Old Rivalries, New Worries Fuel Arms Race in Southeast Asia

As superpowers lower profiles in region, concern mounts that China, Japan, India will fill gap

EVEN as cold-war tensions ease in the West, an arms race is gaining steam in Southeast Asia. Unsettled by a retreating Soviet Union and a retrenching United States, the military-dominated Southeast Asian countries have plunged into an arms-buying spree fed by old rivalries and new worries, military observers say.

Clouding Southeast Asia's security outlook, Asian analysts say, is the expectation of a phased American pullout from its huge bases in the Philippines. A lower American profile has stirred fears among allies in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that Asia's major powers, Japan, China, and India could step in to fill the military void.

ASEAN, which includes Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines, also is being shaken by the prospect of a settlement in the 12-year-old civil war in Cambodia. While Vietnam's troop withdrawal from Cambodia last year lowered regional tensions, it also undermined the major unifying force within the ASEAN alliance.

Despite talk of forging new long-term regional security ties, traditional suspicions among the Southeast Asians themselves are reviving.

Economic uncertainty is adding to regional jitters. The Gulf crisis has stunted the area's economic boom and underscored the fierce competition in Southeast Asia for oil, gas, forests, and fish.

``The whole scene is changing,'' says Kusuma Snitwongse, head of Thailand's Institute of Strategic and International Studies. ``As the US presence and foreign deployment draws down, differing security perspectives are starting to resurface.''

The affluence of recent years has allowed powerful military interests to pursue costly modernization. Asia and Australia spend more than $60 billion on the military, analysts estimate, an amount expected to double by the turn of the century.

Singapore, with a 55,000-strong Army, spends $1.5 billion on defense - 2 percent of its budget and more than 5 percent of gross domestic product.

Despite sharp cutbacks in US arms aid, Thailand, with the second largest Army in ASEAN, continues to acquire US fighter aircraft, tanks, and helicopters. Bangkok spends more than $2 billion annually on defense. Analysts estimate that defense spending in Malaysia has risen in the past two years by more than 20 percent, to $1.5 billion.

Some Western military analysts admit the huge buildup is unnecessary and out of proportion. Except in the Philippines, communist insurgencies of yesteryear have been quashed.

Among the region's authoritarian and military-led regimes, however, prospects for internal turmoil are a major concern. Arms deals not only line military pockets but also reinforce its clout in an era of growing religious fundamentalism and deepening ethnic and economic disparities. These regimes also fear spreading democratic reforms, observers say.

``There's really no good reason for all this,'' a Western military expert in Bangkok says. ``But if you're the Army and have to justify your existence, you had better be...up-to-date.''

While a final agreement remains elusive, talks over the future of the controversial US bases in the Philippines already are reshaping security in Southeast Asia. The Philippine government insists on taking immediate control of Clark Air Base, although the phaseout at Subic Bay Naval Base would be over a five-to-seven-year period.

Manila has set a January 1991 deadline for the two governments to come to terms.

Supplanting the need for huge military installations in the future, analysts say, will be access arrangements similar to that recently worked out between the US and Singapore. Under a November agreement, the US will expand its use of air and naval facilities in the city-state, which is positioned along strategic sea lanes and oil-shipping routes. The US will get low-profile access without the cost and political complications of a base, while Singapore will gain economically and in security.

Talks on similar deals are under way with Thailand, Brunei, and Malaysia. Vietnam, seeking to restore ties with the US, has even offered access to the American-built base at Cam Ranh Bay now being vacated by the Soviet Union.

``The age of the bases in Asia is over,'' says Chandran Jeshu Un, military analyst at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. ``In its place is the facilities arrangement, which could become the pattern for the future development in military ties.''

Still, fears persist that without the Americans, the region's historical and territorial disputes could flare anew, with China, Japan, or emerging military power India stepping into the fray.

Protecting the region's all-important sea routes remains a primary security worry, analysts say. The growth of Indian naval power during the last decade - including a nuclear-powered submarine from the Soviets - has alarmed many Southeast Asians. Regional analysts put India's defense spending at more than one-fifth of its budget.

More ominous is the threat of nuclear confrontation as India and Pakistan, at odds over Kashmir, are believed to have stepped up their nuclear programs.

``We read about nuclear subs and arms, and it scares the wits out of us,'' says a regional analyst.

China looms large as a military and, in the long term, an economic threat. China's 1988 clash with Vietnam over the Spratley Islands underscored conflicting claims over the South China Sea.

Although China and ASEAN have sided with the three-party Cambodian resistance coalition against the Vietnam-backed regime in Phnom Penh, a settlement could reignite old differences and stir new economic tensions as China competes more aggressively in Southeast Asia.

``In the long-term, China is viewed not so much as a military threat as an economic threat,'' says a Western military analyst. Indeed, economics already is aggravating divisions. Although Thailand still worries about Vietnamese aggression, Bangkok has pursued closer economic links with Cambodia and Vietnam.

Thailand's goal to become the economic powerhouse in a rebuilding Indochina has set it at odds with some neighbors. Already, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia are developing closer security links in what analysts see as a counterbalance to Thailand.

To boost their nascent arms industries, the ASEAN partners also are vying with China in arming the brutal military rulers in destitute Burma. Rangoon reportedly concluded a $1 billion deal with China, involving aircraft, tanks, and patrol boats. Almost one-fourth of Burma's budget is spent on weaponry.

Analysts say that kickbacks on weapons deals continue to be a major force behind the region's arms buildup. ``The generals travel extensively and live big, and their wives are loaded with jewels,'' says an Asian analyst. ``But they don't look on it as corruption. You buy arms, and it just follows that you get a commission.''

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