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China’s Arms Sales to Southeast Asia; By Carlyle A. Thayer

Picture Courtesy: Air Power Australia

C3S Article no: 0079/2017

Courtesy: Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, August 30, 2017

We are writing a report on Chinese arms sales to South East Asia. We request your assessment of the following issues:

Q1) In a general sense, why are Chinese weapons attractive to potential buyers?

ANSWER: Chinese weapons are robust, price competitive in the market place, may involve technology transfer and/or loans, and are provided without the onerous approval process the U.S. applies to arms sale. In some cases, such as Indonesia after East Timor and Thailand after the 2014 coup, U.S. sales of spare parts and other equipment may be withheld. This opens the door for Chinese arms sales.

Q2) Why have countries in the region like Thailand and Indonesia turned to China for weapons? What are their strategic calculations? In the case of Indonesia, why is Jakarta seeking closer ties with Beijing despite the former being traditionally suspicious of the latter?

ANSWER: If you take a ten-year look at arms procurements by Indonesia and Thailand you will note that arms sales are not a recent phenomenon.

In 2005-09, for example Indonesia ordered C-802 anti-ship missiles, portable surface to air missiles, and air search radar from China. Indonesia, which has a domestic shipbuilding industry, has also sought to acquire armaments to fit its warships such as naval guns and anti-ship missiles.

The United States has been and continues to be a major supplier of military platforms and equipment for Indonesia such as light aircraft, Bell-412 helicopters, Apache combat helicopters and F-16C fighters. Indonesia also procures spare parts for its aircraft. Other purchases include: Longbow helicopter combat radar, anti-tank missiles, and anti-submarine warfare sonar.

The record of Indonesia’s procurements do not support a trend of closer ties with Beijing at the expense of the United States. Indonesia appears to mix and match its weapon systems and platforms.

Over the last ten years Thailand has acquired Chinese Ocean Patrol Vessels and antiship missiles. Thailand has also purchased weapons from China following border clashes with Cambodia in 2008 such as self-propelled multiple rocket launchers (MRL), artillery locating radar and surface to air missiles. Since the 2014 coup, Thailand has procured more artillery locating radar, surface to air missiles and battle tanks.

Myanmar is also a major Southeast Asian recipient of Chinese weapons including frigates, trainer aircraft, naval guns, anti-ship missiles, air and sea search radars, fire control radar, and equipment for its ground force (self-propelled MRL, armoured fighting vehicles, armoured personnel carriers and battle tanks).

Q3) How possible is that Singapore will go down the made-in-China route as well?

ANSWER: There have been no publicly recorded Chinese arms sales to Singapore in the ten-year period 2006-16. A review of U.S. arms AND military equipment sales is quite extensive and includes such sophisticated platforms as F-15SG jet aircraft, Seahawk helicopters and beyond visual range air-to-air missiles. This creates a logistic support system geared to U.S. spare parts and technology upgrades. Given this historical legacy it seems unlikely that Singapore would start making big-ticket purchases from China.

Q4) Going forward, how significant do you think China will be as an arms supplier to the region and what are the implications of this for regional security?

China will be entering a competitive arms market in Southeast Asia. It has already established markets in seven of Southeast Asia’s eleven states: Indonesia, Myanmar and Thailand, and to a lesser extent, Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos and Timor-Leste. Except for Malaysia, there is little prospect of large sales to Cambodia, Laos and Timor- Leste for budgetary reasons.

China is well poised to take advantage of Duterte’s pivot to China to make inroads in the Philippines. This would be a new market but a limited one. The Philippines’ Constitution requires that the budget for education be larger than defence. Besides, although the Philippines has a legacy of U.S. equipment and platforms, it is turning to new sources such as South Korea and Italy.

China is unlikely to make significant in-roads in Brunei, Singapore or Vietnam. Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand also purchase from the United States and China would face stiff competition.

The U.S. currently sells defence equipment and arms to six Southeast Asian states: Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. The U.S. has just entered the Vietnam market with the sale of one Hamilton-class Cutter with the prospect of a further sale. The U.S. has mooted defence technology transfer and coproduction.

Bottom line: China will continue to be a major supplier of arms to the region but it will not dominate. The main regional market countries appear to be hedging by splitting their procurements between China and the United States. Russia is pressing to expand its regional market along with South Korea and several European states.

What are the implications for regional security? Southeast Asian states will acquire more modern and lethal weapon systems that will project power further from their shores. There will be in increased focus on the maritime domain and its airspace. Countries like Myanmar and Thailand will also build up their land forces.

Chinese and U.S. arms sales to the region will build up the capacity of Southeast Asian states to defend themselves. But Chinese arms sales in and of themselves will not set off a classical arms race in which countries strain their resources to keep up with or surpass a perceived threatening state. The introduction of new systems and platforms always raises the question of what will happen at a time of crisis. Can these systems be properly managed or will they be immediately used to devastating effect inviting a response?

[Carlyle A. Thayer is an Emeritus Professor at the University of New South Wales, Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra. The views expressed are his own. All his background briefs are posted on (search for Thayer). Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and other research support to selected clients.]

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