Concerned about China's rise, Southeast Asian nations build up militaries

By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 9, 2010

The nations of Southeast Asia are building up their militaries, buying submarines and jet fighters at a record pace and edging closer strategically to the United States as a hedge against China's rise and its claims to all of the South China Sea.

Weapons acquisitions in the region almost doubled from 2005 to 2009 compared with the five preceding years, according to data released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute this year.

"There is a threat perception among some of the countries in Southeast Asia," said Siemon Wezeman, senior fellow at the institute. "China is an issue there."

The buying spree is set to continue, with reports that Vietnam has agreed to pay $2.4 billion for six Russian Kilo-class submarines and a dozen Su-30MKK jet fighters equipped for maritime warfare. This is in addition to Australia's stated commitment to buy or build nine more submarines and bolster its air force with 100 U.S.-built F-35s. Malaysia has also paid more than $1 billion for two diesel submarines from France, and Indonesia has recently announced that it, too, will acquire new submarines.

Concerns in Southeast Asia about China's rise were on display in Hanoi in mid-July during a regional security forum that included the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the United States, China and other Asian powers. During the meeting, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for the first time effectively rejected China's claims to sovereignty over the whole 1.3 million-square-mile sea. Eleven other nations, led by Vietnam, backed the United States, leaving Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi noticeably shaken by the offensive, diplomats present said.

The U.S. and Southeast Asian push on China came in part because, U.S. and Asian officials said, China's behavior has turned more aggressive in the region.

China has converted several warships for use by its maritime services and dispatched them to the region. On June 23, an Indonesian naval craft was pushed out of waters claimed by Indonesia after a ship from the Chinese fishery administration -- one of the former warships -- trained a heavy machine gun on the Indonesian boat. Over the past year, China's maritime fleet has seized at least 22 Vietnamese fishing vessels, according to Vietnamese media reports. China has also unilaterally issued fishing bans for disputed waters.

On Thursday, Vietnam accused China of violating its sovereignty by conducting seismic exploration near disputed islands in the South China Sea. Vietnamese foreign ministry spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga said Chinese vessels had been conducting seismic exploration activities since the end of May near an island in the Paracels, which Vietnam claims, as well as at oil and gas plots on its continental shelf.

"Vietnam demands that China immediately cease and stop the recurrence of these violations of Vietnam's sovereignty," she said.

For years, experts have predicted that China's "soft power" and growing economy would allow it to dominate the region. But as China's diplomacy turned more aggressive, the region has defied those predictions and looked to Washington for help.

"Rather than using the rise of China as a strategic counterweight to American primacy," concluded a report by Australia's Lowy Institute for International Policy this year, "most countries in Asia seem to be quietly bandwagoning with the United States to balance against China's future power potential."

In 2009, when asked to choose a country that would be the greatest source of peace and stability in the region in 10 years, "strategic elites" in the region overwhelmingly choose the United States, according to a survey conducted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. The country that posed the greatest threat to the region, the survey found, was not North Korea but China.

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