When I first arrived in Singapore a dozen years ago, Southeast Asia seemed like a bit of a security backwater. Compared with other Asian hotspots – the Korean Peninsula, China and Taiwan, etc – and ongoing intra-national challenges (insurgencies and terrorism), Southeast Asia’s regional security problems seemed almost quaint. To be sure, there were competitions and animosities and insecurities, but these never rose to the point of military collisions, at least not destabilizing ones.

For the most part, security in Southeast Asia appeared to be “solved.” With the resolution of the East Timor crisis in the early 2000s, the region was relatively free of open, armed conflict. In addition, the countries of the region were united in a common geopolitical and economic organization – the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – dedicated to peaceful economic, social and cultural development, as well as to the promotion of regional peace and stability.

Moreover, China was at the time decidedly benign toward Southeast Asia. In the mid-2000s, Beijing was in the midst of a major “charm offensive” designed to show ASEAN nations that it was a non-confrontational, status-quo power, and a responsible and constructive partner. China signed a Treaty of Amity and Cooperation with ASEAN, in 2003, followed up by the ASEAN-China Strategic Partnership for Peace and Security.

In particular, competitions in the South China Sea were in effect put on the back burner. In 2002, Beijing and ASEAN agreed to a joint Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which affirmed the intention of the signatories to peacefully resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes, and to exercise self-restraint in the South China Sea that would complicate or escalate disputes. Hence studying regional security in Southeast Asia and around the South China Sea was almost, well, boring.

What a difference a decade (or so) makes

Flash forward to 2018. The sweetness and light of Beijing are gone, replaced by a new hardness and determination to have its way in the South China Sea. Under president Barack Obama, the United States’ “pivot toward Asia” became an integral part of a decidedly military effort – one that is still ongoing, more or less, in the Trump administration – by Washington to counterbalance China’s growing strength and influence in the region, particularly in and around Southeast Asia.

Nervous states in Southeast Asia have been responding accordingly. Defense spending is up and continues to rise. According to IHS Janes, a leading defense consulting group, ASEAN military budgets have grown 3.4% annually since 2010 and will likely continue to grow even more over the next five years.

ASEAN needs this money, badly. According to Evan Laksmana in a recent article in Global Asia, most Southeast Asian militaries are in desperate want of rebuilding and modernization. Most regional weapons systems are approaching 35 years old, way past their “use-by” dates. Basically, these militaries need more of everything, and not just new fighter jets, warships, and armored vehicles, but also modern missiles (of all types), as well as state-of-the-art command, control, communications, computing, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems.

The global ‘buyer’s market’ for arms

Most, if not all, of these items have to be imported. Fortunately for Southeast Asia, the region is a growing market, worth about US$4 billion to $5 billion a year. Moreover, the global arms bazaar is a “buyer’s market,” saturated with motivated sellers – in particular, the United States, Europe, Russia, Israel, and even China – who are eager for any business.

Consequently, Southeast Asia has had its pick of military equipment from a variety of ready suppliers, often at competitive prices and with a number of enticements, such as offsets and technology transfers.

As a result, ASEAN is now a leading consumer of arms, and increasingly some of the most modern and most advanced armaments are finding their way into the inventories of Southeast Asian militaries. Regional militaries have experienced a significant, if not unprecedented, buildup over the past several years, in terms of both quantity and quality.

Not enough spending on equipment

That said, problems remain for Southeast Asia’s militaries. As Laksmana points out, a sizable chunk of regional defense spending – close to 80%, in fact – goes to routine expenditures, especially personnel (salaries and training) and operations and maintenance (O&M). This means that barely one-fifth of ASEAN military expenditures goes toward force modernization. This is hardly enough to underwrite the level of recapitalization that most of these militaries require.

Even more, most procurement monies appear to go toward the “usual suspects” – new variants of traditional platforms like fighter jets, surface combatants, small arms and the like. While these systems are essential, the funds available are often insufficient to cover even these requirements. At the same time, these purchases crowd out spending on new types of systems, particularly C4ISR, such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and maritime patrol aircraft, and advanced communications systems.

A long way to go

It is trite to state that Southeast Asia today is not what it was a dozen years ago. Obviously, it is not, but nevertheless, the stakes are much higher, and the situation much more tense and volatile. However regrettable, ASEAN militaries need, more than ever, to modernize and update themselves. The local arms supermarket is open for business and these militaries need to go shopping.