Southeast Asia builds home-grown defense industry

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Spurred by tensions with China, Southeast Asian nations are building up their own defense industries, channeling fast-growing military budgets to develop local expertise and lower their dependence on big U.S. and European arms suppliers.

While countries such as Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia won't do away with big-ticket imports from giants like Airbus or Lockheed Martin, they are increasingly encouraging domestic defense firms to manufacture hardware locally. With regional defense spending seen rising to $40 billion in 2016, 10 percent higher than last year, some countries are already developing their own exports.

A domestic defense industry is a long-term economic as well as security goal of varying degree for the 10 countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), spending more on modernizing ageing equipment partly to retain the region's military balance. The goal has been given urgency by China's moves in recent months to press disputed claims in oil- and gas-rich waters of the South China Sea, security analysts say.

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ASEAN members have stopped short of explicitly citing Beijing as a reason for beefing up military capability. At a meeting in Myanmar last weekend, ASEAN foreign ministers again appealed for "self-restraint" in the face of heightened tensions, with no mention of China in a formal communique.

"This drive to ensure sovereignty is now at the foremost of all governments' minds in the region," said Jon Grevatt, Asia Pacific defense industry analyst with IHS Jane's. "Obviously the activity of China has raised the issue of protecting, securing territory."

China, whose military spending topped $145 billion last year according to U.S. estimates, claims about nine-tenths of the South China Sea. It has alarmed Southeast Asian diplomats this year with assertive moves like planting a giant, $1 billion oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam.

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A build-up in China's coastguard fleet has also allowed Beijing to beef up its maritime presence without deploying warships. Some in the region have sought to counter that like-for-like: In a package due to take effect this month, Vietnam has set aside 11.5 trillion dong ($543 million) to be used to buy 32 coastguard and surveillance ships.

Southeast Asia's defense spending grew 5 percent to $35.9 billion in 2013, data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) showed, and is expected to rise to $40 billion by 2016. The region's defense spending has more than doubled since 1992, according to SIPRI.

Local obligation

Defense procurement in Southeast Asia is still dominated by government purchases of big-ticket items like jets or submarines from Western defense suppliers such as Lockheed Martin of the United States, France-based Airbus or Germany's ThyssenKrupp AG. The region became the world's second-largest importer of military equipment and technology after India.

How China views South China Sea tensions
How China views South China Sea tensions

Now, though, from Indonesia radar to Singapore submarines, governments are tilting such purchases to help them develop their own defense expertise. While breaking no records in size or scope, recent deals show a growing trend towards embedding local manufacturing in procurement contracts.

In one example, Malaysia's shipbuilding-to-weaponry group Boustead Heavy Industries is working with French state-controlled naval contractor DCNS on a 9 billion ringgit ($2.8 billion) contract for six coastal combat ships for Malaysia's navy - to be built locally.

"We expect to achieve well over 60 percent in terms of local content and value, and see considerable transfer of technology to ourselves as well as local vendors and suppliers who we work with and cultivate," Ahmad Ramli Mohd Nor, executive deputy chairman and managing director of Boustead Heavy, told Reuters.

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"Importantly, we will already have IP (intellectual property) rights for the first generation of offshore patrol vessels, and this can provide a platform to tap the international market," he added.

Known as "defense offset" deals, these partnerships can enable countries to carve out domestic defense industries over time. Turkey, for example, has successfully used defense offsets to nurture its domestic industry, whose companies now produce half the country's military equipment.

Indonesia, which has more than doubled its defense spending in the last five years, this year awarded a $164 million air defense system contract to France's Thales SA. A condition of the deal is that Thales must transfer radar manufacturing skills and knowledge to state-owned Indonesian electronics firm PT LEN Industri.

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Similarly, Singapore said late last year it would buy two submarines from ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems in Germany - making the deal conditional on the involvement of local industry in developing combat systems.

Singapore leads

Singapore has by far the most advanced defense industry in the region, as well as being one of the world's biggest arms importers.

The wealthy island state has sold defense equipment to countries from Nigeria to Brazil since its first overseas arms sales to Malaysia in 1971.

Singapore Technologies Engineering (ST Engineering), the state's main arms maker, generated sales of $1.89 billion in 2012 alone, according to SIPRI.

How will geopolitical tensions impact Asia?
How will geopolitical tensions impact Asia?

In a breakthrough, a unit of ST Engineering also won a S$330 million ($256 million) contract in 2008 to supply armored troop carriers to Britain - its first such sale to a major Western arms supplier - showing it could compete in the global defense arena in some product categories.

"Singapore will agree deals with its foreign suppliers that promote the best interests of both parties, and will not be constrained by lots of regulations and unrealistic expectations," said Ron Matthews, professor of defense economics at Britain's Cranfield University.

Still, for now the rise of a Southeast Asia defense industry won't deter big global players, analysts said. The region's rising defense spending makes it attractive for weapons makers at a time of tight military budgets in Europe and North America.

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The regional firms' lack of advanced capability also means they are not currently competing head-on with the big players for big-ticket orders.

Instead, they can play a more complimentary role, focusing on areas such as ammunition, small marine vessels and maintenance. But that could change over time - as Turkey's experience shows - if Southeast Asian firms start to compete for orders on the global market.

"This is a near-term opportunity for global defense firms and a longer-term challenge," said John Dowdy, senior partner at McKinsey & Company.