By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 9, 2010; A08
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.
Experts generally agree that Vietnam's weapons acquisitions program is the most significant because it appears singularly focused on deterring China. In essence, Vietnam is attempting to make its coastal defenses strong enough so that China will think twice about pushing its claims.
"Vietnam is spending a lot of money and focusing on the sea with submarines and fighters and even missiles," said Carl Thayer, a professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy.
Vietnam has reached out to a variety of partners. It has a strong relationship with India, one of China's main competitors in the region. Indian forces, which also deploy in Russian-built Kilo-class submarines, are believed to be training Vietnamese sailors for sub duty. But Vietnam is also growing increasingly close to the United States.
U.S. and Vietnamese military and government officials meet regularly. There's talk of a strategic relationship. Senior meetings on formalizing a military relationship are expected this year. Trade between the nations is booming, up from $2.91 billion in 2002 to $15.4 billion in 2009.
After it participated in military exercises with South Korea in mid-July, the carrier USS George Washington was in Vietnamese waters last week, feting senior Vietnamese officials. China had criticized the United States for conducting military exercises with South Korea. Vietnam, however, welcomed the U.S. Navy.
The United States is also moving to bolster Vietnam's nuclear power industry. According to congressional testimony in May by Vann H. Van Diepen, assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding on civil nuclear cooperation in March. The two countries are also working on arrangements that would allow Vietnam to enrich its own uranium to generate energy. In November, Vietnam's National Assembly approved construction of its first two nuclear power plants. It has plans to build eight to 10 more.