BANGKOK -- Big-power rivalry in the Asia-Pacific region has shifted the focus from military firepower toward competition over infrastructure and investment, spurred by China's Belt and Road scheme and the U.S. and Japan-led Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy. Yet traditional security concerns are more vital than ever, in some cases determining the rollout of megaprojects and military activity.
The U.S. remains by far the world's top military power -- spending $648.8 billion in 2018 on defense, compared to China's $250 billion, according to Stockholm-based research institute SIPRI. But China is working to transform the People's Liberation Army from a large, yet inefficient and underequipped force, into a modern military power. It is trialing its first domestically built aircraft carrier, with another under development. And China has made huge strides in emerging fields of warfare -- including in AI and cybersecurity.
China has provoked international outcry for its frenzied building of military facilities on tiny outcrops in the South China Sea. But there is another controversial aspect of its global expansion: the sense that, sooner or later, it will need overseas military bases beyond its single existing facility in Djibouti, Africa. Indeed, some projects under China's Belt and Road Initiative, from Myanmar and Cambodia to Pakistan and Sri Lanka, have triggered speculation about their potential for military uses.
"The U.S. [military] operates globally, and has extensive experience in both high and low-intensity military operations, while China does not," said Drew Thompson, a former U.S. defense official who is now at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.
The U.S. has warned that any Chinese moves to establish a Southeast Asian base would threaten regional stability, but some Asian officials see the prospect as inevitable.
"It is only a matter of time," said Bilahari Kausikan, chairman of Singapore's Middle East Institute and former permanent secretary of the country's foreign ministry. "The Chinese will probably eventually have a base in Cambodia, but I don't get too excited about it. After all, the Americans have significant use of Singapore facilities, are beginning to reuse some old Philippine and Thai bases, and make occasional use of Malaysian facilities too. I think the U.S. will also eventually use Vietnamese and Indonesian facilities in some low-key way."
Southeast Asia has seen a decadelong boom in defense procurement, with at least five of the 10 ASEAN countries having acquired or in process of acquiring submarines, and steadily upgrading overall combat capabilities. After surging from 2004, Southeast Asian military spending stagnated in 2017, with a regional decline of 0.6% between 2017 and 2018, according to the U.K.-based IISS.
On a commercial level, China's arms sales to Asia -- alongside those by Russia -- are seen as another threat to U.S. interests, although they amounted to barely 11% of the U.S. total in 2018. U.S. companies made $9.4 billion in direct commercial sales of defense goods and services in the Indo-Pacific region in 2018, according to U.S. official data. Like Russia, China is also willing to enter sensitive markets that are off-limits to Western manufacturers.