Friday, May 27, 2011

How Asean Can Avoid Arms Race

There is no denying that a major upgrading of the defensive capabilities of Asean member countries is overdue, and that there is no reason to worry if and when any do so. After all, we cannot expect Asean member countries to deal with present-day non-conventional security concerns, such as human trafficking, smuggling and piracy, while their armed forces are equipped with weapons so obsolete as to make pitchforks and parang a security threat.

There is, however, some cause for concern when the upgrading of the defensive capabilities of some countries lends the impression that the new weapons technologies that are being purchased may also be used for more belligerent intentions; and even more worrisome when there is the threat that such weapons technologies may fall into the wrong hands.

Furthermore, it has to be added that for most Asean member countries, the pressing needs of development have to come first: across both maritime and mainland Southeast Asia, there remains the dire need for better communication, transport infrastructure, schools and other educational facilities as well as the provision of healthcare -- all of which contribute to the sum total of a nation's social and material development. Nuclear weapons are not much use for countries where illiteracy remains a problem, it can be argued.

How then should the nations of Asean proceed in terms of the upgrading of their armed forces? Asean's formation in the 1960s was meant to serve as an instrument for the prevention of war: to prevent the Cold War from spilling into the region, and to prevent war from erupting between the member states. Thus far, Asean, along with the European Union, can claim some credit for being able to hold off the threat of both.
However, as the Asean member states continue to develop according to their own pace and trajectory, there is the need to ensure that communication between them remains at an optimum, real-time level. This has to be so in order to ward off any untoward incidents and concerns that might arise when one country suddenly ups the ante by acquiring a new weapon system that radically tips the balance of power in favour of it, at the expense of others.

It is in this light that we need to consider Indonesia's latest testing of its Yakhont anti-ship missile, which was launched in the Indian Ocean recently. The successful test-firing of the Russian-made missile marks a significant development in the military potential of Indonesia. The anti-ship missile has a range of around 300km and flies at Mach 2.5, more than twice the speed of sound.

Vietnam, likewise, has the same missile capabilities, but its anti-ship missiles are based in land installations, rendering them useful for only defensive operations. Over the past few years, other countries in Asean have beefed up their anti-ship missile capabilities: Malaysia has introduced underwater-launched anti-ship missiles in the Scorpene submarines.

The concern of some security analysts, however, is that these new arms purchases may inadvertently contribute to an arms race of sorts in Southeast Asia, and thereby decrease, rather than increase, Asean's role as a peacekeeping arrangement between its member states. Furthermore, one has to wonder how anti-ship missiles contribute to the safety of our territorial waters where -- in some regions -- the threat of piracy, smuggling and human trafficking seem to be the real problems that need to be resolved. Are the naval forces of Asean going to stop the smuggling of pirated DVDs by launching million-dollar missiles in the future?

Countries like Indonesia do indeed need to upgrade and even expand their armed forces for reasons that ought to be clear to anyone with a grasp of arithmetic: it would be impossible for the armed forces of Indonesia to maintain security in an archipelago of 14,000 islands stretched across an area the size of Europe unless it has a bigger army that is professional and well-equipped. But this also means purchasing less glamorous equipment like transport ships, coastal patrol boats, observation aircraft, and, of course, improving the salary, training and level of professionalism of the ordinary soldiers themselves.

Such stuff may not be to the liking of fans of Rambo and other gory war flicks, but the bottom line is that the running of a professional army is akin to the running of a well-organised company: the accounts have to be in order, logistics have to be accounted for, supplies have to be regular, and professionalism has to prevail always.

For the sake of the communities of Asean, whose combined population now stands on a par with Europe at well above 300 million, policymakers in the region need to remain lucid and cognisant of these simple economic facts.

Asean does need security and safety, but it does not need an arms race.
New Straits Times [Malaysia]

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