ASEAN Navies In A Perspective - Part III

- G.V.C. Naidu

 

Thailand

Thailand has the rare distinction of dodging a direct colonial rule in Asia and hence the Thais have always been wary of any situation, domestic or foreign, that threatened its external policy in which it always joined hands with the strongest power. It is often said that Thailand's foreign policy is like a bamboo plant which swings according to the direction of the wind without breaking. For instance, after escaping a direct colonial rule, it became an ally of the Japanese during the Second World War without participating in the war as the Japanese started advancing toward Southeast Asia, but quickly joined with the Allies as soon as the war was over. No sooner did Indochina emerge victorious in 1975, that Thailand closed down the American bases and tried to improve relations with Vietnam. Notwithstanding the ruling elite's staunchly anti-communist and especially anti-China policy (because of its support to the armed insurgency led by Communist Party of Thailand), Thailand took advantage of the Sino-Vietnamese rift and befriended the Chinese. After the Cold War Thailand has thrown its lot with ASEAN, probably with the realisation that its long term interests lie in the regional organisation as it perceives no short to medium term threat to its security, especially after Vietnam's entry into ASEAN.

In the post-World War II period, like its ASEAN counterparts, Thailand too had to bear the brunt of an armed insurgency, the most threatening being the Communist Party of Thailand-led rebellion, but there was also the separatist Islamic movement in southern Thailand bordering Malaysia. The latter is yet to be completely stamped out. A second important feature of Thailand is the role of armed forces in the domestic politics. Although Thailand is a kingdom and the king is highly respected, the military is deeply involved in national politics and has a long history of routinely staging coups starting from the first coup in 1932. However, this never led to massive arms buildup as such. The war in Cambodia and the border skirmishes with Laos were instrumental in forcing a modernisation in the recent past. The navy has been the least involved in politics and hence its clout has also been much less than the other services.

Thailand has had a small naval component in most of its modern history. Though it was officially founded in 1906, but it started taking some shape only after World War II. At that time, the Royal Thai Navy had an old Japan-supplied Sloop Type frigate, 7 French Trade and 4 Sattahip patrol vessels, 7 ex-US Liulom class submarine chasers and a few other minor ships. From the early 1950s, Thailand started acquiring American and British ships. By becoming a member of SEATO (it was headquartered in Bangkok) and by allowing the Americans to establish military bases the following year, Thailand concentrated its efforts on counter-insurgency operations.60 Active American military aid under the Foreign Military Assistance Programme (and additional aid in the form of Foreign Military Sales) took care of most of Thai defence requirements. The most important in the naval sphere were 2 ex-US PF Type (transferred in 1951), one ex-UK Flower 64 frigate61 and one Algerine class escort minesweeper (1947), one destroyer escort (ex-US Bostwick class transferred in 1959), one ex-US Cannon class (1959), 2 patrol frigates (ex-US Tacoma class delivered in 1951), 4 ex-US Cape class and 7 Liulom class large patrol vessels and a few other patrol boats.

Some minesweeping (8 US-built supplied in 1963-65) and amphibious capability (5 ex-US LST and 3 ex-US LOM landing ships transferred in 1962-65) was added in the early 1960s. Thus by mid-1960s, the Thai navy had in its fleet: 1 destroyer escort, 4 frigates, one escort minesweeper, 2 coastal minelayers (Bangrchan class), 4 coastal minesweepers, 18 patrol vessels (including 7 submarine chasers), and 6 landing ships (3 LST and 3LCM).62 Major procurements in the early 1970s were one Yarrow class general purpose (equipped with Seacat SAMs) and 3 U.S. P.F. type patrol frigates, about 10 large patrol boats and some landing ships.63

A mention may be made of three significant developments that took place which had a direct bearing on Thailand. First, the American decision to pull out a major chunk of combat troops from Vietnam in 1973 and the subsequent communist victories in Indochina in 1975. Second, the withdrawal of American forces from Thailand and the closure of US bases in the mid-1970s. Third, the winding up of regional collective security organisation SEATO around the same time. Albeit, Thailand was most worried about the likely Vietnamese reprisal attacks (because of its involvement in the Vietnam war), the small ill-equipped and ill-trained Vietnamese navy posed no threat, but the overall political atmosphere in Southeast Asia in the wake of communist victories did prompt Thailand to undertake a defence buildup, but the navy remained a low priority area.

The most important events that forced a realignment of forces in Southeast Asia were firstly, the Vietnamese military intervention in Cambodia in December 1979; and secondly, the Soviet presence at Cam Ranh Bay naval base in Vietnam. This on the one side, brought Thailand closer to China which led to the establishment of strong defence links, and on other, resulted in the renewal of American military aid (estimated US $2 billion) to Thailand. The navy was also a beneficiary of these events.

Significant acquisitions in the late 1970s and early 1980s were the missiled fast attack craft-3 from SSBE (Singapore) armed with Fabriel SSM and 3 from US with Exocet SSM missiles, and a variety of patrol vessels.The navy had also created a naval air wing comprising 12 combat aircrafts for MR/SAR activities. There were also strong rumours that Thailand would acquire submarines but that did not materialise. By mid-1980s the Thai fleet consisted of 6 frigates, 6 missile corvettes (Tacoma design), 6 fast attack craft-missiles, 3 fast attack craft-guns, 98 patrol crafts, 7 mine countermeasures, 5 LST, 3 LSM and 4 LCU landing ships, and a naval air wing of 26 combat aircrafts and 8 armed helicopters.64

From a naval point of view, the late 1980s were significant for two reasons. Firstly, because the Thais decided to acquire a wide array of war ships from China.65 In 1988 Thailand entered into an agreement with China to acquire 4 Jianghu class (Thai designation (Chao Praya) and a second agreement in 1989 for 2 Naresuan class (Type 25T) frigates. The Naresuan class, jointly designed by the Thai navy and China, was to be fitted with Western armament (Harpoon SSM, Sea Sparrow SAM and one Kaman SH-2F ASW helicopter). However, it was reported that Thailand was not happy at China's insistence that the Chao Praya class ships would be entirely built with complete armament in China (Ying Ji SSM and ASW rocket launcher) because the Thais were not satisfied with China's shipbuilding standards and quality of armament. The second important decision was the Budget Bureau's approval for the purchase of an aircraft carrier. Thus Thailand became the first Southeast Asian country to acquire a carrier (and second in Asia after India). This was probably the most perplexing decision for the neighbours to comprehend especially at a time when the Cold War was winding down and the Vietnamese were desperately trying to extricate from the Cambodian imbroglio. Moreover, the relationship with China had begun to become stronger and there was not any major development that posed a new maritime threat.

Also, unlike many of the other ASEAN nations, Thailand has no claims in the South China Sea. There could be two possible explanations for Thailand to acquire a carrier : because the Thai economy was doing so well it could afford to buy expensive defence equipment, or there was a concerted move by the ASEAN members to prod Thailand to procure a carrier which would considerably strengthen the overall ASEAN defence capabilities. In any case, the Thai naval expansion in the 1990s follows the general trend across the ASEAN region.

Thus, the Royal Thai Navy by mid-1990s had an enlarged fleet consisting of a fair mix of old and new and ocean-going and coastal patrol ships. At the same time shipbuilding infrastructure was also enlarged considerably. The fleet comprised 14 frigates: (2 Knox (US) with Harpoon SSMs-transferred 1994 and 1996, 2 Naresuan with Harpoon SSMs, Sea Sparrow SAM, one ASW helicopter with anti-aircraft gun, 4 Chao Praya armed with Ying Ji SSM and ASW rocket launcher, one Yarrow and one Cannon training ships, 2 Tochin (Tacoma-for training and coastguard activities), and 2 modernised Tapi (PF 103 Type); 5 corvettes : 2 Rattanokosin (US Tacoma) with Harpoon SSMs and Sting Ray anti-submarine torpedos, and 3 Khamronsin class (built by Bangkok Naval Dockyard in 1992) with guns, anti-submarine torpedos and a new class of 3 modified Khamronsin missile corvettes are expected to be contracted soon; 9 fast attack crafts: 3 Ratcharit with Exocet SSMs and 3 Prabparapak (German Lurssen) with Gabriel SSMs, and three gun-mounted Chon Buri class. The patrol component mainly consists of 6 Sattahip (built in Thailand during 1983-86) offshore, and 7 PGM71 class, 9 T91, 12 Swift, 18 T213 class for inshore patrolling activities. New orders were placed for 3 inshore patrol vessels in October 1996 (total requirement is estimated at 18) with deliveries starting from 1998. In addition to the existing 5 mine countermeasure ships, two new Gaeta class minehunters/sweepers were ordered in 1996. The amphibious capability includes 7 LST (2 Sichang and 5 Anthong (ex-US LST transferred during 1966-67), 2 ex-US LSM, 9 LCU and 24 LCM landing ships. The ship-based aircraft are the 9 BAe/Mc Donnel Douglas Matadors (Harriers) for the carrier, and 8 Bell 212 and 6 Sikorsky S-70B7 Seahawk helicopters for other principal surface combatants. And the shore-based air force operating from two bases at Songkhla and Utapao includes 5 Fokker F27, 5 GAE Searchmaster B, 3 Lockheed P-37/UP-3T for ASW, 5 Grumman S2-F Tracker for MR/ASW, 6 Dornier 228 for coastal surveillance and the newly acquired 18 Corsair IIs.66

By far the biggest acquisition is the aircraft carrier Chakri Naruebet which will propel the Thai navy into a truly blue-water navy. Built by Bazan, it has already completed sea trials in Spain in early 1997 and is scheduled to travel to Thailand in August 1997. It is fitted with ski-jump ramp and can accommodate up to 12 AV-BA Matador (Spanish Navy Harrier version) aircraft or alternatively 15 Sikorsky S-70 Seahawk helicopters.67 The first of 6 Seahawk helicopters have already been formally handed over to the Royal Thai Navy fitted to perform S/R, maritime patrol and coastal surveillance. They also have a provision for modification for ASW and surface warfare missions, and the last of three are expected to be delivered in July 1997.68

A mention may be made about the Thai plans to acquire a submarine arm for the navy. In 1994 the Thai cabinet approved the launch of US $800 million procurement programme for 3 advanced submarines.69 However it was temporarily shelved only to be revived once again in 1996. The Second Defence White Paper (The Defence of Thailand 1996) argued that it was essential to introduce submarines to fulfill the naval responsibilities.70 The navy has been pressing the government to reinstate US $680 million in funding for 2 submarines which was cut from the 1996-97 budget.71 The fate of the submarine programme is now dependent on the present monetary crisis that Thailand faces. If the economy bounces back soon, the navy may realise its dream to operate a truly three-dimensional force in the Southeast Asian waters.

In 1993, the naval command was restructured into three regional command centres at Sattahip, Songkhla on the Gulf of Thailand and Phang-nga in the Andaman Sea in response to growing maritime assets, critical dependence on sea-borne trade and patrolling of the nearly 2500 km coastline. The acquisition of a carrier has considerably boosted Thai's reach well into the sea. But, it has also raised some concerns in the neighbourhood especially because the Thai navy does not seem to face any ostensible threat in the near future. Similarly the Thai Marine Corps has undertaken an ambitious plan to expand in a big way, armed with light tanks.72

Vietnam

Among all the ASEAN countries, Vietnam has the maximum battle-field experience because of its long struggle, first against colonialism and later against foreign intervention. Till the 1975 communist victory led by North Korea, the country was divided and because of the nature of wars Vietnam had to fight, its land forces have received the maximum attention. In the process the navy became the biggest casualty. A series of events that followed after the unification of the country in 1976, the ideological rift between Beijing and Hanoi in the late 1970s, Vietnamese intervention in Cambodia in December 1978 and the Chinese attack in February 1979 (apparently to teach Vietnam a lesson), close Vietnam-Soviet links, ASEAN's staunch anti-Vietnamese position during Vietnamese presence in Cambodia (till 1992) and eventually Vietnam's becoming a member of ASEAN in 1995, have virtually transformed Vietnam from being the biggest threat to an ally of ASEAN.

From the Vietnamese security point of view, probably the most important development was the Sino-Vietnam war of 1979. This made China the biggest threat and was also responsible in forcing Vietnam to move closer to the former Soviet Union for economic aid and military support (to the extent of allowing the Soviets to use the Cam Ranh Bay naval facilities). In the wake of the disintegration of the former Soviet Union and a sustained diplomatic pressure by ASEAN, Vietnam completely withdrew its troops from Cambodia. By the mid-1990s, there was considerable convergence of interests between Vietnam and ASEAN. Whereas Vietnam wanted to break its political isolation and integrate itself by emulating ASEAN development policies with ASEAN's active help, ASEAN needed Vietnam for its political, economic and strategic objectives.

The naval angle becomes more significant because Vietnam is the biggest claimant for a large number of islands in the South China Sea and has had to fight brief bloody naval battles with the Chinese more than once. Vietnam got suspicious of Chinese intentions because of the manner in which China occupied the group of Paracel Islands (which were under the control of South Vietnam) in 1974. By that time the US had withdrawn its troops and South Vietnamese were on the brink of a rout. The South Vietnamese navy managed to thwart Chinese attempts to grab the Spratly Islands.73 Subsequent repeated Chinese attempts to appropriate the Spratlys have further intensified not only the Vietnamese suspicions, but also those of other ASEAN countries which have claims in the Spratlys. Since then the Vietnamese have contested the Chinese claims in the South China Sea. As there appears to be no sign of an amicable settlement, the South China Sea and the Chinese intentions in Southeast Asia will be the biggest security concern for Vietnam.

Any discussion on the Vietnamese navy should bear in mind the fact that Vietnam has been, compelled by historical circumstances, primarily a land power. Hence, despite a long coastline facing the South China Sea, Gulf of Thailand and the Gulf of Tonkin, and bloody naval clashes with China on more than one occasion over the disputed Spratly Islands (the most important was the February/March 1988), navy has remained a low priority area.

Till the unification of Vietnam, only South Vietnam had a semblance of a navy. For instance, in the late 1960s, the North Vietnamese navy had a small navy of 3 coastal escorts, 2 inshore minesweepers, about 26 motor gunboats and 3 torpedo boats supplied entirely by the former Soviet Union and China, whereas South Vietnamese fleet included 8 coastal escort ships, 3 coastal minesweepers, 22 landing ships and 7 landing crafts, 22 motor gunboats and 6 other minor ships supplied by the US.74 At the time of communist victories in 1975, North Vietnam's navy got slightly enlarged with 2 coastal escorts, 4 Komar class fast attack crafts with Styx SSM, 30 motor gunboats (mostly Shanghai and Swato class), 20 landing crafts and 10 Mi-4 SAR helicopters. By then South Vietnam's navy was relatively well equipped with transfer of a large number of American ships when the US decided to withdraw its ground forces from Vietnam in the early 1970s (as part of the 1969 Nixon Doctrine). It consisted of 2 frigates, 2 patrol vessels, 42 patrol gunboats, 2 coastal minesweepers (ex-US MSE Type), 13 landing ships (ex-US LST and LSM type) and 17 landing crafts.75 Though these ships were built in the mid-1940s, they were in good operational condition which enabled them to repel the Chinese attempt to capture the Spratly group in 1974.

Unfortunately, the Navy had to bear the biggest brunt amidst the peculiar problems that the Vietnamese had to face in the mid and late 1970s. First, in 1976 the re-unification of two different systems that existed in the North and South Vietnams was hurriedly pushed through. This created enormous problems, severely hampering the much-needed reconstruction plans. The credibility of Communist Party of Vietnam was seriously at stake as a large number of South Vietnamese started fleeing the country (the so called "boat people"). Secondly, serious border and other problems cropped up with Pol Pot's Cambodia who was a close ally during the anti-American campaign. Thirdly, the ideological rift between Beijing and Hanoi became too acute to be resolved when Vietnam was forced to take sides, either with China or the former Soviet Union. Fourthly, when Vietnam decided to throw in its lot with Moscow and send troops to depose Pol Pot, Vietnam had to fight a major battle with China in February 1979. Finally, it was totally isolated in the region, diplomatically.

It was the generous military aid by Moscow in the aftermath of Vietnamese intervention in Cambodia that enabled the Navy that was virtually crippled by the lack of spares and maintenance to recover partially. The Soviets supplied a wide variety of ships starting from the late 1970s till the mid-1980s : 5 Petya class frigates (with torpedo launchers), 2 Tarantul class corvettes armed with SSM and SAM missiles, 8 Osa class missiled fast attack crafts, 5 Turya class torpedo fast attack crafts, 16 shershen class torpedo fast attack crafts, 8 S01 class large patrol crafts, 10 Zuk class patrol crafts, 3 Polnochny LSM landing ship, 12 mine countermeasure ships : 2 Yurka ocean minesweepers, 2 Yevqenya class minehunters, 8 K8 class minehunter/sweepers, 18 inshore patrol boats, one floating dock, one survey ship, 6 Ka-25/Ka-27-29 ASW helicopters and 4 Beriev Be-12 Mail long-range MR/ASW aircrafts.76 The only new order that was placed after the above transfers was for 2 corvettes in 1996, for BPS500 ( Severnoye imporved Pauk-design) to be armed with 8 Zvezda SS-N-25 SSM and 24 SA-N-5/8 SAM which are being built at Ho Chi Minh city. These are likely to be delivered during 1997-98.77

Thus, by the mid-1990s the Vietnamese Navy possessed a large number of ships which were either not in operational condition or were hardly seaworthy. The fleet consisted of 10 frigates; 5 Petya class, one Savage class (ex-US destroyer escort commissioned in 1944 and transferred to the South Vietnamese Navy in 1971 which is used for training), one Barneqat (ex-US); 3 corvettes : one ex-US vintage Admirable class (used for training),2 Tarantul I class; 8 Osa class missile fast attack craft, 13 torpedo attack craft, 4 large patrol vessels, 12 patrol craft; 3 LST (ex-US supplied in mid-sixties), 10 LCU, 3 LSM and 20 other minor landing ships; 16 mine countermeasure ships ; 6 Kamov ASW helicopters and 4 Beriev long-range MR/ASW aircrafts.78 Because most of the above ships were supplied by the former Soviet Union,like other countries that depended heavily on Soviet defence equipment, Vietnam too is faced with the serious problem of regular supply of spare parts.

After joining ASEAN in 1995, Vietnam too is confronted with similar challenges in the South China Sea as faced by its counterparts in the organisation. However, Vietnam's claims are much larger than those of other ASEAN neighbours and, notwithstanding recent improvement in relations, it harbours deep-seated suspicions about long-term Chinese objectives in southeast Asia. But it is wary of wars and is deeply engrossed in economic development which has pushed the overall defence modernisation to the back burner. Given the current Vietnamese threat perception, the Navy is likely to receive the much needed attention in the coming years.

ASEAN Naval Balance

1986-87 1991-92 1996-97

Indonesia

Total Personnel 36.9 42 43

(marines) 12 12 12

Submarines 2 2 2

Frigates 13 17 17

Corvettes -- -- 16

FAC

missile 4 4 4

other -- 2 2

Patrol

offshore -- 3 5

inshore 24 34 30

MCM 2 2 13

Amphi. LST 18 14 28

Nav. Air

Aircraft 19 18 24

Helicopters 14 15 14

Malaysia

Total Personnel 9 11 12

(marines) -- -- --

Submarines -- -- --

Frigates 3 4 6

Corvettes -- -- --

FAC

missile 6 8 8

other -- -- --

Patrol

offshore -- 2 2

inshore 20 27 27

MCM 6 5 5

Amphi. LST 2 2 2

Nav Air

Aircraft -- -- --

Helicopters -- 6 12

Philippines

Total Personnel 28 23 23

(marines) 9.6 8.5 9

Submarines -- -- --

Frigates 7 1 1

Corvettes 10 -- --

FAC

missile -- -- --

other -- -- --

Patrol

offshore -- 8 11

inshore 12 29 43

MCM -- -- --

Amphi. LST 24 7 9

Nav Air

Aircraft -- 5 8

Helicopters -- -- --

Singapore

Total Personnel 4.5 4.5 2.9

(marines) -- -- --

Submarines -- -- --

Frigates -- -- --

Corvettes -- 6 6

FAC

missile 6 6 7

others -- -- --

Patrol

offshore -- -- --

inshore 12 20 6

MCM 2 2 2

Amphi. LST 8 5 3

Nav Air

Aircraft -- -- --

Helicopters -- --- --

Thailand

Total Personnel 32.2 50 64

(marines) 13 20 18

Submarines -- -- --

Frigates 6 6 12

Corvettes -- 3 5

FAC 7 6 6

Patrol Vessels

offshore 23 14 9

inshore 31 30 40

MCM 4 7 5

Amphi. LST 5 6 7

Nav Air

Aircraft 28 26 61

Helicopters 1 8 7

Vietnam

Total Personnel 12 31 42

(naval infantry) -- 21 30

Submarines -- -- --

Frigates 8 7 8

Corvettes -- -- --

FAC

missile 8 8 10

other 14 21 19

Patrol Vessels

offshore 8 2 --

inshore 20 33 23

MCM -- 15 11

Amphi. LST 3 3 3

Nav Air

Aircraft -- -- --

Helicopters -- -- --

Source : Military Balance, 1986-87, 1991-92, and 1996-97.

Conclusion

One could discern three most compelling reasons for the current drive toward modernisation of armed forces in the ASEAN region: first, a fast growing economic prosperity which has made it possible for these countries to afford modern and costlier defence hardware (the fact underscored by the 1991 high-tech Gulf War); second, an outward orientation of defence after overcoming the earlier internal insurgency-related problems; and finally, after the end of the Cold War, a desire to take full advantage of a "buyers market" as far as defence equipment is concerned. As regards the Navy, most of the ASEAN countries, because of their earlier preoccupation with internal security and economic development issues and because of Cold War bipolar security system, did not pay much attention to sea power. A number of factors and developments in the last few years have spurred these nations to build the navies which are not confined only to coastal defence. The foremost being the withdrawal of super power presence from Southeast Asia in the early 1990s, a presence on whose backing the maritime external threats had been thwarted by the ASEAN nations. Secondly, all the ASEAN nations, especially after embarking on export-led development policies, are critically dependent on seas for trade, in addition to a heavy reliance, for both living and non-living sources, on the seas. Thirdly, after the agreement on Law of the Seas, maritime interests such as Exclusive Economic Zone, Continental Shelf, etc., and the right to economic exploitation of these assets have imposed enormous responsibility on the Navy to guard these interests. Fourthly, as mentioned in the beginning, all the ASEAN nations are confronted with a number of unresolved maritime disputes. Last but not least, in view of recent developments, most ASEAN countries are re-evaluating their threat perceptions and defence strategies which, in turn, are leading to fundamental doctrinal changes. It is against the above backdrop that the ASEAN countries are engaged in acquiring a sea power that is commensurate to their requirements.

The ASEAN countries seem to be adopting a broad strategy which is firstly aimed at strengthening ASEAN solidarity. There has been a qualitative and quantitative increase in defence cooperation since the end of the Cold War within the ASEAN. Secondly, to involve in a dialogue all the powers that have some stake in the security of Southeast Asia (using the means of "constructive engagement" policy where necessary) in the ASEAN-created for a (ASEAN-PMC, the ARF, Joint Business Councils, etc.). Thirdly, to forge new defence links through joint military exercises and memoranda of understanding with major external powers (the most notable being Australia and India). Lastly, to gradually build military-related infrastructure, based on the new market conditions, to increase the level of self-reliance where collaboration and transfer of technology have become the buzzwords. They view the defence industry as a technology-intensive and high-value added industry that can boost national industrial development.79 As Malaysian Defence Minister pointed out, "The days of straightforward procurement are over. We have to look in terms of industrial cooperation, collaboration and transfer of technology,"80 and this is increasingly going to be the norm.

Especially at the naval level, a common trend across ASEAN is the step-by-step approach, i.e., to develop naval power in a gradualist fashion, but with greater emphasis on high technology. Thus to start with, the most favoured ship in ASEAN is the fast attack craft armed with accurate and sophisticated surface-to-surface and surface-to-air missiles. These ships are not only highly manoeuverable but also extremely suitable to the shallow waters of the South China Sea. The second stage is to acquire larger ocean-going ships such as corvettes and frigates. Then follows an interest in the submarine capabilities. So far, Indonesia is the only nation that operates conventional submarines. But at least three more powers--Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia--have expressed plans to acquire a submarine arm. Once these plans are realised, the Southeast Asian maritime atmosphere will undergo a radical change.

Despite being an archipelagic nation with more than 14,000 islands and incessant separatist tendencies, the Navy has remained a Cinderella service in Indonesia. Part of the problem is the deep involvement of armed forces in the domestic politics (by law they have as much a responsibility to socio-economic causes as to the defence of the country) and so far, Indonesia has not faced any ostensible external threat. Its submarine force has shrunk to just two vessels from the peak of 14 in the mid-1960s. Though large in size, its frigate force is ageing (the most recently commissioned ship is 16 years old) and no new ship in this category is expected to enter the service till the end of this decade. The most important programme in this decade was the acquisition of 39 ships belonging to the former East Germany which has beefed up its own corvette force. As a result, plans to acquire submarines and frigates have been postponed. However, the developments in South China Sea and Indonesian plans to develop offshore oil and gas reserves may result in a greater attention being focussed on the development of sea power.

Malaysia had to reorient its defence forces from the earlier land-based, counter-insurgency force to one that is equipped to guard its interests and deter an external aggression. In addition to the separation of peninsular Malaysia, separated from the provinces of Sabah and Sarawak and immense maritime interests, the Soviet presence in Vietnam and close Soviet-Vietnam links, the possible spillover of Sino-Soviet dispute probably prompted Malaysian modernisation plans. After the end of the Cold War, the issue that seems to dominate the Malaysian defence planning is the dispute in the South China Sea. Though not acknowledged publicly, Singapore always figured in Malaysian defence plans. There is an action-reaction syndrome that operates between Malaysia and Singapore.

Unlike most of its counterparts, there are still remnants of armed insurgency in the Philippines. Because of large American air and naval bases and the general perception that the country is most unlikely to face an external threat, armed forces have been primarily geared to tackle the insurgency. The first shock wave the Philippines received was the Chinese occupation of Mischief Reef in early 1995. It was during this time that the Filipinos discovered that the 43-year old Mutual Defence Treaty with the US is useless as far as the Philippines bilateral disputes were concerned. On the one hand, it exposed the extremely vulnerable state of the defence forces and on the other affirmed the importance of American presence. Unlike other ASEAN nations, until recently, given its economic conditions, the Philippines was considered the sick man of Southeast Asia. Hence, it has not been in a position to fund even a limited military modernisation. Grand plans to upgrade its military had to be repeatedly curtailed in the wake of pressing domestic issues that needed urgent attention. Modest plans have been announced in early 1996 to beef up the naval forces which are woefully inadequate even for maritime patrol and surveillance of the long coastline. Aroused by the developments in the South China Sea, the policy makers have been trying to reinvigorate relations with the US. There were proposals to offer the US to use the strategic Davao Gulf in Mindanao to stockpile arms (after Thailand refused similar facility in the Gulf of Thailand) which the Americans can quickly deploy either in the Persian Gulf or in the Korean Peninsula.81 But, so far no agreement has been signed. Sooner or later, the Philippines will have no option but to develop a self-reliant defence force.

Singapore may not have major claims on territorial seas or exclusive economic zones, but it has critical stakes in keeping the sea lanes open. Right from the beginning, Singapore's philosophy of defence has been clear. Given its size, Singapore cannot afford to fight a war on its soil. Hence, it should maintain a clear edge in technology over its neighbours and possess sufficient offensive capabilities to deter an external aggression. Although Singapore does not have any claims to the island in the South China Sea, any armed conflict would undermine Singaporean interests. The Navy is expected to remain relatively small, centered around a force of modern corvettes and missiled-armed crafts operating in concert with the air power of sophisticated aircrafts in the near future. In a move to improve bilateral defence cooperation and ease long-standing tense relationship, Singapore and Malaysia have started conducting joint exercises, and in January 1995 an MOU was signed and a bilateral security dialogue (called Malaysia-Singapore Defence Forum) initiated to facilitate greater defence coordination and defence industrial cooperation.82

The Royal Thai Navy has witnessed its fastest growth in the recent period. Although the Army continues to be a dominant component of the armed forces, acquisition of an aircraft carrier, plans to procure 2 to 3 submarines in the near future, beefing up of surface and amphibious forces, the recent restructuring of the naval command etc., indicate that the Navy's role is being duly recognised in protecting Thailand's vital maritime interests and trade routes in its vicinity. The Navy is likely to get even greater attention in the coming years as the land borders with Burma, Laos and Cambodia become more peaceful, once these countries join ASEAN. With the present and proposed capabilities, the Thai navy can be expected to emerge as a blue-water Navy which can operate far from its shores and for longer times. But how and where the Thais would like to project their power and how far they would be willing to participate in any future conflict in the South China Sea, especially if it involves China, remain big question marks.

Because of prolonged land-based armed struggle for independence and heavy dependence on the former Soviet Union, the Vietnamese Navy suffered the most. While currently the economy is not in a position to sustain any major arms buildup, the Navy almost entirely consists of ships that Moscow supplied in the 1980s, posing the problem of spares. There are a large number of ships in the navy which are not even seaworthy and even basic maintenance has not been carried out. Vietnam is the biggest claimant of both the Spratly and Paracel groups of islands and its Navy is nowhere near the capability to defend its claims. Probably the only programme that is on the drawing board is the plan to locally build two improved Pauk class missile corvettes.

While most of the ASEAN countries are small in size and have limitations in building major navies, any attempt at greater defence cooperation and coordination is fraught with political sensitivity because of its implications on ASEAN's own political/diplomatic agenda and its dealings with external powers. Even an initiative to form an ASEAN regional grouping of national defence industry associations for a limited cooperation was stalled, more for political reasons than financial ones.83 As the biggest concern for most ASEAN nations is the dispute in the South China Sea and possible disruption of trade in that region, how far the ASEAN defence forces would be able to act in concert with each other is a major political and strategic challenge for the member states in the coming years.

 

NOTES

60. Thailand also directly participated in the Indochina war (mostly in Laos) in support of the Americans. The US also extensively used the Thai military facilities (mostly the Sattahip naval base) for staging attacks on Vietnam.

61. This ship was in the service of the Indian Navy before it was transferred to Thailand in 1947.

62. Jane's Fighting Ships, pp. 265-69 and Military Balance, 1967-68, p. 34.

63. Jane's Fighting Ships, 1973-74, pp. 301-04 and Military Balance, 1973-74, p. 57.

64. Jane's Fighting Ships, 1986-87, pp. 501-08.

65. Initial reported plans included 8 minesweepers, 4 frigates and 3 Romeo class frigates, 50 T-69 tanks, 400 armoured personnel carriers and 57mm AA artillery pieces (in addition to a larger number of 130mm and 105mm artillery pieces already supplied as grant), all to be supplied by China at the so called "friendship prices." Jane's Defence Weekly, December 18, 1987, Defence and Foreign Affairs Weekly, 30 July-5 August 1988.

66. Jane's Fighting Ships, 1997-98, pp. 702-708 and Military Balance, 1996-97, p. 199.

67. Jane's Defence Weekly, March 19, 1997.

68. Defence News, June 30-July 6, 1997.

69. Jane's Defence Weekly, January 14, 1995.

70. Jane's Defence Weekly, April 7, 1996.

71. Flight International, December 4-10, 1996.

72. "Royal Thai Navy: Southeast Asia's First Helicopter Carrier," Asian Defence Journal, July 1996, p. 27.

73. This along with the Sino-Vietnamese war of 1979 in which China was supposed to have learnt a lesson instead, was one of the reasons that prompted China to reevaluate its defence capability and preparedness.

74. Military Balance, 1968-69, pp. 13-14 and 37.

75. Military Balance, 1976-77, p. 61.

76. Jane's Fighting Ships, 1986-87, pp. 808-811.

77. Jane's Fighting Ships, 1997-98, p. 870.

78. Jane's Fighting Ships, 1997-98, pp. 869-873.

79. See Stewart Walters, "Will Asian Defence Industries Join the Big League," Asian Defence Journal, November 1995. The Singapore Shipbuilding and Engineering Ltd., is the most advanced among ASEAN which has exhibited its capabilities by successfully building corvette-sized ships and patrol vessels (with some foreign assistance) and has developed indigenous designs to build the Swift class patrol vessels. Singapore has also upgraded naval vessels of several countries and has supplied patrol vessels to India, Brunei and Kuwait.

Indonesia's leading shipbuilder, PTPAL, has been upgraded to initially build fast patrol boats and later corvettes to foreign designs.

In Malaysia the private sector Naval Dockyard at Lumut will be the prime contractor for the proposed 27 New Generation Patrol Vessels and, according to Malaysia's Defence Minister Najib Razak, these vessels will have more than 50 per cent of local content, Defense News, April 9, 1995.

Thailand too has developed considerable shipbuilding capabilities at Itai Thai Marine and Royal Thai Naval Dockyard with capabilities to build corvettes and patrol vessels. Acquisition of a carrier and submarines in the future will further boost these capabilities.

80. Defence News, April 9, 1995.

81. Defence News, April 2, 1995.

82. Jane's Defence Weekly, January 28, 1995.

83. Jane's Defence Weekly, January 28, 1995.