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Rivalries and excessive arms spending threaten regional peace

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Vietnamese soldiers from a commando unit gather before marching during a military parade in Ho Chi Minh City.   © Reuters

Ahead of its 50th birthday next year, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is discovering that its recipe for success is being put to the test.

Having first come together to maintain regional autonomy amid rivalry and interference from the major global powers, ASEAN's goal has been to keep prosperity on track while securing regional peace through a constellation of regional vehicles, such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting, the ASEAN Regional Forum, the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Defense Ministers' Meeting-Plus.

But the ASEAN story is now being undermined by internal divisions and regional tensions, accompanied by an alarming escalation of military spending. A contentious geopolitical environment that is seeing rapidly accelerating arms acquisitions in Southeast Asia spells trouble ahead -- unless ASEAN can close ranks and return to its original foundations of maintaining peace within and without, while promoting growth and development across the region.

ASEAN's arms expenditures should be put in context. Most countries spend substantial sums for national defense. The U.S. defense budget, for example, is the largest in the world and exceeds those of the next 10 countries combined. Defense establishments in Asia broadly account for almost half the world's arms expenditure, more than twice that of the Middle East and four times greater than Europe.

Southeast Asia's arms expenditures are not anomalous. A generation ago, the region's rising military procurements were seen as a function of newfound wealth and economic development. They were attributable to arms modernization, military prestige and corporate interests rather than regional rivalry and an arms race. The 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis and the U.S.-led war on terror in the 2000s dampened this trend, but it has returned with growing intensity. Its drivers are historical animosities and traditional geopolitical squabbles, with China as chief protagonist and the South China Sea as the main theater of potential conflict.

LETHAL CONTEST Vietnam, which has maritime claims against China, spent eight times more in arms procurement in 2011-2015 compared with the previous five years, including acquiring a clutch of submarines. As a regional first mover, Vietnam is also developing a nuclear energy sector that will be functioning by 2020, ushering ASEAN into the nuclear era.

The Philippines, which has just won a major international ruling from a U.N. tribunal against China's maritime claims in the South China Sea, is playing catch-up with one squadron of fighter trainers (and two more on order) from South Korea. It has sought closer naval cooperation with Japan and the U.S. to counter China's regional assertiveness. Although newly elected President Rodrigo Duterte projects a softer posture vis-a-vis Beijing, the Philippines will inevitably have to boost its military capabilities with more weapons to better protect its maritime interests. Singapore, as the wealthiest but most vulnerable island state in ASEAN, spends more on defense than any of its neighbors. Even Thailand, a nonclaimant in the South China Sea, now wants three submarines despite its shallow waters in the Gulf of Thailand.

On the other hand, the major powers prowl the region like they have never done before. The U.S. 7th Fleet has increased its "freedom of navigation" patrols in the South China Sea, while China has further flexed its growing muscles with a newly minted aircraft carrier group, and it has a second carrier on the drawing board. China's artificial islands in the South China Sea are now home to military personnel and weapons installations. The China-led "weaponization" in the South China Sea is underway, and there appears to be no country or institution with the will or the means to put a stop to it.

Also raising its military profile is Japan, which has amended its security laws and can now export weapons technology. As a maritime power, Japan is likely to bolster its naval capabilities in conjunction with like-minded allies such as Australia and the U.S. to contain China's footprint in both the East and South China seas.

OFF MESSAGE This is not what ASEAN is supposed to be about. The 10-member grouping is known as the central organizing pillar for Asia's regional architecture-building for peace and prosperity. If ASEAN cannot keep the peace, it may not be able to maintain its economic expansion. The group's divisions over the South China Sea, with largely maritime states more critical and confrontational toward China and inland members more supportive and sympathetic, have not led to intramural conflicts within the regional organization. The exacerbating political damage, however, will increase the risks of an armed confrontation between China and maritime ASEAN states, supported by sea powers such as the U.S. and Japan.

ASEAN needs to close ranks and not allow China to divide it. Regional unity would enable the organization to entice China to play by the rules toward a workable new regional order, particularly under a proposed Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. The Philippines is smart not to overplay and exploit the U.N. tribunal's decision against China, but it should also not underplay and undermine a ruling that is based on international law.

ASEAN's arms buildup, together with its internal divisions and tensions with China, is a combustible mix. It may end up in places no one wants to go, marked by more tension that can only lead to conflict, enabled and exacerbated by a deadly regional military arsenal.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak teaches international political economy and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

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