The growing influence of the Chinese military across Southeast Asia and beyond is compelling the Association of Southeast Asian Nations member states, which have traditionally shied away from collective regional security, to look at the issue with a new focus.
The People's Liberation Army’s regional activities have pushed the ASEAN countries to put their effort on the modernization of their armed forces. The tiny city-state of Singapore, which has always maintained a military well in excess of its relative size to counter possible aggression from Malaysia or Indonesia, is further building up strong armed forces, especially a powerful navy and air force.
Regional defense spending has doubled over the past 15 years, with Thailand and Indonesia’s spending rising at a 10 percent annual clip, according to Felix Heiduk of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, writing in the East Asia Forum. The region’s militaries, Heiduk writes, “are undergoing a strategic reorientation away from an almost exclusive focus on counter-insurgency and domestic stability towards external defense, power projection and conventional warfare,” a trend linked to growing uncertainty in Southeast Asia over China’s rise as well as the possible impact on regional security of US–China geostrategic competition.
Some member states are separately forming security alliances between/among themselves in order to counter any possible threat from the PLA, by far the region’s largest armed forces.
The bellicosity of Beijing under General Secretary Xi Jinping, who has aggressively pushed the 1947 “nine-dash line,” has in effect turned the South China Sea into a Chinese lake. The PLA has built a flock of islets into military bases and lashed out against both Vietnam and the Philippines. While Vietnam has been more assertive in protecting its claims in the ocean, the Philippines under Rodrigo Duterte has meekly let China do as it pleases within the Philippine exclusive economic zone.
In September, in a major departure from past practice, the US Navy and 10 Southeast Asian countries kicked off five days of maritime drills as part of a joint exercise extending into the South China Sea with eight warships, four aircraft, and more than 1,000 personnel. Co-led by the US and Thai navies, the exercises dipped their toes into “international waters” including the Gulf of Thailand and South China Sea” before concluding in Singapore.
ASEAN has long demurred from such action, limited as it was. The pact was formed by five original member states in 1967 with the intention to develop the regional economy as a whole as well as the economy of each member state. During its formation, the Cold War was a dominant factor in the foreign policy of the Southeast Asian countries and, hence, the fear of communism too helped these countries to seek a bulwark against aggression although security has taken a back seat.
Moreover, the threats to the region from the Soviet Union pushed ASEAN and China to take a similar stance against Moscow as well as against the Southeast Asian countries that were allied with it at the time. With the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989, the fear of communism and the threat diminished. Even pro-communist regional countries like Laos, Burma (now Myanmar) and Vietnam joined ASEAN. The association from that time forward has functioned largely as a talking-shop dedicated largely to facilitating trade between the member nations.
Although there has been speculation that the association might gradually evolve into a security alliance, that is a far cry from what it as a bloc intends to achieve. However, security alliances among some of the ASEAN member states and some extra-ASEAN countries like Australia, India and/or Japan cannot be ruled out.
China’s stance on the South China Sea – backed by the PLA’s activities in the sea – has been a major concern. While almost all member states view China’s presence in the sea as a threat to the freedom of movement in the international waters, some of these member states have direct territorial/maritime disputes with China.
China is expanding its grip on the resource-rich sea, but has been careful enough to do this gradually, step by step. This is a total contrast from what many occupying powers did in the past and still do – i.e. direct military operation – to take over a territory/maritime-territory from other entities. This slow approach attracts lesser outcry from the international community. Using time as weapon, China is slowly expanding its grip.
The ASEAN member states currently do not possess enough military capability to challenge the PLA, either separately or even collectively. But all the member states are now concentrating on building up strong armed forces. China is aware of this, and is concerned too. The US, long the guarantor of power in the region, never followed up on the Obama administration's "pivot to Asia" with substantive action. The Trump administration, preoccupied with other theatres, belatedly authorized the latest exercise.
Although Chinese military leadership knows that the modernization and upgrading plans of each ASEAN member state individually are not significant enough to become a concern, the military leadership understands well that the member states’ armed forces could become lethal collectively.
For instance, the Singaporean navy alone cannot defend the city-state from any threat from a powerful navy like China’s. So the only option is to build a navy that could become lethal when combined with other regional and extra-regional navies, such as those of Australia, India, Indonesia, and the USA. In fact, this is what almost all the ASEAN navies, and other armed forces, are planning to evolve into.
Bahauddin Foizee is a geopolitical analyst and international affairs columnist, focusing on the Asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific and the Middle East. His works have been published on many think-tank-publications and international newspapers/media-outlets