The tiny island-state of Singapore, home to just over 5m people, has a well-deserved reputation as a quiet, clean-cut hub for banking, lawyering and golf. Yet beyond the fairways it bristles with weapons.
According to a report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Singapore is now the fifth-largest arms importer in the world, bested only by some obvious behemoths--China, India and Pakistan--plus South Korea. Singapore accounts for 4% of the world's total spending on arms imports. Its defence spending per head beats every country bar America, Israel and Kuwait. This year $9.7 billion, or 24% of the national budget, will go on defence.
It is part of a wider Asian phenomenon. For the first time, in modern history at least, Asia's military spending is poised to overtake Europe's, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think-tank in London. China is doubling its defence budget every five years and India has just announced a 17% rise in spending this year, to about $40 billion.
Until recently domestic insurgencies have amply justified some South-East Asian countries' defence spending. Yet for decades there have been no interstate conflicts. An existential angst remains in Singapore over Malaysia to the north and Indonesia, its big neighbor to the south. Still, it is hard to imagine any of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) locking horns, apart perhaps from Cambodia and Thailand, who lob the occasional artillery shell at each other over a disputed temple on the border.
Mostly, though, countries seem to be exploiting economic success to update their hardware while the going is good. Defence spending slowed sharply after the Asian financial crisis in 1997-98, when many planes and ships were already old. Now many countries are enjoying rapid economic growth, of up to 6% a year, and robust budgets. This is not, says Bill Edgar of IHS Jane's, a "strategic" arms race. Rather, he says, it is all about modernization.
Take the regional giant, Indonesia. The Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 not only devastated communities, it also laid bare the shortcomings of the armed forces, which proved to be ill-equipped and demoralized. As American and Australian troops poured off aircraft carriers and other ships into the ravaged province of Aceh to bring aid and search for victims, Indonesian troops were reduced to spectators. The newly elected president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, took the humiliation personally. A former general, Mr Yudhoyono has since made modernizing Indonesia's armed forces a priority.
Indonesia is spending $8 billion this year on defence--still rather modest for a country of 240m, but up sharply from $2.6 billion in 2006. Much is going on new hardware and spare parts. The country has acquired Russian and American warplanes, including F-16 fighters, vessels for its navy, and spare parts for its C-130 transport planes. In January Indonesia signed a $1.1 billion deal for three German-made diesel-electric submarines, and lawmakers are debating whether to buy 100 Leopard tanks from the Netherlands. Mr Yudhoyono also wants to improve the lot of soldiers, with higher salaries and benefits.
Domestic political calculations are another factor behind the region's defence splurge. Terence Lee at the National University of Singapore argues that in countries where the armed forces have meddled in politics, civilian politicians use larger defence budgets to buy political compliance from the military--Thailand is a case in point. Singapore, on the other hand, has a different motivation. It is the only country in the region building its own high-tech arms industry. Singapore has long sold weapons to other developing countries, but has recently been winning its first large orders from Western armies too. ST Engineering, the only South-East Asian firm in SIPRI's top 100 defence manufacturers, has sold over 100 Bronco (or Warthog) armored troop carriers to the British, for use in Afghanistan.
For all that, strategic concerns do count for something. For example, the sea lanes leading to the Strait of Malacca are the lifeblood of Singapore's prosperity. And over the past decade, some may have worried that America was distracted by war elsewhere. So the growth of a Chinese blue-water navy has implications.
Strategic concerns also loom large for any country with a territorial claim to the disputed South China Sea (see next story), where China's assertive stance has provoked a surge of spending by, for instance, Vietnam. The country recently ordered six Kilo-class submarines from Russia. Vietnam is also buying seven or so new frigates and corvettes over the next decade. In the Philippines the government of President Benigno Aquino almost doubled the defence budget last year, to $2.4 billion.
Even with new submarines and planes, Vietnam and the Philippines are still no match for Asia's new superpower, should it come to war. But it might make China think twice, or even thrice, before trying anything, and buy time before America--presumably--comes to the rescue.