It’s one of the most remarkable geopolitical experiments in recent memory. It was 50 years ago when foreign ministers of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand endorsed the Bangkok Declaration on August 8, 1967, that created ASEAN–the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
The result of this budding regional alliance are manifest today. Southeast Asian nations are more committed than ever to integrating their economies and cooperating in myriad trans-national projects. To think it all began when Indonesia’s Adam Malik suggested a treaty that would placate his worried colleagues over Jakarta’s expansionist ambitions.
But ASEAN isn’t just about easier travel and fewer tariffs among its 1o member states. Each of its countries, who are enjoying record GDP growth despite facing unique security issues, have militaries that are adopting, acquiring, and inventing new technologies for their own use. This begs the question: Who’s the strongest?
Readers must take heed, though. Any credible manpower figures are estimates at best and these are always changing. There isn’t a single Southeast Asian superpower yet, but at least six contenders can give it a shot if they really tried.
Upon gaining independence in 1949 after years of armed struggle, Indonesia emerged as the world’s most populous Muslim country. It soon went on an annexation binge, snapping up former European colonies all the way to West Papua. Almost half a century of continuous dictatorship ended in 1998 with Suharto’s downfall and a viable democracy was reborn. Indonesia’s multi-ethnic makeup encompasses more than 260 million people and its nominal GDP reached an estimated $1 trillion in 2017.
It isn’t surprising Indonesia has the region’s largest military, totaling 476,000 enlisted men and women, with a 300,000-strong army. Today’s Indonesian armed forces, the TNI, are far-removed from their decrepitude during the 1990s. The ground forces have Leopard 2 tanks and BMP-3’s. The air force is quite modest, however, with separate squadrons of F-16’s and Russian Sukhois. Indonesia maintains a large navy of corvettes and missile boats, albeit better suited for patrolling territorial waters, and is readying itself to build its own submarines.
The Indonesian arms industry manufactures various guns and crew-served weapons, different kinds of munitions, wheeled armored vehicles, and helicopters. Though not known for its technological prowess, state-owned factories can assemble airframes and small warships. Jakarta’s defense budget is worth $8 billion. If it could afford to invest 2.5% of its GDP on defense, Indonesia graduates to undisputed regional power status.
Since gaining independence on August 31, 1957, Malaysia has enjoyed an enviable peace dividend in a part of the world often beset by crisis and tension. Abundant natural resources and energy exports fueled its growth over the next five decades and in 2016 nominal GDP was valued at $304 billion.
Being one of the more stable countries in ASEAN doesn’t mean Kuala Lumpur neglects its security. The defense budget in 2017 was at a respectable $3.6 billion, which is a bit higher than Myanmar and the Philippines.
Malaysia’s armed forces number 110,000 in total with almost 300,000 men trained as reservists. The air force and navy are well-equipped, with the former operating several dozen combat aircraft–a squadron of Soviet-era MiG-29’s is slated for retirement soon, leaving the branch with Hawk’s, F-5 Tigers, F/A-18D’s, and Su-30’s.
Malaysia does have a thriving, if modest, arms industry and enviable access to foreign suppliers. The local aerospace sector is a bright spot in the national economy, with numerous firms specializing in maintenance and repairs for civilian and military aircraft.
The country that used to be Burma is the most troubled member of ASEAN. Gaining independence in 1947 led to a civil war that continues until present, pitting Rangoon against various ethnic militias in the country’s lawless hinterland.
Myanmar was Southeast Asia’s poorest country when it joined ASEAN in 1997. It’s still in the process of reforming its government and economy so that civilian leadership can exist alongside a powerful military clique. This has been a partial success and annual economic growth has remained high for the past handful of years.
Exact figures for the armed forces, the Tatmadaw, are questionable. The numbers vary from 250,000 to a high 400,000. But given the army’s continuous practice of forced conscription, including children, and employing militia the institution’s size could be higher that assumed. Its annual defense budget is pegged at a low $3 billion in 2017.
Myanmar’s domestic arms industry dates back to the 1960s but it was only during the late 1990s when Israel and Singapore helped established localized production for small arms and munitions. Its main suppliers of equipment are China, Russia, and Ukraine. Myanmar’s air force, for example, relies almost exclusively on Chinese aircraft.
Considering its size and abundant natural resources, Myanmar still ranks as very underdeveloped. But the scope of its ambitions is perhaps the most daring among its neighbors. Having learned to repair and maintain armored vehicles, Myanmar’s state-owned industries has its sights on aerospace and shipbuilding. As if these benchmarks weren’t too difficult, Myanmar is the only Southeast Asian country rumored to have attempted a nuclear weapons program with North Korea’s help.
Southeast Asia’s wealthiest country is built like a fortress. Having gained independence in 1965, the city state launched an ambitious program to build an armed forces that would scare its neighbors. Israel played a seminal role in Singapore’s rise and to this day both countries share a unique security partnership.
Thanks to its rigorous National Service, Singapore can harness enough manpower for its military, emergency services, law enforcement, and a gigantic reservist pool. The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) might number just 75,000 on paper but it can mobilize nearly a million citizens should a dire national crisis call for it.
Singapore’s GDP hovers in the $300 billion range and its defense budget is kept at an above average percentage, totaling $10 billion in 2017.
Each branch of the SAF is superbly equipped. The army has several hundred armored vehicles, including 196 upgraded Leopard 2SG main battle tanks. The air force flies 62 F-16C/D’s and 40 F-15SG’s. The navy is capable of blue water engagements thanks to its French stealth frigates and Swedish Archer-class submarines.
Singapore’s domestic arms industry is the most advanced in ASEAN thanks to decades of careful planning and investment. State-owned firms like ST Engineering managed to develop indigenous small arms, vehicles, and crew-served weapons during the 1980s, much earlier than the rest. Between the government’s R&D and a thriving private sector for military tech, Singapore is poised to export its wares on a global scale.
The region’s most attractive country is a hotbed for political turmoil. Thailand’s martial class have tried seizing power at least 14 times since the beginning of the 20th century–and they’ve succeeded often enough.
With a military junta firmly in control despite a new king, Thailand seeks to industrialize further through advanced manufacturing. This is seen as an antidote to lackluster economic growth since 2014. Thailand’s GDP reached $395 billion in 2015 and domestic politics remains calm.
Always an imperial entity with a heritage of feuding with its neighbors, Thailand’s clout is more than enough to deter Myanmar, Malaysia, Laos, and Cambodia. The monarchy also has a long tradition of favoring the armed forces, whose numbers total an estimated 310,000 with 190,000 soldiers in the army. The government’s annual defense budget was a generous $6.1 billion in 2017.
Commanding the Gulf of Thailand gives Bangkok reason to furnish an impressive navy that includes a token (and useless) aircraft carrier, the HTMS Chakri Naruebet, along with dozens of small patrol ships. The air force prefers single engine combat aircraft like the F-16C/D and the JAS 39 Gripen.
Being a country spread over flood plains and a vast river delta, Thailand’s army fields a large number of American and Chinese medium tanks. A batch of Ukrainian T-84’s adds color to an already diverse mechanized fleet. With Bangkok and Beijing wrapped in a new dalliance, upcoming arms deals emphasize Thailand’s obsession with its mechanized forces. This is why its domestic arms industry specializes in the assembly, repair, and overhaul of vehicles.
Decades of continuous warfare left Vietnam a pariah on the global stage. After its unification in 1975 the new country set about invading and occupying its neighbor Cambodia and blunted an invasion by China, with whom it still has strained ties. A long-term economic program driven by foreign investment boosted Vietnam’s GDP to almost $200 billion by 2015.
Known for having one of Southeast Asia’s largest militaries, the correct size of the Vietnam People’s Army (VPA) is unclear. A low estimate is at least 415,000 with no available figures for reserves and militia. If irregular forces are factored in Vietnam easily beats Indonesia when it comes to hard power metrics.
Vietnam’s ground forces maintain the largest fleet of armored vehicles in ASEAN but these are mostly leftovers from the Vietnam War (1965-1975) and comprise almost a thousand T-54/55 medium tanks, including Chinese clones, and some 400 amphibious light tanks. A sizable motor pool along with hundreds of artillery pieces gives the VPA an inordinate advantage over its immediate neighbors.
Years of selective acquisitions allowed the VPA to deploy newer weapon systems from Russia and Israel. These include the S-300 theater defense SAM system, missile patrol boats and frigates, and six Kilo-class submarines. Rumor has it the VPA maintains a growing stockpile of UAVs, SAMs, and shore-based cruise missiles bought from either India or Israel. Vietnam’s air force flies squadrons of Su-30MK’s to protect the national airspace from Chinese provocations. To think these improvements managed to fit inside a defense budget that totaled just $4.5 billion in 2015.
The scope of Vietnam’s arms industry is difficult to measure but assistance from India, Israel, and Russia could raise its profile in coming years.