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Southeast Asia’s return to prosperity since the financial crisis of 1997 has brought a regionwide splurge on new weapons. Most Southeast Asian countries are, indeed, now busily modernizing their armed forces. So far, most have done so without compromising their autonomy in security matters. But with China’s military buildup causing nervousness everywhere, many governments in the region are starting to work with outside powers.

Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has perhaps been the most assertive. In addition to becoming more active in world diplomacy, Yudhoyono will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow this month to discuss buying Russia’s newest fighter jets. Indonesia is seeking to form an air-defense squadron of 12 jets, with eight of the new Russian fighters complementing the two Russian Su-27SK and Su-30MKM craft that it has already bought.

Elsewhere in the region, Singapore has apparently opted to purchase 12 new F-15SG fighter aircraft from the United States. Last year Thailand’s Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra met Putin and tentatively agreed to purchase 12 Su-30MKM. Malaysia has agreed to buy 18 Su-30MKM over the next two years, while Vietnam has purchased 36 Su-27SK, 12 of which are already in service.

With the exception of Singapore, it seems that Russian fighter-attack aircraft are the region’s weapon of choice at the moment. Russia’s growing slice of the local arms market worries the U.S., the world’s biggest weapons supplier and still Asia’s greatest military power. Thus, for example, last November, the U.S. lifted its six-year embargo on military sales to Indonesia, imposed in 1999 in response to human rights abuses in East Timor. Indonesia immediately expressed its intention to purchase C-130 transport aircraft, as well as fast patrol boats to conduct “antiterrorism and antipiracy measures.”

Yet Indonesia is also trying to align itself with Asia’s rising power, China, by seeking greater defense and security cooperation. As a result of these improved relations, Indonesia has received Chinese short-range missile technology.

The possibility that Southeast Asia’s governments might begin to play America and China off against each other is one of the concerns that most animates the latest U.S. quadrennial defense review, which is intended to “focus on the Pacific Ocean” in awareness of China’s growing naval power. Undoubtedly, the U.S. will try to build closer ties with Indonesia through greater military cooperation, because Indonesia borders the region’s key sea lines of communications.

In particular, Indonesia will inevitably become involved in the tug of war between the U.S. and China for influence over the vitally important Malacca Strait. Because China must import vast quantities of oil through the Malacca Strait, that sea lane has become a central element in the country’s security strategy.

For this reason, China is attempting to use economic and military aid as leverage to improve relations countries with which it has had military confrontations in the past, most prominently Vietnam and the Philippines.

India, too, is now joining the military buildup. It has actively led regional multilateral joint exercises, such as the naval joint exercise that India’s navy hosted in the Andaman Sea, in the eastern Indian Ocean, earlier this year. Nine Asia-Pacific countries took part, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.

Both India and China are each seeking greater influence over the strategically important country of Myanmar. For example, after Myanmar signed an agreement with China in 2005 to supply natural gas, India responded by cutting its own gas deal with Myanmar.

South Korea, too, has joined the scramble. President Roh Moo Hyun visited Malaysia and agreed to expand mutual economic cooperation mainly in information technology, biotechnology, and resources and energy. Roh reportedly also discussed exporting defense materials worth $2.3 billion, including training aircraft, destroyers and armed vehicles. Moreover, in January 2006, South Korean Defense Minister Yoon Kwang Ung agreed with the Philippines to deliver two used patrol boats.

In this crowded power play, only Japan is left out, choosing for the most part to remain aloof and cultivate its relations with the U.S. But, despite deep historical animosity over World War II, there are increasing calls in the region for Japan to expand its influence to counterbalance China.

In reality, Japan is not ready for this, because it still strongly adheres to “self-imposed restraints” against “influence over other countries in security and defense,” including weapons exports.

In the 1960s, as its economy was taking off, Japan initiated a serious dialogue with regional players, aiming to build stronger relations with countries that it had once conquered and occupied. It is no overstatement to say that those efforts, which boosted trade and investment in the region, formed the foundation of Japan’s national power today. But now Japan’s political and economic influence in South East Asia is gradually declining, owing in part to its failure to exert influence over security and defense matters.

For those Asian countries that recall Japan’s moderate and sensible advancement of regional policies since the 1960s, there is a growing expectation that Japan should re-think its stance. At a time of regional uncertainty about Chinese policies — including the prospect of China’s first aircraft carrier — Japan’s participation in the evolving Asian security framework is fundamental to stability. The time when Japan could remain on the sidelines is over.

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