Cost, political considerations underpin growing Chinese weapon sales to South-east Asia
Chinese Type 99A tanks take part in a military parade at the Zhurihe training base in China's northern Inner Mongolia region on July 30, 2017. Photo: AFP
Last month, it was reported that China had offered Malaysia rocket launchers and a radar system – a claim which Putrajaya subsequently denied. This came after Malaysia purchased four Littoral Mission Ships from China last year – the first major defence contract inked between the two nations.
These are just some of the deals that South-east Asian countries have concluded with Chinese defence companies in recent years, and experts say that political, rather than actual military necessity, are largely behind these deals.
Defence analyst Bernard Loo told TODAY that the need to keep up with the Jones, or in other words, prestige, would be one key consideration behind the recent transfer of Chinese arms to South-east Asia. He said their relatively lower cost make them attractive to potential buyers.
“Chinese weapon systems are cheap and yet look good,” said Associate Professor Loo, who is with the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).
To illustrate, the Chinese CH-4B armed drone looks strikingly similar to and has sometimes been compared to the American MQ-9 Reaper that saw action in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. Their price tags are vastly dissimilar though. The MQ-9 is worth some US$17 million (S$23 million), while the CH-4B costs less than half of that.
Similarly, the top-of-the-line made-in-China VT-4 tank that is in Thai service is worth US$5 million, which is significantly lower than the prices for its rough equivalents in Western service such as the French Leclerc (US$12 million) and the American M1A2 Abrams (US$8 million).
As traditional state-on-state conflict in South-east Asia is unlikely, the acquisition of big-ticket combat platforms such as tanks and combat aircraft is “less about protecting the state against putative state adversaries and more about looking the part”, Prof Loo noted.
“As such, whether or not Chinese combat systems are any good or otherwise is therefore almost irrelevant.”
In the light of an increasingly influential Beijing, the desire of the purchasing nation to foster good ties with China may also explain the recent arms deals in the region, said defence analyst Richard Bitzinger of RSIS.
In the cases of traditional United States allies such as Thailand and the Philippines getting Chinese weapons, it appears that they want to “balance” between Washington and Beijing, especially with America’s overseas commitments becoming uncertain with Mr Donald Trump in the White House, experts say.
But in spite of the increasing popularity of Chinese arms in the region, Singapore, whose military consists mainly of Western platforms like the American-made F-15 fighter jet and the German-made Leopard tank, is unlikely to follow the trend of “buying Chinese”, at least in the near to medium terms.
“Singapore is within the same technological universe as the Western powers, and can therefore fairly easily absorb and operate their military technologies, Prof Loo of RSIS pointed out, adding that the Republic is prepared to shell out the money for high-end Western capabilities.
“To make the switch to Chinese arms requires a fairly extensive overhaul of the entire military eco-system – but this is on the assumption that Singapore wants a functioning military organisation, not simply one that fields ‘good-looking’ weapons systems that may or may not operate as advertised.”
Former US Marine Corps colonel Grant Newsham said that he would be “surprised” should Singapore ever “buy China” as this could indicate a shift away from the Republic’s long-standing and firm defence relationship with Washington.
“My sense is that Singapore’s leaders are too smart – and also have too much backbone – to kowtow to China in this way. Of course, much depends on Washington’s willingness to show commitment to staying in Asia and to standing up to Beijing,” added Mr Newsham, who is a senior research fellow at the Tokyo-based Japan Forum for Strategic Studies.
Others say it is anybody’s guess if the Republic would continue in the long term to have a military comprising mainly Western systems.
“Who is to say that it’s impossible that Singapore would buy Chinese arms, particularly with Beijing’s increasing influence in the region and if Chinese-made systems eventually become as good as, if not better than their Western counterparts?” noted Mr Kelvin Wong, an analyst at defence consultancy Jane’s by IHS Markit
Going forward, experts say that Chinese arms transfer to South-east Asia would not adversely impact regional security.
“Chinese, as well as American, arms sales to the region will build up the capacity of South-east Asian states to defend themselves,” Emeritus Professor Carl Thayer of the Australian Defence Force Academy told TODAY.
“But Chinese arms sales in and of themselves will not set off a classical arms race in which countries strain their resources to keep up with or surpass a perceived threatening state.
“The introduction of new systems always raises the question of what will happen at a time of crisis. Can these systems be properly managed or will they be immediately used to devastating effect, inviting a response?”