrate our strength and tackle key problems, it is entirely feasible for China to catch up with advanced technological levels around the year 2000." China is transforming its army into a more modern, integrated organisation, with less manpower and more technological weapons, in order to protect its interests outside its own territory. This build-up of armed forces does not mean that China will be a power which can
compete with other major powers in the near future. Nevertheless, for its smaller neighbours, it is a power to be reckoned with. That is why these smaller nations want the United States to remain involved in the security politics of the region. The hard line China took in the human rights discussion with the United States shows it has recovered its self confidence after the strong criticism following the violent repression of the student protests on the Tiananmen Square. Future developments in South East Asia will still depend on the position of several great powers. The United States has a key role. Yet others, such as China and Japan, have a lot of influence in the region, both military and economically. India exerts its influence from outside.

ASEAN was formed in 1967-during the Vietnam or Indo-China war. It includes Brunei, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. It was founded to form a block against the communist threat in Indo-China, and many experts expect that it will develop into a more defence-oriented organisation. ASEAN is one of the most important collective organisations in the region in terms of security and economic relations. The heads of government of ASEAN have an agreement to make the defence policy of each participating country more transparant to the others. At the same time, the role of ASEAN in building confidence in the region is often overemphasised by ASEAN itself, and by independent experts.

An example of the tension between ASEAN nations is the recent attempt by the Indonesian government to prevent a human rights conference on East Timor (APCET) taking place in Manila. When Indonesia pressed the Philippine government to prohibit the conference, President Ramos initially resisted. He gave way after Indonesia seized some Philippine vessels fishing in Indonesian waters and threatened to end its role as mediator in the peace process between the Islamic opposition in Mindanao and the government. Subsequently, Indonesia also put pressure on Malaysia and Thailand to prevent a human rights conference at which East Timor was a topic. In July 1994, according to the human rights activist, Jose Ramos Harta, it threatened Thailand that it would delay the implemention of a joint development project, if Thailand did not stop the meeting organized around the ASEAN meeting in Bangkok. The ASEAN countries have recognised that a stable region is a precondition for economic prosperity. For Indonesia, however, the fuelling of criticism on human rights in East Timor has not stabilised its internal political situation. The government's policy is still based on the that of the notorious Dutch Governor General van Heutz at the beginning of the century: Indonesia must remain one country.

ASEAN's co-operation in military exercises is much overrated. Member coutries are working together against minor threats, such as piracy, migration and smuggling. Whether this co-operation continues will depend on the presence of the United States and whether ASEAN survives as an economic bloc in the future. Meanwhile, the joint military exercises are relatively unimportant. South East Asian defence co-operation would be more clearly demonstrated in a common military acquistion plan, as NATO countries have. Such a programme would make real cooperation in manoeuvres possible, because if you have the same weapon systems,
you can-for example-easily exchange ammunition, fuel and communications. In present-day ASEAN such co-operation does not exist, except for the coincidental acquisition of F-16 and Hawk combat planes by most countries. If military cooperation is the aim, a common military acquisition programme should be a first step.

ASEAN policy in the longer term focusses on collaboration with the countries in Indo-China. This is contrary to the original purpose of ASEAN to contain the communist policy of these countries. When Vietnam left Cambodia in 1989 (the practical start of the Paris peace agreements two years later), the way was open to a closer cooperation with the ASEAN countries. In addition, Vietnam had adopted a marketoriented economy in 1986, called Doi moi. On July 1992 Laos and Vietnam signed a treaty of amity and co-operation with ASEAN members. Since that time they have held an observer status in ASEAN. Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, Vietnam's largest trading partner, said it would take more than 15 years for Vietnam to change her system to meet the conditions for joining ASEAN. For this year's annual meeting Burma, Cambodia and Fiji were also invited.

The ASEAN collaboration should not be overstated. In certain areas members of ASEAN co-operate in cross-border economic development, as for example in the triangle linking Singapore, Johor (Malaysia) and Riuh (Indonesia). At the moment three such triangles of growth exist. It is a close, but regional and undisputed cooperation. The implemention of one of these projects was used by Indonesia to put pressure on Thailand, as mentioned above. At present ASEAN comprises six markets which are often separated by high tariff barriers. Indonesia, for example, has 9.200 different tariff categories including a 200% duty on cars. The ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) intends to bring down these trade barriers, although an attempt in the past year failed. Another sign of the lack of co-operation is the trade between ASEAN members which amounted to a mere 15 % of their total commerce, whereas that with the EU totalled 66%. In other words, ASEAN is first and foremost a platform for bilateral talks.

The most important forum seeking to organize the relations between the Asian and Pacific countries is the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC). APEC is a forum for all countries surrounding the Pacific. In November 1993 a meeting was held in Seattle, which was used by the US to force Europe to be more co-operative in relation to US economic policy, for example in the GATT rounds. Calling the US a Pacific power', Clinton warned Europe that the US might shift its attention even more strongly to Asia.

Another important issue at the conference was the trade imbalance between China and Japan and other countries. These topics are what motivates the smaller South East Asian countries to join APEC. For them, the US is a counterbalance to Japanese and Chinese power. APEC is also a forum which can influence NAFTA and the European Union, the other two principal economic blocs. At the same time, the smaller countries are afraid that the US wants to make APEC into an offical body which can be used to make binding decisions on economic matters. An Australian diplomat who suggested changing the name to the Asia-Pacific Economic Community provoked vociferous opposition. This criticism, together with anger about US policy,
has led to a more critical attitude of the South East Asian nations since the APEC meeting. Malaysia never had been in favour of strong ties with the US but it stood virtually alone. It initiated the East Asian Economic Caucus inside the APEC to have stronger influence on, "for example, matters of protectionism", as the Malaysian Prime Minister commented.

Encouraged by their economic success, South East Asian nations criticized the US for its policy of using human rights as a political bargaining chip. An audience of 800 senior Asian government officials and business people from Asia and the US gathered in May 1994. The policy of the Clinton administration met with sharp criticism at this conference. In March 1994 ASEAN members agreed that the meeting of APEC Ministers of Finance would remain informal.

The proceedings of APEC are a clear index to power politics in the region. It can be concluded that the US is encountering an increasing level of dissent, especially on its insistence on the improvement of the trade imbalances with Japan and Chine and its use of the human rights issue for its own political purposes. Yet, the continuing presence of the US in Asia is also welcomed by the smaller countries, because it provides a counterbalance to Japan, China and, to a lesser extent, India.

In theory ASEAN countries might also opt for the improvement of relations with Japan. The latter has invested twice as much as the US in ASEAN, Taiwan and Korea. In practice, it is more sensible for ASEAN nations to improve their economic relations with both. Japan had already warned ASEAN against any form of trade regionalism (with reference to EAEC) that would reduce the US presence in the region. Japan and the US are working closely together to dominate the region. On the other hand, US policy is aimed-although this is not stated officially-at controlling Japan and any other threat when and as it should arise. If ASEAN-countries maintain good relations with both the US and Japan, they balance each other and China as well.

Current arms acquisition programmes in South East Asia coincide with the end of the rivalry between the Super Powers in the region and the down-scaling of domestic security concerns (except for Indonesia, the Philippines, Cambodia and Burma). Arms spending in the region is rising to a level that is consipicuously high in comparison to past levels, and in contrast to the general decline in the rest of the world.

One reason for this procurement be found in the economic situation in the region. Most countries can now afford high technology weapons more easily. The trend in ASEAN countries is to spend a smaller proportion of GNP on Defence, but budgets are still rising because of economic growth. The tigers,' Japan and ASEAN countries, spent in 1980-1981 just 17% of what NATO countries in Europe spent on defence.

Since then, the ratio has risen to 47%. This was clearly demonstrated by an Indonesian official at the Indonesian Donor Meeting (CGI) in Paris in June 1994. When a journalist asked what part of that country's overall budget was devoted to the army, the official explained that Indonesia's army budget is 1.5% of the GNP, against an average of 2% in the region, and is still decreasing. He then smiled at the audience. In fact, the absolute figures rise in a steadily growing economy.
Weapon acquisition programmes aim principally to achieve secure lines of communication to protect foreign, intra-regional and global trade. Commodore Sam Bateman of the Australian navy explains the arms race in this way: "The ASEAN states clearly perceive that a risk of maritime military threat exists in the region, and thus they are developing naval forces (...) with a potentially powerful capability to detect and destroy the adversary's forces in their maritime approaches." In this way he interprets the acquisition programmes as merely serving each country's national defence, and enabling the armed forces to destroy an enemy near its coast.

These acquisitions could, however, also be used to ban other nations from the sealanes surrounding a country. In this way the defensive weapon becomes offensive and can be used against an enemy who depends on the free use of the sea for his trade.

It is tempting to say on the basis of these alarming figures that there is an arms race in the region. Researchers and analysts are, however, still arguing debating whether there is indeed an arms race, or whether economic growth has simply provided the resources for new acquisition programmes to upgrade the armies. An arms race is often described as procurement caused by threat and motivated by uncertainty.

Those who do see such a situtation occurring in South East Asia cite conflicts in the region as an important factor in arms acquisitions. Others say the disputes between the countries in South East Asia itself will not lead to conflict.

One explanation for the military acquisition programmes stems from the changes that have occurred since the end of the Cold War. Previously, the security situation was clear: on the one side were the US and its allies and on the other side the Soviet Union. This polarity has faded away. The potential for rivalries to arise between individuals among the Great Powers still persists, however, and threatens to destabilise the situation. The threat of such a rivalry between Japan and China is enough to make both upgrade their armies.

Amitav Acharya, a scientist, made a remarkable statement in a 1994 conference on Defence in the Asian Pacific region: "It can be said with little exaggeration that the real arms race in South East Asia is a race among the suppliers, rather than the recipients. Major arms suppliers in the West and in the East face a need to compensate for the loss of markets in their home countries and unload surplus equipment abroad to ensure domestic employment. This has led to the creation of what has been described as the world's largest buyer's market."

Arms industries cannot be expected to be especially co-operative when arms regulations have to be implemented. Nor was the US helping disarmament when it rejected a proposal made by Indonesia and Malaysia to establish a South East Asia Nuclear Free Zone, arguing that regional deterrent strategies are much better than unrealistic disarmament measures. Yet the former First and Second world cannot be held solely responsible for the level of arms procurement, even though both blocs contribute to the build-up of South East Asian armed forces.

One contributor to the Asian Defence Journal wrote: "Japan is showing concern about China's military renaissance and wants to be able to cope with the threat. South Korea is in its turn concerned about Japan's response - That in its turn worries North Korea - which again troubles Japan and China. In this way the spiral continues. All countries in ASEAN fear being caught up in a tit for tat escalation."

In other words the arms race is motivated not by a possible conflict but by a possible enemy. Recent years have shown that it is not easy to predict the course of events in the world. In this respect the discussion between the arms upgrade' and arms race' schools is somewhat academic. Intentions could change, conflicts could arise, and when a country has the arms to back its policies with military force, it could use them even if they were not acquired for that purpose. It is, for instance, possible that the United States will lose its grip on South East Asia and that one of the emerging regional powers will have hegemonic intentions in the region-or that changes in regional countries will bring nationalist governments into power which seek regional domination. It is impossible to choose between these analyses because disputes already exist in the region and new disputes could arise. Politicians from ASEAN countries may say that have not had armed conflicts with each other for 25 years-since the Indonesian conflicts with Malaysia and Singapore in 1963 and 1966. Yet, the balance of power is changing and one can only guess what will happen in the next century. The end of the Cold War and the great changes within South East Asia make any prediction highly speculative. What is clear is that arms export to the region is a risky policy, as it could easily fuel a conflict in the future.

The build-up of a domestic arms industry is seen as an important strategy by several developing countries, in order to weaken the influence of major powers. The developments in North Korea, which is working on the production of its own nuclear weapon, is the most striking example. In general, the development is limited to conventional weapons.

Currently, compared to other regions of the world, the domestic arms industries of South East Asia are not particularly strong. If the economies in the region continue growing at the present rate, this could easily change. "The economic gap between the leading new industrial countries in East Asia and the old industrial countries is fast closing, and so are the gaps in skills and knowledge," observed the Australian professor of economics Wolfgang Kasper, specifically mentioning progress in metal, electronics and machinery industries. As a result, leading nations in East Asia will be able to produce their own weapons in the longer run.

Among the ASEAN countries, Indonesia and Singapore are the most conspicuous in having developed their own arms industries. Each had different reasons, but after twenty years they could produce most small arms by themselves. In Indonesia a Parliamentary mandate in 1978 encouraged the development of a domestic defence industry to diminish Indonesia's dependence on foreign manufacturers and to reduce the spending of scarce foreign currency reserves on weaponry. The products being made in Indonesia include FMS rifles, submachine guns, and machine guns produced under a licence issued by the Belgian company FN-Herstall.
Singapore recently launched its first domestically-built minehunter, produced on the basis of a design by Kockums/Karlskrona of Sweden. Malaysia is also planning to upgrade its defence industry. The chief of the Malaysian navy said the acquisition of the newly built Offshore Patrol Ships (OPV's) serves in the first place to encourage the local defence industry to develop such a capability'. Malaysia has only a small arms industry at present.

The position of domestic arms industries is difficult. The arms produced by Russia, China and South-Korea-to mention only the producers in Asia-are cheap, which makes it hard to compete with them. Even Singapore, with its advanced domestic military industry, had to fire personnel and reorganize its production process in 1993 in order to be competitive. As for the European and US arms industries, Singapore found that in their case, various forms of collaboration provided the answer. The same pattern is followed in South East Asia.

Indonesia has co-operated with Malaysia and Singapore for aircraft and maritime repairs and maintenance since the mid-1980s. New arms producers could rise in South East Asia as a result of the growing technical skills.

In the past the arms acquired by the governments of South East Asia were used to quell internal uprisings by socialist and/or nationalist movements. These revolts were firmly repressed by the (military) governments in the region, and most were defeated in the past decade. In Malaysia the Police Field Force (trained by the British Special Air Service, SAS) has been deployed for public tasks since the Malayan Communist Party laid down its arms in December 1989. In Thailand the BPP, which was trained by the CIA, had its peak in the 1960s and 1970s in the struggle against the Communist Party of Thailand. At present the operations against nationalists and communists are a minor task of these forces. Instead, operations are mainly directed against the Patani United Liberation Organisation (PULO), a muslim separatist movement fighting for an independent state of Patani near the Malaysian border.

Border control and the arrests of drugs smugglers have also become more important. So in other words, arms acquisitions are no longer motivated by the wish to suppress the population.
Only in Indonesia and in the Philippines are ASEAN governments confronted with armed conlicts inside their borders. In the other countries the military is no longer used mainly to suppress the people, but rather to strengthen the position of these countries in the regional balance of power. It is vital to take this trend into account when looking at the security situation in South East Asia in general. To oppose the arms race in South East Asia means to oppose the creation of new, strong armed forces and a new military bloc. If only the human rights violations in South East Asia are opposed, one of the most striking developments is neglected. The build-up of strong national armies could lead in the long run to a third military (and economic)bloc, besides those of North America and Western Europe. It is not in the interest of world peace to let this happen.

Regional conflicts should not be over-emphasized, but they excist. Three deserve special mention. These are: the conflict between North- and South Korea; the conflict between China and Taiwan; and the dispute over the Spratly's. Each of these conflicts could have an impact on the region of South East Asia as a whole. It is possible that the problem of North Korea's nuclear weapons programme will be solved by peaceful means. The situation is a complex one, and it is not in the interest of China and the US to confront each other over this issue. Kim Il Sung died in July 1994 and we await further developments.

The stand-off between China and Taiwan continues. Yet, strangely, the Taiwanese are investing more heavily in China's most prosperous region than in any other country, in spite of an official ban on direct investments in China. It is a conflict which could last for years, but could equally be solved by greater co-operation in a kind of triangular framework that would see China, Hong Kong and Taiwan emerge as one of the most influential powers in South East Asia.

Conflicts also persist within ASEAN. The Defence Minister of Malaysia has declared the Asia-Pacific region to be more peaceful and stable than any other region in the world, "territorial claims aside." The minister, who cynically described peace' as a period between wars', made light of the disputes in the region. However, one local researcher, Dr. Bilveer Singh of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, has taken a pessimistic view about the prospects for an enduring peace in the region: "Traditionally, the states that constitute ASEAN were threatened more by each other than by outsiders, even though the latter were not absent." He pointed to several factors for this insecurity inside ASEAN: the geographical complexity and diversity of the region; the variety of colonial experiences which led to different organizations of governments and of the armed forces; assorted ethnic, religious and racial groups; and differing ideological and political systems which led to conflicting interests and orientations. Relations with foreign countries and groups are also a matter of concern for the ASEAN nations. Malaysia and Indonesia are suspicious of the close relationship between Singapore and the United States. Thailand was upset by Malaysia's support of Muslim separatists in southern Thailand. The Philippines had a similar problem with Malaysia.

Conflicts in the region

* Claims of Russia and Japan on the southern Kuril Islands.
* Dispute between Japan and South-Korea over the Liancourt Rocks (Takeshima or Tak-do) in the southern part of the sea of Japan.
* Dispute between China and Japan over the Senaku (Diaoyutai) Islands in East China Sea.
* Dispute between China and South-Korea over territorial water boundaries.
* Continuing claim of the Philippines to the Malaysian state of Sabah and its adjacent waters.
* Claims on the Paracel Islands by China and Vietnam.
* Border disputes between China and Vietnam.
* Border dispute between Vietnam and Cambodia.
* Border dispute between Vietnam and Malaysia on their offshore demarcation line.
* Border dispute between Malaysia and Brunei over both the unmarked, 274 km land border between Brunei and Sarawak, and the limits of their respective 200-mile EEZ.
* Dispute between Malaysia and Singapore over ownership of the island of
* Pulau Batu Putih (Pedra Branca) in the straits of Johore.
* Border dispute between Malaysia and Thailand.
* Border conflicts between Thailand and Burma.
* Border dispute between China and Burma.
* Hostilities along the Burma-Bangladesh border
* Territorial disputes between China and India.

Source: A New Era in Confidence Building, Desmond Ball; Security Dialog 1994, Vol. 25 (2), page 161.

The territorial disputes in the region are potentially the most worrying. Indonesia, for example, is involved in several: with Malaysia on the islands of Saidipan and Ligitan in the Celebes Sea; and with Vietnam on the continental shelf around the Natuna islands.

It would be unrealistic to characterize South East Asia as a stable and peaceful region. Co-operation in military and economic matters exists, but only on a low level. Desmond Ball from the Australian National University said: "Nevertheless, the high proportion of inter-state issues suggests that inter-state conflict is more likely in the Asia/Pacific region than elsewhere." According to Ball, arms acquisitions take place in an atmosphere of uncertainty and lack of trust.

The disputes over control of the archipelagoes of the Paracel Islands and the Spratlys, both in the South Chinese Sea, are the most important for ASEAN. The Spratlys are the biggest single source of conflict throughout the region. Six countries (China, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philipines and Taiwan) claim the islands and have stationed troops on them. China and Vietnam have already had two clashes over the Spratlys (in 1974 and 1988).

The oil resources in the waters surrounding the archipelagoes are the most important cause of the conflict. In addition, the islands are of strategic importance in controlling the surrounding seas.
China is the strongest of the nations which claim the islands. It is also the country which is increasingly seeking to impose its control on the islands, and is at the same time less and less willing to engage in talks with the other parties. China has even granted an oil concession to the US Crestone Energy Corp. for the exploration of oil in the Vietnamese EEZ.

Until now, Indonesia has been the principal mediator in the conflict, organizing four informal workshops on the subject. The chairman of the centre for Strategic and International Studies in Indonesia was not very optimistic about the results of the talks, declaring at a Manila conference that "the four workshops have reached a plateau". The Singaporean Bilveer Singh, mentioned above, was even more pessimistic: "There has not been much movement because China is reluctant to participate.- The possiblity of war cannot be ruled out."

Advances in the drilling technology for the extraction of oil and gas fuel the disputes between China and South East Asian countries. China has, for instance, promised to protect the drilling operation in the Vietnamese EEZ with their naval forces. China's overwhelming strength in comparison to the other countries involved in the Spratly dispute means there is unlikely to be any major conflict in the near future. But the exploration of oilfields which are subject to conflicting territorial claims could lead to conflict in the long term.

Three of the parties are not equipped with the naval and air facilities needed to be a real party in such a war. Brunei possesses only small ships (FACs) which are almost worthless on open sea. In the future Brunei wants to buy Hawks and these could be of value in such a conflict. At the moment the Sultanate is the only one of the six countries without a military presence on any of the islands. The Philippinean navy is based on several FACs. The Vietnamese navy is dated and
only its military presence on one of the Spratlys causes any concern to the others. In other words, the poor weaponry of these countries probably restricts any potential conflict to Taiwan, China and Malaysia. These three countries have become armed in the past few years with numerous high-tech weapon systems from the United States, Europe and Russia. Taiwan also has the frigates and submarines needed for such an action. Malaysia has a navy which is fitted for coastal tasks. In the near future Malaysia will buy F/A-18 fighter aircraft from the United States, and it has just purchased MIG's from Russia. Nevertheless, the combined air and naval fleets of
these two countries are no match for China which, together with Japan, is one of the two most powerful military powers in the region.

ASEAN as a whole has no policy towards the dispute. The Asian Defence Journal reported that the ASEAN Regional Forum in July will steer clear of controversial issues such as claims over the Spratlys. Vietnam and the Phillipines are considering co-operation on the Spratly issue, but they are not strong enough to have any real influence. Only Japan or the United States could keep China from occupying the islands, if it continues with its policy of confrontation. But it is unlikely that either country will become involved in such a crisis. The warning by Bilveer Singh that a war cannot be ruled out is the worst scenario possible. Yet, it must be considered as one of the possibilties. Stirring up the fire by selling arms seems an ill-adviced policy.

From March 25th till 28th 1993, an Asia Pacific meeting of non-Governmental Organizations on Human Rights was organized in Bangkok, in preparation for the 1993 United Nations meeting in Vienna. 240 participants from 180 human rights and development organisations discussed several topics related to human rights. One of these was militarization and war.' The participants in this workshop noted that militarization was increasing in most countries of the Asia Pacific region. They were concerned about the threat militarization poses for dissidents, democracy, peace development and civil society; about the forced migration, suppression, genocide and maiming of indigenous and ethnic minorities; and the dehumanization, serious physical, mental and spiritual stress and the increase in sexual violence caused by military violence. 110 NGOs asked the UN "to adopt measures to bring the production, export and import of conventional weapons to an immediate end and to dismantle all weapons of mass destruction." This request to the Human Rights meeting of the United Nations constitutes an appeal to the peace movement in the West to campaign for a ban on the export of weapons to Asia. The situation in Asia is unstable, human rights are not respected and resources for military purposes could be better used for more humane purposes. As the Asian NGOs united in the Bangkok Conference to condemn their governments and military forces, we should blame the governments of our countries for condoning the arms trade. During the past century, Europe caused most of the world's major wars, but this should not be Asia's future.


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* Goad, Pierre, US Policy is Questioned at Conference, Asian Wall Street Journal Weekly, May 23rd, 1994.
* Hsiung, James C. (editor): Asia Pacific in the new World Politics, Lynne Rienner Publishers, London (GB), Boulder (Cal.).
* McKenzie, Kenneth F. Jr., Major US Marine Corps: The Marine Corps of Tomorrow, Naval Institute Proceedings November 1993, pag 28-31.
* Ryan, Stephen L.: The Spratly Dispute - The Military Dimension Synopsis, Asian Defence Journal 4/1994, pp.20-23.
* Richardson, Michael: Oil Rush is Fueling Fears on Spratlys, International Herald Tribune (IHT) 6 June 94.
* Singh, Bilveer: ASEAN's Arms Industries: Potential and Limits, Comparative Strategy Vol 8 (1989), pp.249-264.
* Singh, Bilveer: ASEAN's Arms Procurements: Challenge of the Security Dilemma in the Post Cold War Era, Comparative Strategy Vol 12 (1993), pp.199-223.
* Smith, Hugh and Bergin, Antony (ed.): Naval Power in the Pacific; Toward the year 2000, Lynne Rienner Publishers, London (GB), Boulder (Cal.).
* Tyler, Patric E.: Chinese Army gets Down to Business, IHT 25 May 1994.
* Wortzel, Larry M.: China and Strategy; China pursues traditional Great-Power Status, Orbis, Spring 1994, pp.157-175.
* OUR VOICE; Bangkok NGO Declaration on Human Rights, Reports of the Asia Pacific NGO Conference on Human Rights and NGOs' Statements to the Asia Regional Meeting, Edison Press Products Co, Ltd. Thailand. (US$10).
* The making of the East Asia miracle; World Bank Policy Research Bulletin August-October 1993, Vol. 4 no. 4.
* India and Indonesia in dispute over Malacca Strait base, Jane's Defence Weekly, 4 October 1986.

Volkskrantblog 15 maart 2010