With China’s growing muscle and more funds available, the shopping lists are getting more sophisticated. Most countries in the region are littoral, so the emphasis is on sea and air-based defence.
Malaysia has two Scorpene submarines and Vietnam is buying six Kilo-class submarines from Russia. Thailand also plans to buy submarines and its Gripen warplanes from Sweden’s Saab AB will eventually be fitted with Saab’s RBS-15F anti-ship missiles, IISS says.
Singapore has invested in F-15SG combat jets from Boeing Co in the United States and two Archer-class submarines from Sweden to supplement the four Challenger submarines and powerful surface navy and air force it already has.
Indonesia, a vast nation of islands with key sea lanes and 54,700 km (34,000 miles) of coastline, has two submarines now and ordered three new ones from South Korea. It is also working with Chinese firms on manufacturing C-705 and C-802 anti-ship missiles after test-firing a Russian-built Yakhont anti-ship missile in 2011.
While it is not an arms race, analysts say, the build-up is being driven by events in the South China Sea, long-standing squabbles between neighbours and a desire to modernise while governments have the money.
Piracy, illegal fishing, smuggling, terrorism and disaster relief also play their parts, along with keeping the influential military happy in places such as Thailand and Indonesia.
There is a “general sense of strategic uncertainty in the region” given China’s rise and doubts about the U.S. ability to sustain a military presence in Asia, said Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
“Southeast Asian countries will never be able to match China’s defence modernisation,” he said, citing Vietnam’s push for a deterrent. “If the Chinese did attack the Vietnamese, at least the Vietnamese could inflict some serious damage.”