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The year ahead: The Asia-Pacific region

05th January 2017 - 2:00 by Gordon Arthur in Hong Kong

The year ahead: The Asia-Pacific region

Within the Asia-Pacific region the year just passed was pretty much dominated by the machinations of one country – China – and there is little likelihood of that changing in 2017.

On 15 December the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) snatched an unmanned underwater vessel (UUV) of the US Navy (USN). This occurred just 50nm from the Philippine coast, a reminder that Beijing sees the whole of the South China Sea as its own turf, to use in an inappropriate metaphor for maritime territory. 

With some behind-the-scenes diplomacy by the USN and US State Department, China quietly returned the same UUV five days later on 20 December.

The scene is thus set for a hair-raising year ahead in the South China Sea, especially as China has already militarised a number of its reclaimed reefs there.

In July the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled that China’s excessive territorial claims and its assertion of ‘territorial sovereignty’ in the sea were null and void. However, China totally ignored the court’s verdict and continued to write its own narrative.

As Donald Trump takes up the presidential reins, it will be interesting times for the US military in the Asia-Pacific region as a more robust PLA pushes the boundaries in every direction. With an American presence in South Korea and Japan also pivotal to regional security, security challenges are aplenty, as are many nagging doubts about American resolve.

The might of China’s military-industrial complex was revealed at the Zhuhai Air Show in November. With oodles of missiles, helicopters, armoured vehicles, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), radars and aircraft on display, China is really pushing its products onto the international market.

Of great interest is the serious take-up of Chinese-built armed UAVs around the globe. Regimes such as those in Iraq, Kazakhstan, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan and the UAE are all flying these type of high-tech aircraft now.

Taiwan continues to struggle along its desperately lonely path of isolation thanks to Chinese diplomatic efforts. What little equipment it has inducted in recent years (e.g. Apache and Black Hawk helicopters) has come from the US.

However, this state of affairs has caused Taiwan to become more self-sufficient in areas such as shipbuilding, armoured vehicles, UAVs and missiles. More home-made solutions should appear at the TADTE exhibition in August.

South Korea, currently reeling from pending impeachment of its president, has a remarkably resilient weapon industry. Indeed, in 2015 Korean companies increased sales by an astounding 31.7%.

No fewer than seven Korean companies are now in the ranks of the globe’s top 100 defence companies. Able to build warships, supply ships, submarines, artillery pieces, armoured vehicles, missiles and UAVs, a lot of Korean equipment is now finding its way around the Asia-Pacific region and farther afield.

Japan, alarmed by Chinese antics in the East China Sea and by Kim Jong-un’s mad pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, gave its Self-Defence Force a funding boost in 2017.

On 22 December the government approved a 1.4% funding boost to $43.66 billion for the Ministry of Defence for FY2017, which was the fifth consecutive rise after a decade of cuts. This money will go on a mix of warships, aircraft, 8x8 tank destroyers and ballistic missile defence, for example.

Although Japan was knocked back in Australia’s Future Submarine requirement (eventually won by DCNS), we may expect more adventurous efforts at Japanese defence exports.

Singapore continues to lead Southeast Asia in terms of military capability. However, it was left smarting when China instigated a seizure of nine of its Terrex armoured vehicles in Hong Kong on 23 November.

Perhaps these will be returned next year. Singapore has inducted its Belrex protected combat support vehicle (based on the Paramount Marauder), while ST Kinetics continues to develop the Singapore Army’s next-generation tracked AFV.

Thailand, led by a military junta since 2014, has spurned the US and willingly turned to the clutches of China. Already it has ordered significant articles from China – including VT4 main battle tanks, KS-1C missile launchers and S26T submarines – and expect other items to follow.

The kingdom continues to follow an eclectic pathway of sourcing equipment from far-flung corners of the globe, and this has been seen in recent times in the order or delivery of helicopters from Russian Helicopters, Leonardo, Sikorsky and Airbus.

Malaysia continues to struggle for money – although there are persistent accusations that Prime Minister Najib Razak had few problems in obtaining some for himself from the 1MDB state development fund – and this shortage in government coffers continues to jeopardise the Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) project to replace ageing MiG-29 fighters. Malaysia, as well as building some of its own naval vessels, also turned to China for help.

The Philippines continues to upgrade its armed forces, although one never knows which direction the volatile President Rodrigo Duterte will turn next.

He seems intent on turning his back on the US, and is toying with the idea of obtaining new equipment from China and Russia, some of which could be ushered in in 2017.

After such a decisive victory in the court of public opinion after The Hague’s ruling over the South China Sea, Duterte seems intent on frittering away its moral and legal leverage. Nevertheless, the Philippines has ambitious equipment plans in numerous areas, with the most important being two new frigates ordered from South Korea.

Indonesia and Vietnam are both countries concerned about Chinese expansionism, and they have moved to beef up their presence in the area, or on its periphery in Jakarta’s case.

Indonesia continues to show some limited signs of innovation with unusual products like the X-18 Tank Boat from PT Lundin or the Badak 6x6 fire support vehicle from PT Lundin.

Australia is modernising at a fairly rapid clip. The Royal Australian Air Force will be receiving F-35 fighters and EA-18G Growlers in growing numbers, while the navy has several hugely important shipbuilding projects gathering momentum. One is for aforementioned submarines to replace the incumbent Collins class, while new destroyers, frigates and offshore patrol vessels are also coming.

Of course, one must not forget India, a defence market with so much potential but opposite and equal amounts of frustration for foreign vendors.

One positive sign was the green light finally given on 30 November to buy 155 BAE Systems M777A2 towed howitzers, with these set to be the Indian Army’s first new acquisitions in 30 years.

Despite a lofty goal of becoming more independent in terms of military equipment, Delhi has also been buying foreign-manufactured equipment such as Apaches and Chinooks.

There are a number of nascent international tensions in the Asia-Pacific region, most centring around China, Taiwan, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, India and Pakistan, as well as the US regional presence.

Add to this simmering insurgencies or domestic unrest in places like India, Myanmar, the Philippines and Thailand, and we may begin to anticipate that 2017 will be no less tense than the year just finished.

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