Singapore: South-east Asian nations are prioritising spending on their navies and coastguards amid rising tensions in the South China Sea, but as their capabilities grow, so does the risk that any confrontation in the contested waterway will be harder to contain.
Annual defence spending in south-east Asia is projected to reach $US52 billion ($66 billion) by 2020, from an expected $US42 billion this year, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly reports.
Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly working in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly working in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Photo: Reuters
The 10 nations of south-east Asia were expected to spend $US58 billion on new military kit over the next five years, with naval procurement comprising a large chunk, it said.
Much of this equipment is likely to be used in and around the South China Sea, where Beijing’s creation of artificial islands has alarmed some Asian countries and stoked tension between China’s navy and the US Air Force.
China claims most of the South China Sea, through which $US5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping claims.
“As their capabilities in the maritime space expand, it means the range and lethality of [south-east Asian] strike forces will also increase,” said Tim Huxley, executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Asia.
“If there is a confrontation and it escalates, there is a potential for a more lethal conflict.”
The interest in beefing up maritime capabilities was apparent last week at the IMDEX Asia maritime defence show in Singapore, where regional naval chiefs and defence procurement officials mingled with contractors from the United States, Europe, Israel and other parts of Asia.
Mock-ups of state-of-the-art submarines and warships, patrol vessels and amphibious boats as well as surveillance aircraft and drones were all on display.
“I had no free time. Several senior officers visited our stand and were keen on what we had to offer,” an executive from a major European defence contractor said.