Asia puts military wares on display to the world

Richard Lloyd Parry reports on arms firms cashing in on regional rivalries
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Singapore - One of the many remarkable things about Singapore is that, despite its position at the heart of one of the most colourful parts of the world, it makes South-East Asia feel like a calm and orderly place.

Here, chewing gum is a controlled substance, crossing the road off a zebra crossing can land you a pounds 400 fine, and the streets are so clean you could eat your dinner off them.

But this week, Singapore is hosting an event based upon the opposite assumption: that Asia is an increasingly vulnerable region, a continent of territorial rivalries and escalating military expansion.

The event is known as Imdex Asia '97 (for International Maritime Defence Exhibition and Conference), a four-day event involving 300 companies from 18 countries, and thousands of visiting diplomats, defence procurement officials, serving officers and journalists.

Ten battle ships, from small attack craft from Brunei to the mighty British aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious, are moored in Singapore in support of their national industries.

The exhibiting companies have paid as much as pounds 80,000 to set up their stands at the biggest in a growing number of regional arms fairs, which now regularly take place in Korea, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines.

They owe their existence to a striking shift in military spending patterns: since the end of the Cold War brought drastic cutbacks in defence budgets in Europe and America, Asia is virtually the only place in the world where defence procurement budgets are consistently on the rise. The reasons for this were outlined by speakers at the exhibition and an associated conference on the theme "Protection of the Seaways".

With the end of superpower rivalry, states are having to take responsibility for their own security against a variety of threats in one of the world's most strategically crucial areas.

The dramatic economic growth of South-East Asia has made the security of its sea lanes more important than ever. If the graphs climb at anticipated rates, by 2010 one-third of the world's production will take place in East Asia.

Already the Malacca Straits, the narrow waters which divide the Indonesian island of Sumatra from Malaysia and Singapore carry more ships every day than the Panama and Suez canals put together. By far the largest number of cases of piracy (71 out of 94 world-wide in 1994) take place in Asia. More disturbing are the flash points developing between the states.

Many focus on islands. Yesterday China protested over a series of visits by Japanese nationalists to islands variously called the Diaoyu and the Senkaku, claimed by Tokyo, Peking and Taipei.

Last week, China and the Philippines renewed their claims to the even more embattled Spratly Islands - which are believed to contain fuel deposits and, which are also claimed by Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei.

China's ambitions to establish a continental "blue water" fleet by 2020 have stimulated an armaments boom among the Association of South- East Asian Nations (Asean).