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Southeast Asia splashes out on defense, mostly maritime

SINGAPORE -- Indonesia is buying submarines from South Korea and coastal radar systems from China and the United States. Vietnam is getting submarines and combat jets from Russia, while Singapore — the world's fifth-largest weapons importer — is adding to its sophisticated arsenal.

Wary of China and flush with economic success, Southeast Asia is ramping up spending on military hardware to protect the shipping lanes, ports and maritime boundaries that are vital to the flow of exports and energy.

Territorial disputes in the South China Sea, fuelled by the promise of rich oil and gas deposits, have prompted Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei to try to offset China's growing naval power.

Even for those away from that fray, maritime security has been a major focus for Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore.

“Economic development is pushing them to spend money on defense to protect their investments, sea lanes and exclusive economic zones,” said James Hardy, Asia Pacific editor of IHS Jane's Defence Weekly. “The biggest trend is in coastal and maritime surveillance and patrol.”

As Southeast Asia's economies boomed, defense spending grew 42 percent in real terms from 2002 to 2011, data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) shows.

High on the list are warships, patrol boats, radar systems and combat planes, along with submarines and anti-ship missiles that are particularly effective in denying access to sea lanes.

“Submarines are a big thing,” said Tim Huxley, executive director for Asia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “They can do immense damage without being seen, without being anticipated, and they can do that anywhere in the region.”

For decades, much of Southeast Asia spent little on weapons other than guns and small tanks. Most threats were internal and the umbrella of U.S. protection was deemed enough to ward off any potential aggression from overseas.

With China's growing muscle and more funds available, the shopping lists are getting more sophisticated. Most countries in the region are littoral, so the emphasis is on sea and air-based defense.

Malaysia has two Scorpene submarines and Vietnam is buying six Kilo-class submarines from Russia. Thailand also plans to buy submarines and its Gripen warplanes from Sweden's Saab AB will eventually be fitted with Saab's RBS-15F anti-ship missiles, IISS says.

Singapore has invested in F-15SG combat jets from Boeing Co. in the United States and two Archer-class submarines from Sweden to supplement the four Challenger submarines and powerful surface navy and air force it already has.

Indonesia, a vast nation of islands with key sea lanes and 54,700 kilometers (34,000 miles) of coastline, has two submarines now and ordered three new ones from South Korea. It is also working with Chinese firms on manufacturing C-705 and C-802 anti-ship missiles after test-firing a Russian-built Yakhont anti-ship missile in 2011.

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