One of the many ways in which the East Asian balance of power does not resemble the “classic” Cold War is in the structure of the arms trade. During the Cold War Soviet arms dominated the Eastern European market, as well as the markets of politically connected Soviet client states in the Middle East and Africa. Western supply was more varied, with the United States occupying a central position but French, British, German, and other arms suppliers sometime vying for the same customers as the Soviets (especially in the Middle East). Nevertheless, in the Cold War a commitment to an arms supplier often implied a geostrategic commitment to one superpower.
East and Southeast Asian states have yet to replicate this pattern in the post-Cold War era. At this point, China’s primarily arms sales targets remain in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. Pakistan also buys a substantial amount of Chinese arms, but China’s major regional arms clients (Burma, North Korea, and to an extent Cambodia) remain distinctly second-tier in terms of purchasing power. The increasing sophistication of Chinese equipment, assuming reliability problems can be dealt with, could incline other regional states to purchase Chinese weapons. However, committing to Chinese supplies also risks a political commitment to the PRC, which might sit poorly with the United States. For its own part, the United States has major customers in Taipei, Seoul, and Tokyo, notwithstanding those nations’ own robust defense industries. The U.S. has also made inroads into Southeast Asia, with significant sales to Indonesia and the Philippines.
An arms relationship represents both an economic and a political commitment. What’s at stake in making such a commitment? While Sino-U.S. competition likely won’t descend into the kind of alliance structure that predominated during the Cold War, some navies could nevertheless find themselves on the “wrong side” of political competition in the Western Pacific, which could leave them vulnerable. Committing to one supplier creates a relationship of dependency, with the client needing to stay in the good graces of the patron in order to maintain access to spares, munitions, and modernization kits. The smaller navies of Southeast Asia need to decide how best to develop force structures in a future which may see competition between the United States and China.
Several navies have chosen to avoid the problem of commitment by purchasing from extra-regional supplies such as Russia and the European Union. Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia already pursue this option, with Vietnam purchasing primarily Russian equipment and the rest purchasing from a variety of European suppliers. These policies have their own Cold War analogues, as numerous states pursued what amounted to buffet style arms acquisition strategies. This sometimes resulted in the creation of “frankenforces,” deploying incompatible equipment purchased from a wide variety of firms. The Egyptian armed forces provide an excellent example, operating fighter aircraft acquired from France, the United States, China, and the Soviet Union. Frankenforces, despite the interoperatibility problems they created, had the advantage of avoiding the political problems associated with a patron-client military relationship.
Procurement is hardly the only minefield facing regional navies, as they also need to navigate through political associations on the high sea. The Cooperative Seapower Strategy espoused by the U.S. Navy (USN) concentrates on producing connections between the USN and regional navies, to the extent that even junior officers become familiar with each other and with the procedures of each other’s fleets. These connections potentially have long-term strategic effect by embedding a political relationship to the United States (not to mention an interpretation of the USN’s vision of the maritime sphere) within the organizational structures of regional navies. Indeed, the cooperative direction the USN is pursuing can be understood as pre-emption of Sino-U.S. competition in the Western Pacific. As of yet the PLAN has not undertaken a similar project of engagement, the absence of which may portend the continued predominance of U.S. maritime influence in the region.