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Malaysia: defence expert discusses whether increased defence spending means an arms race or just modernisation.

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Asia Pacific

Thursday 11 April 2002

MALAYSIA: Multi-billion defence dollar spending spree

The Malaysian Government has gone on a multi billion dollar defence spending spree, ordering the latest British and Russian air defence and short range missile, systems, to be delivered within three years. Included in the order are three French submarines. Analysts says the spending spree should be seen as an attempt to modernise the country's defence system rather than an escalation of the Asian arms race.


Presenter/Interviewer: Claudette Werden.  

Speakers: Dr Phillip Saunders, Asian defence expert with the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California.


SAUNDERS: "Part of what's going on is with the Asian financial crisis, that really put a crimp in procurement for a number of South-East Asian countries so there was a dip in arm sales to the region.  


"So part of what's going on is some of the plans that had been there before but were delayed or postponed due to the financial situation of the Malaysian government, now the money is there again to purchase some things so thats part of background. In terms of the specific systems Malaysia is interested in purchasing, basically they're intended to improve air defence capabilities 

in a combat situation, they're short range air defence missiles which can be fired at attacking fighters or bombers.  


"The more interesting part is the reported purchase of submarines from France.  


"This is something that a number of countries in southeast Asia are interested in, both in terms of naval defence of their waters in the South China Sea and elsewhere but also to some degree as a status symbol.  


"This is one of the new capabilities in the region, Singapore already has a submarine force, China has purchased some advanced Russian submarines and a number of navies in the region look as submarines as one of the signs of a modern military ." 


WERDEN: Are we seeing an increase in the regional arms race? 


SAUNDERS: "Well that's one of the questions, what's the target for buying these kinds of weapons; is it part of a normal military modernisation by which all militaries gradually look to upgrade their capabilities or is there more of a sense of urgency is purchasing these kinds of weapons and preparing for particular contingencies. 


"And I think what's really new here are the submarines which are a new capability for Malaysia but as I pointed out that can be read both ways. Certainly submarines give you both defensive and offensive capabilities which could be useful in the South China Sea scenario but also for a navy they're a sign of prestige, that's what modern navies do. One of the capabilities they have is a submarine force, so for Malaysia that's getting into that kind of ball game." 


WERDEN: Okay so how does their what they describe as their modernisation of their military stack up, compared to other countries defence systems 


SAUNDERS: "Well the French submarines are reasonably good. Of course the US navy is the main navy that operates in South East Asia and brings the most combat power to the table and French subs are not really a strong match for that.  


"Y'know one of the concerns Malaysia is probably hedging about is the possibility of an expanded Chinese role in the region in the future and China has two kilo class attack submarines that it bought from Russia which are pretty capable systems. I think the French systems are on a par with the Russians maybe a little better in terms of the electronics." 


WERDEN: Okay so now we've got Singapore who've got a modern defence system, now Malaysia whose buying it, who's next? 


SAUNDERS: "Well if you go around the region I think the places where you would look are Indonesia, and Thailand, although in both cases there's some financial restrictions on their modernisation program as they're still trying to recover from the Asian financial crisis, in some ways Malaysia has done a little bit better, economically and is therefore in a little bit better to move forward on these.  


"Indonesia in particular there's enough disarray that I don't see them making this kind of investment in the near future and for Thailand there security problems on the whole are more internal security rather than external security so I don’t see a real urgency trying to upgrade their naval capabilities.'