Asia defense spending: New arms race in South China Sea

The Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Taiwan are beefing up their military in the face of increasingly bold incursions in the region by China. But most of that spending is not going to weapons makers in the United States.

An Indonesian naval vessel.
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China has over recent years declared increasing levels of sovereignty over the South China Sea, even parts of it that are far from the Chinese mainland. Largely as a result, other nations in the region have allocated more money for weapons and are expected to spend even more: IHS Janes sees virtually every nation in the region boosting expenditures—Indonesian procurement spending is expected to spike by 61 percent by 2021, for instance, and the Philippines is seen doubling spending in that time frame. (Tweet This)

But so far, most of those procurement dollars aren't going to the United States. Between 2012 and 2013, the value of U.S. military sales agreements with all but one of those nations declined, according to a U.S. Department of Defense report. Gregory Polling, fellow with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that although that decrease may not be reflective of total expenditures, the claimant nations are weighing their options when it comes to whom they buy from.

"The United States is the biggest provider of the security systems (in the world overall), but all of these countries are understandably looking more broadly than the U.S.," Polling said.

Take Vietnam, for example. The country has the most modern defense systems among all the countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), but it's procuring more than 72 percent of its equipment from Russia for contracts signed since 2010.

Other major arms suppliers to the South China Sea region include France, the United Kingdom, Spain, South Korea, Japan and Brazil, according to data provided by Ben Moores, senior defense analyst at IHS Janes.

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Moores pointed to several recent examples of contracts that have gone to nations besides the United States: the Philippines' purchase of FA-50 trainer jets and combat aircraft from South Korea; Vietnam's six kilo-class submarines and 12 corvettes deal with Russia; and Indonesia's buying 20 frigates from the Netherlands to upgrade its weak naval capabilities.

The Philippines—the country that perhaps feels the most direct threat from Chinese efforts to —is seen spending more on maritime weapons, with annual defense procurement rising from $273 million today to $500 million in 2021, according to IHS Janes.

"The Philippines' military has been a weak player for a long time," said Duncan Innes-Ker, regional editor for Asia at the Economist Intelligence Unit. "It really doesn't have the capacity for naval. Even if it invests more, it is never going to able to create a force that makes China think twice."

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To be sure, the United States continues to supply military equipment to nations involved in the South China Sea dispute. Signed U.S. contracts for delivery between 2010 and 2024 constitute about 30 percent of the Philippines' total contracts, 40 percent of Singapore's and 90 percent of Taiwan's total contracts, according to data from IHS Janes. For Indonesia and Malaysia, U.S. contracts make up about 9.7 percent and 3.3 percent, respectively.

Polling said the United States contributes in other ways that are not reflected in the Department of Defense data, such as helping the Philippines boost its military infrastructure, for example. "The U.S. is already committed in helping boost capacity for its partners," he said. "It is committed to expand military infrastructure, build airfields, runways, increase naval and air force capabilities and refueling capacity, and other infrastructure."

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Moores said that Vietnam has an edge over other nations in the region because of its early involvement in the dispute with China. For others, it's too late in the game to catch up to China.

"All these countries are only trying to build their military to the extent that China incurs a cost if it goes any further," Moores said. "It be can be a big speed bump, but their militaries can't individually stand against the Chinese navy."