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Tense, stable naval arms build-up in Asean

Publication Date : 01-09-2012

 

Maritime relations between Southeast Asian nations is characterised by an ongoing trend of a tense but stable build up of naval armament throughout the region, military experts say.

“The good news is that all of the countries involved [in Southeast Asia] support freedom of the seas, and they all recognise the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea,” Ralph Cossa, president of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies’ (CSIS) Pacific Forum, said on Thursday.

Cossa added that no Southeast Asian country wanted to have conflict in the region and that all states within it respect ideas like sovereignty and international law.

“The bad news is that quite a few countries have different interpretations of what it [international law] means and what it doesn’t mean. So everybody believes that what they do is in complete accordance with it, but somehow their definitions vary,” he added.

Adding to the problem of misunderstandings among nations is the way Southeast Asian countries have constantly expanded their naval armaments.

Richard Bitzinger, a senior fellow at the Singapore-based S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said that these build-ups, while not necessarily the same as the Cold War’s idea of an arms race, have had the effect of creating an atmosphere of tension between states.

He said that there is “a certain mutual aspect to armaments”, but warned that weapons can be procured in ways that increase uncertainties on the part of a country about the intentions of its neighbours.

“If you already don’t think your neighbour is a very nice person and he goes out and buys a gun, then you probably will have more concerns about your neighbour,” Bitzinger said.

This uncertainty makes it hard for Southeast Asian nations to find the common ground necessary to lead the way to collective security.

One military analyst, Yoji Koda, a retired vice admiral from the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force, went so far as to say that there was no “key ingredient” that could bind the nations of Southeast Asia together.

Instead, the region is arguing over common definitions of who owns what.

“You can’t commonly defend a certain area if two different people are claiming the same area,” Cossa said.

At the same time, Southeast Asian nations are trying to come together through organisations like the Asean Defence Ministers’ Meeting - Plus, which brings defence officials from all member countries together.

Cossa said that this organisation is a promising example of nations moving forward collectively.

“But I think we have a long ways to go before we actually have that type of meaningful [collective security] cooperation, but at least a mechanism is now being created which may help us work on this.”

 

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