The two landing ships donated by Australian government to the Philippine Navy are berthing at a naval base in Cairns, Australia on July 23, 2015, when Australia officially delivers the two ships to the Philippines. Photo/Visual China
Before 2015, 90 percent of Vietnam's military equipment import relied on Russia.
Within two years after 1995, Vietnam purchased 12 Su-27SK/UBK fighters/strike aircraft from Russia. At the end of 2003, it ordered four Su-30MK2 multi-purpose fighters, and in January 2009, the two countries signed a new purchase contract for eight Su-30MK2 aircraft.
In recent years, Vietnam has purchased six Russia-made Kilo-class submarines fitted with cruise missiles, 36 Su-30MK2 aircraft, six stealth frigates and six fast attack boats.
It also bought 20 sets of "EXTRA" and "ACCULAR" precision-guided rocket gun systems from Israel in February this year to equip its artillery forces for coast defense, mainly to step up defense against South China Sea islands and reefs.
"That's based on its own security considerations, but more importantly, it wants to have more bargaining chips against China so that it can have a larger say in future negotiations with China," analyzed Liu Feng.
Vietnam has been coveting American military equipment for a long time, but, according to a report on the Chinese website of Japan's Nikkei on June 29, it had no choice but turn to P-3C anti-submarine patrol aircraft that had been used by Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force due to a thin purse.
"What the Vietnam is most worried about is that China has more than 70 submarines, so it had purchased a lot of patrol aircraft to make up for its inferiority in anti-submarine capability," said Liu Feng.
Japan, Decade-long Runner-up
At present, Japan has more than 300 fighters and 17 airborne warning and control systems (AWACS). In the latest military purchase deal, Japan may adopt the same production model as F-15J, namely importing fighter parts directly from western suppliers and then producing the fighter in Japan in order to improve technological and production capability.
"Japan wants to develop its private economy (civil industry) and military industry through arms deals," said Liu Deqin, an expert on Japan issues at Guangdong University of Finance & Economics.
But the U.S. isn't happy about this. Japan has been hoping to obtain F-22 fighters that are capable of long-distance flight and stealth performance, but Lockheed Martin Corp. stopped producing it and the U.S. government doesn't allow its export either, but that doesn't stop Japan's defense budget from rising all the time.
Japan released the 2016 defense budget last year, which amounted to 5.05 trillion Japanese Yen ($42 billion), 1.5 percent more than the previous fiscal year. The budget has been increasing for four consecutive years and created a historical new high by exceeding 5 trillion Japanese Yen for the first time.
Japan's defense budget kept shrinking in the 2002-2012 decade, falling from the peak of 4.94 trillion Japanese Yen to 4.65 trillion. After Shinzo Abe came into office in December 2012, he ended the decade-long military budget reduction and began to expand the overseas scope of activity for Japanese Self Defense Forces.
After WWII, Japan's military expenditure should not exceed 1 percent of its GNP, and the Japanese government complied with this rule before 1986, although the military expenditure was still huge thanks to the country's tremendous GNP base.
Japan's defense expenditure began to break the 1 percent limit to reach 1.004 percent in 1987, and has kept rising ever since regardless of economic situation. Starting from 1993, Japan had the second largest military expenditure after the U.S. for more than 10 years with the largest per capita defense expenditure.
"As the U.S. meddled in the South China Sea issue in recent years, the Abe administration seemed eager to go all out in military purchase," analyzed Liu Deqin. Right before the new round of military purchase, hawkish forces in Japan hyped up the "China Threat" several times.
Japan is a country outside the South China Sea region but eager to stick its nose there, and it has a distinct maritime inclination. In the four years of Shinzo Abe's second term, the budget for Japan's Ground Self-Defense Force has decreased in general with fluctuations whereas that for the maritime and air self-defense forces has increased in general.
Japanese military equipment is mostly purchased from the U.S. or produced by itself, including F35 fighter, anti-submarine warfare aircraft, E-2D AWACS, and other highly sophisticated products to "deal with island and reef attacks".
This shows that Japan is taking the opportunity of updating its maritime and air armament to enlarge its advantages in anti-submarine capability, early warning and intelligence collection, so as to secure the control of the sea and air in the Asia Pacific.
As Japan lifted the ban on military export last year, it can compensate the spending on F-3 fighters with arms export. In May 2015, Japan held the first arms exhibition to promote its own weapon equipment, and its main target market is Southeast Asia, one of the regions with the fastest-growing military expenditure in the world.
America's "Offset Strategy"
Washington extended an "olive branch" to the Asia Pacific at a proper moment.
"The U.S. is going to comprehensively lift the ban on selling military equipment to Vietnam. This change will make sure that Vietnam will get the equipment it needs for self-defense." When U.S. president Obama visited Vietnam on May 23, 2016, he not only put an end to United States' weapon sanction against the country that started in 1975, but also promised to provide more than 200 million U.S. dollars to countries like Vietnam and the Philippines in the next two years to help them buy maritime security equipment.
According to America's rules on arms export, it cannot sell weapon to socialist and enemy countries, but Obama broke that rule. Teng Jianqun, head of the Department for American Studies at China Institute of International Studies, said "the U.S. did that for its strategic needs in Southeast Asia. It has to provide or sell weapon equipment to some countries such as Vietnam even if that means breaking the rule."
Liu Feng guessed that in return, Vietnam might lease Cam Ranh Bay to the U.S. at a very cheap rate and use the rent to partially pay for the weapons it bought.
"Regional conflicts and tension will keep escalating, and the U.S. remains a leading weapon supplier in the world with overwhelming advantages." Doctor Aude Fleurant, head of weapon and military expenditure at SIPRI, said the U.S. remained the largest weapon exporter in 2011-2015 with 33 percent of the world's total weapon export. It sold or donated weapons to at least 96 countries in the past five years.
At a strategic cooperation forum held in Hawaii in December 2015, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet Scott Swift warned publicly that "countries around the South China Sea tend to resort to force rather than international law to solve their territorial disputes, which may trigger an arms race in the region."
The U.S. seems to employ a self-contradictory Southeast Asian policy, claiming to preserve regional order on one hand and extensively selling arms on the other.
According to Xu Liping, an expert on Southeast Asian issues from Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, countries including Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines are also involved in South China Sea disputes, and Vietnam's rapid military buildup will stimulate others to accelerate military purchase. This goes counter to preserving the freedom of navigation, peace and stability in the South China that the U.S. claimed to advocate.
For many years the realistic diplomatic policy of "equilibrium" has been dominant in Washington. Liu Feng held that "the U.S. has to strike a balance. As the world cop, it cannot let the whole region get out of control, but it has to stir up disputes among nations in the region for the opportunity to control the overall situation. The disputes are obviously good for America's arms sale."
"The South China Sea dispute is very likely a strategic scam set up by the U.S. under multiple factors," Yang Minqing, a researcher at the world affairs research center of Xinhua News Agency, said in his article.
He said the U.S. has made constant provocations in the South China Sea and the west has triggered the arms race in the region, forcing China to raise its military budget and reinforce regular weapon and equipment, which makes national defense and military construction a heavy burden on national economy. If those regular weapon and equipment cannot impose strategic deterrence on the United States, the latter may achieve the "offsetting" purpose.
"Offset strategy" may become a new model of United States' future defense policies, which is without any doubt a variant of the new interventionism.
Malaysia's defense expenditure accounted for 1.5 percent of its GDP in 2014, the Philippines 1.1 percent and Vietnam 2.2 percent, all higher than the reasonable level of 1 percent for developing countries. Before 2010, Singapore's defense expenditure even stayed around 3-3.3 percent of GDP.
"The South China Sea is a 'crowded sea area' now and there is great concern over military conflicts there," said Liu Feng.
He added that while their original intention was to secure overwhelming military advantages, participants in the Asia Pacific arms race find themselves in a security dilemma - their military scale-up even for defense purpose would be considered a threat by other countries that they need to respond to. Such a race poses a security dilemma that the involved nations find hard to stay away from.