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China’s massive military spending is having a ripple effect in region

Kelvin Wong, a defense analyst for Jane's, poses in front of an attack helicopter during training for the Singapore Armed Forces in Queensland, Australia. (Singapore Ministry of Defense/TNS)

The Asia-Pacific region is one of the fastest-growing markets for arms dealers.

Economic growth, territorial disputes and long-sought military modernizations there propelled a 52% increase in defense spending over the last decade to $392 billion in 2018, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

The region accounts for more than a fifth of the global defense budget and is expected to grow. That was underscored last week by news of Taiwan’s bid to strike a $2 billion deal to purchase U.S. tanks and missiles.

The biggest driver in arms purchases, however, is China — responsible for 64% of military spending in the region. With a defense budget that is second only to the U.S., China is amassing a navy that can circle the globe and developing state-of-the-art autonomous drones. The buildup is motivating surrounding countries to bolster their armed forces too — good news for purveyors of submarines, unmanned vehicles and warplanes.

It’s no coincidence that the recent Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, a security conference attended by defense chiefs, was sponsored by military contractors including Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and BAE Systems.

To understand the trends, the Los Angeles Times sat down with Kelvin Wong, a Singapore-based analyst for Jane’s, a trade publication that’s been covering the defense industry for 121 years.

Wong, 39, has developed a niche for himself infiltrating China’s opaque defense industry by attending obscure trade shows that are rarely advertised outside China.

Here are some of the takeaways from the conversation:

A check on China

The U.S. is eager to train allies in Asia and sell them arms, Wong said.

It is stepping up its “freedom of navigation” naval operations in contested waters in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait. It has lifted a ban on working with Indonesia’s special forces over atrocities committed in East Timor. And it is considering restarting arms sales to the Philippines.

In his speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue, acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan touted American advancements in technology “critical to deterring and defeating the threats of the future” and said any partner could choose to win access to that technology by joining the U.S. defense network.

The message was clear, Wong said: “Buy American.”

China’s high-tech arms

Wong said there is a growing admission among Chinese leadership that the People’s Liberation Army has an Achilles’ heel: its own personnel.

He said one executive at a Chinese defense firm told him: “The individual Chinese soldier, in terms of morale, training, education and motivation, (cannot match) Western counterparts. So the only way to level up is through the use of unmanned platforms and artificial intelligence.”

To that end, China has developed one of the world’s most sophisticated drone programs, complete with custom-built weapon systems. By comparison, Wong said, U.S. drones rely on weapons originally developed for helicopters.

Wong got to see one of the Chinese drones in action two years ago after cultivating a relationship with its builder, the state-owned China Aerospace Science & Technology Corp. He viewed a demonstration of a 28-foot-long CH-4 drone launching missiles at a target with uncanny ease and precision.

“Everyone knew they had this,” Wong said. “But how effective it was, nobody knew. I could personally vouch they got it down pat.”

Submarines as bling

That’s what Bernard Loo Fook Weng, a military expert at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told the author Robert Kaplan for his 2014 book, “Asia’s Cauldron,” about simmering tensions in the South China Sea.

He was describing the competition for big-ticket military equipment of dubious necessity.

Southeast Asia is littered with examples of such purchases. Thailand owns an aircraft carrier without any aircraft. Indonesia dedicated about a sixth of its military budget to the purchase of 11 Russian Su-35 fighter jets. And Malaysia splurged on two French submarines it couldn’t figure out how to submerge.

“It’s keeping up with the Joneses,” Wong said. “There’s an element of prestige to having these systems.”

Submarines remain one of the more debatable purchases, Wong said. The vessels aren’t ideal for the South China Sea, with its narrow shipping lanes hemmed in by shallow waters and coral reefs. Yet they provide smaller countries with a powerful deterrence by enabling sneak attacks on large ships.

Asia and Australia are home to 245 submarines, or 45% of the global fleet, according to the U.S.-based naval market intelligence firm AMI International.

The Philippines remains one of the last coastal nations in the region without a sub — though it is in talks with Russian builders to acquire some.

Singapore recently received the first of four advanced German Type 218 submarines with propulsion systems that negate the need to surface more frequently. If the crew didn’t need to eat, the submarine could stay underwater for prolonged periods. Wong said the craft were specially built for Asian crews.

“The older subs were designed for larger Europeans so the ergonomics were totally off,” he said.

A smaller military

Tiny Singapore plays a crucial role securing the vital sea lanes linking the Strait of Malacca with the South China Sea. According to the World Bank, the country dedicates 3.3% of its gross domestic product to defense, a rate higher than that of the United States.

State-of-the-art equipment defines the Singapore Armed Forces. Automation is now at the center of the country’s military strategy, as available manpower is shrinking because of a rapidly aging population.

Wong said Singapore is investing in autonomous systems and can operate frigates with 100 crew members — 50 fewer than they were originally designed for.

“We always have to punch above our weight,” he said.


© 2019 Los Angeles Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.