New Arms Race

Fearing China’s Plans and a U.S. Departure, Asians Rebuild Forces


MANILA, Philippines – The U.S. says its forces are in Asia to stay.  But Asian leaders aren’t convinced and, worried about the GIs leaving and about China’s intentions, have launched major arms buildups.

A look at the Philippine navy, whose headquarters sit between a yacht club and a beer stall, shows another reason leaders here want the fleet overhauled.  Many of the ships, anchored 25 miles from the compound, predate the Korean War; some were in World War II.  The navy’s spartan offices are paneled in plywood, with exposed wires and ancient plumbing.

 Such dilapidation, officials here say, is a legacy of dependence on the U.S.: The Philippines was left seriously exposed when the relationship ended abruptly six years ago.  So Manila is slowly modernizing its military.  And the rest of Asia, after watching the U.S. security arrangement with Manila dissolve, is latching onto some sophisticated weaponry that could reset the regional balance of power. 

Military Outlays Surging

 Although Pentagon officials say the huge number of U.S. troops in Asia – about 100,000, mostly in Japan and South Korea – makes such a buildup unnecessary, it is well under way.  Military spending by China and other East Asian countries totaled $165 billion last year, the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency says.  That is nearly double 1990 spending and equal to 20% of global defense outlays.  Moreover, a dollar goes a long way in the developing world, at least for local spending.  Last year, Asians accounted for 48% of world-wide purchases of large conventional weapons, such as warplanes, submarines and tanks, up from 28% in 1990, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

With this rapid rearmament, Asia, which is scarred by ancient rivalries and territorial disputes and lacks a multilateral group such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to deal with them, is likely to become a much more dangerous place.  The U.S. is expected to remain the most powerful player, but the proliferation of weapons may make Washington hesitate to flash its military might in Asia.

 The biggest fear driving the buildup is the ascendancy of China.  The Chinese are expanding their military budget by about 20% a year and making provocative territorial claims in areas that local leaders believe are too remote or dangerous to compete with a Bosnia or a Haiti for Washington’s attention.  Asians say they must rearm because China’s military modernization could not only cow Asia but also force the U.S. Navy to back down from a challenge.

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Washington insists its troops will do whatever is necessary to fulfill their Asian peacekeeping role, even if China doesn’t agree.  At their recent joint White House news conference, the presidents of China and the U.S. were asked what they think about that role.

“I believe our presence in the Pacific … is a stabilizing factor (leading) to greater partnerships in meeting common security threats in the years ahead,” President Clinton responded.  Jiang Zemin declined to say anything.

Although more than 190,000 U.S. soldiers and sailors have died in combat in Asia during this century, a growing number of Asians think the trauma of the Vietnam War and the specter of a more powerful China could erode American willingness to plunge into another Asian war.

“When all is said and done,” says a Philippine security official, “Americans will not allow their sons’ lives to be lost defending brown people on the other side of the globe.”

Manila’s self-sufficiency drive springs partly from its experience as onetime host to 8,000 U.S. troops and two huge bases.  After an acrid dispute over how much the U.S should pay for the air and sea bases, the Philippine government ordered them closed.  On their way out, the embittered Americans took nearly everything, even traffic lights and a bowling alley.

Left to Themselves

“The Americans always told us they would take care of our external threats,” says Sen. Orlando S. Mercado, who heads the Senate Defense Committee.  “Now, they are no longer here, and we have to defend ourselves.”

 So Manila plans to buy new warships and is shopping for long-range fighter jets, from either the U.S. or Russia, to replace its aging F-5s.  Other Asian nations also began several years ago to upgrade their forces.  Malaysia is buying Russian MiG-29 fighters.  Indonesia recently announced it would buy Russian Su-30 fighters and helicopters.

Thailand is expanding its naval reach from coastal defense to sea-lane patrol with six frigates and an aircraft carrier – smaller then the huge ones deployed by the U.S. but capable of accommodating jump-jets – bought from Spain.  It also will soon take delivery of 28 Russian fighters, six U.S. attack helicopters and F-18 Hornets to upgrade an air force that now consists largely of F-5s and old-model F-16s.  And the Thais are being wooed with cheap tanks and artillery by China, which is trying to buy support for its territorial claims in Southeast Asian waters.

In Northeast Asia, the focus is as much on Japan as on China.  South Korea, which last year deployed three destroyers to contest Tokyo’s claims on a chain of islands in the Sea of Japan, is developing a deep-water navy; its obsolete fleet now is primarily limited to coastal defense.  South Korea also wants to replace its F-4 Phantoms with long range jet fighters.  Despite its alliance with the U.S., which the State Department estimates costs U.S. taxpayers $20 billion a year, Seoul is stockpiling weaponry that would be more useful in a war against Japan, its ancient enemy, than against North Korea.

“They know what they’re doing, says the regional director for a major U.S. defense contractor.  “Sooner or later, the U.S. will have to withdraw, and there are a lot of contentious issues for these countries to resolve until then.”

To be sure, many of the procurement programs appear wasteful, and the weapons may never be deployed.  South Korea, for example, has been trying for six years to mass-produce an unmanned reconnaissance aircraft.  The Ministry of National Defense and the private contractor have together invested more than $20 million in the project, a source says, and the contractor wants an additional $35.3 million.  But two years after the scheduled delivery date of a working model, production hasn’t begun; the prototype plunged into the sea during a test and hasn’t been recovered.  A defense-ministry spokesman says a working prototype will be available “sooner or later.”

Other Impediments

 Asia’s financial turmoil also could temporarily hobble the buildup.  Already the Thai government has deferred a decision to buy an armored vehicle from France, largely because of the economic problems stemming from the collapse of the baht. 

 Many programs that are expected to survive are driven more by concern about prestige than genuine national security.  “We’ve got a supermarket mentality,” a South Korean defense official recently told a delegation from a major U.S. defense contractor, according to a member of the group.  “Our requirements are often set by somebody picking up a copy of Jane’s Defense Weekly.”

Some deals are propelled by far baser motives:  Many Asian defense purchases are laced with kickbacks equal to 30% to 40% of the transaction, according to a recent study by the Institute for International Policy Studies in Tokyo.

 But the trend is clear.  For the Philippines, the need for military modernization became brutally obvious in February 1995, when the Chinese navy planted its flag on Mischief Reef in the Spratlys Islands, a small but strategically located and resource-rich archipelago claimed by Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and China as well as the Philippines.  Mischief Reef lies only 150 miles from Philippine waters but more than 700 miles from China.

 A month later, the Philippine navy ferried reporters to the reef to underscore the seriousness of Manila’s claim.  Along the way, the ship full of reporters broke down; it was towed back to Manila with a frayed rope tied to a Philippine patrol boat.  The .50-caliber machine guns perched on the bow of the lame vessel, recalls one reporter, were useless, ossified by years of neglect, and its decks were crawling with rats.  Shortly before the media trip, two gunboats ran out of fuel while chasing Chinese pirates from local waters.

Modernization Plans

Reacting to such debacles, the Philippine government approved a $5 billion naval-modernization program.  Over 15 years, the navy plans to acquire six missile-quipped corvettes and three frigates and to bolster its mine-sweeping-and-laying and submarine-detection capabilities.  “The Americans took all that with them,” says Commodore Domingo P. Salipsip, the recently retired director of the program.  “We have sailors who have been in the navy for 15 years who don’t know the first thing about mines or sub chasing.”

 Philippine government officials say the buildup isn’t designed to sweep the Chinese navy, which is pushing its own muscular expansion, from the South China Sea.  Instead, the Philippine security official says, “We want to be able to inflict some pain – shoot down a few planes and sink a ship, that sort of thing.  We would state our claim and show we’re serious.”

 A senior U.S. military officer says the U.S. has a plan to occupy the Spratlys, if China takes a provocative step there, and to police the area until the issue is resolved.  Philippine officials say they know nothing of such a plan and aren’t counting on political support for one in the U.S.

  At a meeting with U.S. military officials in June, Philippine army Chief of Staff Arnulfo G. Acedera says, he suggested “in jest” that the U.S. consider occupying the Spratlys in a crisis.  “They did not commit to anything that would be tantamount to wanted to do so,” Gen. Acedera says.  “That’s the reason for the modernization: We need to back up our own position.”

Another reason Asian nations can’t afford to rely on the U.S. in regional disputes, military analysts say: The age of gunboat diplomacy may be ending, with the proliferation of cheap but deadly guided missiles that threaten to render ineffective the aircraft carrier, the spine of America’s naval presence in the Pacific.  Pentagon and State Department officials say Beijing is expected to purchase Russian-made SS-N-22 antiship missiles, known as Sunburns, which can be fired from a warship and cruise at 2.5 times the speed of sound.  In August, Russia unveiled another, more powerful, supersonic missile, the Yakhont, that it hopes to sell in the Mideast and Asia.

Either missile could pose a serious threat to carrier battle groups operating in coastal areas such as the Spratlys and Taiwan, despite the sophisticated antimissile systems on U.S. ships.  “at Mach 2.5, in littoral-warfare conditions, the reaction time from launch to detection is cut to seconds,” says George Friedman, chairman of Strategic Forecasting of Austin, Texas, an intelligence software and consulting company.  “What China is doing is reducing the willingness of the U.S. to deploy its carriers by increasing the probability of damage to them.”

Mr. Friedman says he expects China to take delivery of the missiles by year end.  Spokesmen for China’s foreign-affairs and defense ministries decline to comment.

The balance has already shifted in China’s favor, at least in computer war games.  In a Pentagon simulation dated 2015, China was able to neutralize a U.S. carrier fleet with a saturated attack by antiship missiles.

Yet, China is buying much of the technology it needs to develop and deploy such a deterrent from U.S. companies.  During the Bush administration, Cray Research Inc. (now a subsidiary of Silicon Graphics Inc.) sold to the Chinese government a weather-forecasting computer that military analysts say can also be used to enhance missile guidance, attack planning and target selection.  The transaction was opposed by people such as Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington.

 Mr. Sokolski suspects that Beijing would convert the system for military use.  He recalls how a group of Chinese delegates, meeting with Pentagon officials late in the Bush administration, tried to allay U.S. concerns.  “They told us they wanted the system to save lives from typhoons,” says Mr. Sokolski, who was then deputy for nonproliferation at the Defense Department.  When Mr. Sokolski noted that China could get weather-forecasting data from the Internet, among other sources, they nodded sheepishly.

“They don’t need (the Cray computer) for weather forecasting.” He says.  “They want it for battle management.”  Washington approved the sale in early 1993.

In the past year, the Chinese military has been caught using a supercomputer and a sophisticated machine tool that were purchased from the U.S. on condition they be employed only for civilian purposes.

South Korean Satellite

 China isn’t the only major weaponry buyer that bridles at U.S. export restrictions.  South Korea, America’s closest ally in the Far East and the world’s fourth-largest buyer of foreign arms, is developing a satellite that would free it from dependence on the U.S. for spy photos.  That capability, some U.S. officials worry, could provide Seoul with battle-management technology that Washington couldn’t control.  Seoul also is negotiating with Boeing Co. for Awacs early warning aircraft and is mulling a long-range-missile program despite quiet U.S. protests.

 Pentagon officials from Defense Secretary William Cohen on down are urging the South Koreans to build a theater-missile defense system, based on U.S. gear such as Raytheon Co.’s Patriot, to defend against North Korean Scud missiles.  If South Korea deploys U.S. weaponry, the department says, the American and South Korean forces will be more cohesive.

 But Seoul is taking its time, and some South Korean military officials lean toward the Israeli-developed Arrow network, which they say can be adapted for both antimissile and antiaircraft operations more easily that the Patriot.

 “We’re considering the Arrow for our long-term threats,” says a senior fellow at Seoul’s Korean Institute for Defense Analysis.  “When the U.S. withdraws, we want to play a balancing role between China and Japan.”