PERIODICALLY the press comes out with screaming headlines like "Arms Race in Asia." But here in Canberra, the Australian capital and a hub for defense information in the Asia-Pacific region, that is seen as a bit overstated.
Yes, little countries are buying big guns. Sales of strike aircraft, missiles, and submarines to countries that did not have them before, or had more garden-variety types of weapons, have been causing alarm around the world. Who would think a small country such as Brunei would need a fleet of fixed-wing fighter jets?
Singapore has 12 F-16s. Malaysia is buying Russian MIG-29s. Some Asia-Pacific countries are also snapping up small, fast ships with Exocet missiles. China, India, and Pakistan either have nuclear weapons or the makings for them; North Korea is suspected of having a nuclear-weapons program as well.
The biggest destabilizer is the uncertainty over what military presence the United States will have in the region, given its pressing domestic problems and the end of the cold war. Some fear that a diminished US presence could lead to a vacuum that China, India, or a newly armed Japan might be tempted to fill.
Small conflicts could erupt. Perhaps the most serious is over the potentially oil-rich Spratly Islands, which are being claimed by several countries, including China. A dozen or so border disputes simmer in the region.
"It's impossible to look at northeast Asia and not be concerned," says Andrew Mack, a professor at Australia National University.
But the reasons behind the buildup, analysts say, seem more pragmatic than sinister. These countries have booming economies and are modernizing their forces. With 200-mile exclusive economic zones in effect, countries need to protect their fishing resources. They also need small, fast boats to tackle drug smuggling.
Another reason is that the militaries of these countries have strong influence politically. Because of kickbacks and commissions, some arms purchasers may buy more bang for the buck than is needed. That causes neighbors to worry.
But at another level, some analysts say there is a quiet trend toward greater cooperation. One signal of improving relations is that defense budgets as a proportion of gross domestic product are coming down in the region, says Desmond Ball, also a professor at Australia National University.
A host of meetings have been designed to get countries to talk about their concerns and work through disagreements before they become problems. All nations in the region met on June 8 to create the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific. And the Regional Forum of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, established in Singapore in late July, will be a mechanism for dialogue on security issues.
"While the first full [Regional Forum] meeting will take place in July in Bangkok, it's already started to have an impact," says a senior Australian foreign affairs official. "People are starting to prepare for a series of meetings at various levels of officialdom. That one annual meeting will create a plethora of meetings between countries right across the region, which is something we never had in the past."
In the past two years, a slew of regional security seminars have been held in Australia, Malaysia, China, Singapore, the US, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines.
"In the past, most countries have steered clear of multilateral arrangements, particularly in security subjects," says the official. "This is pretty new. The seminars are giving people the opportunity to discuss the whole context in which the weapons [acquisition] is going on and to express their concerns."