Tag Archives: Southeast Asia

Sea Control 124 – The Thai Military, Coups, and Strategic Culture

By Natalie Sambhi

Seriously, what’s with Thailand’s coups?

In this week’s episode of Sea Control: Asia Pacific, Natalie Sambhi interviews Greg Raymond, a research fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University. He is currently working on a research project looking at Thailand, the United States and China. He is also converting his PhD thesis on Thailand’s strategic culture into a book.

A soldier of the Royal Thai Army awaiting orders near the Red Shirt barricade at Chulalongkorn Hospital. (Courtesy of Flickr user null0)
A soldier of the Royal Thai Army awaiting orders near the Red Shirt barricade at Chulalongkorn Hospital. (Courtesy of Flickr user null0)

They delve into what drives the Thai military, why strategic culture matters and how Thailand’s coups have impacted on the development of its doctrine. As Greg explains, understanding the military and its history is key to understanding the future trajectory of this pivotal Southeast Asian state and its civil-military relations.

Download Sea Control Asia Pacific 124 – The Thailand Military, Coups and Strategic Culture

Follow Greg on Twitter @GregoryVRaymond

For more on Thailand and strategic culture, here are Greg’s top reading picks:

An ASEAN Maritime Alliance?

The year 2014 brought new tensions to the South China Sea, particularly as Chinese authorities sought to establish a series of island-like structures in the midst of the disputed Spratly Islands. Such provocative actions, however, are unlikely to generate sufficient political will among the other countries of the region to establish a Political-Security Community under the auspices of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) by the 2015 deadline. But were this collection of ten countries to pool their resources into a security community or even a security alliance, it would be an impressive force and a potential deterrent to aggression in the South China Sea.

In particular, it is worthwhile noting the relative strength of ASEAN coastal defence forces. Some member states, such as Indonesia, possess respectable ‘blue water’ navies, that is to say, they have larger vessels capable of operating in deep waters and engaging in long-range standing battles. Other ASEAN countries, such as the Philippines, have considerable ‘brown water’ navies,  forces consisting of small patrol boats which can cruise inland waterways and the shallow waters that weave between tight-knit island chains. But the varied nature of the waters disputed in the South China Sea particularly requires the flexibility offered by corvettes.

Generally, corvettes fall between the Royal Canadian Navy’s Halifax-class frigates and Kingston-class coastal defence vessels in size. But there is much debate as to what constitutes a contemporary corvette. For example, the Royal Omani Navy calls its Khareef-class vessels ‘corvettes’ even though the displacement of each vessel in the class is approximately 2,660 tons. Recent advancements in shipbuilding have also allowed the US Navy to introduce new vessels with substantial displacement but with shallower drafts, meaning the new USS Liberty can approach closer to coastlines than the similarly sized but older Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates.

For the purposes of this analysis, only those vessels with a displacement greater than 100 tons but less than 1,700 tons will be considered corvettes. China’s maritime forces, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN),  has a substantial number of vessels in this range deployed to Hong Kong and a network of naval bases off the South China Sea. 12 Jiangdao-class corvettes (1,440 tons) are the workhorses of this maritime presence in the region and China may possibly add 3 more vessels of this class by the end of 2015. Beyond the Jiangdao-class corvettes, PLAN’s southern presence includes six Houjian-class missile boats (520 tons) and approximately 80 other missile boats and gunboats of various classes and ranging in displacement from 200 to 480 tons each. This vastly exceeds the quantity and quality of vessels any individual Southeast Asian country could bring to bear in a conflict. But ASEAN’s combined maritime forces could meet the challenge presented by a limited PLAN offensive.

Brunei in particular has emerged as a promising new maritime actor in the region, even actively participating in the 2014 edition of the Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC). The Royal Brunei Navy acquired four specially built Darussalam-class offshore patrol ships (1,625 tonnes) from the German shipbuilder Luerssen-Werft, which replaced Brunei’s previous coastal defence workhorse, the Waspada-class fast attack craft (200 tonnes). The Waspada-class vessels have since been decommissioned and donated to Indonesia to be used for training purposes. The introduction of the Darussalam-class greatly upgrades Brunei’s defence capabilities and it will be of interest for Southeast Asian observers to see how Brunei further pursues the modernization of its forces.

The Republic of Singapore Navy has much in the way of heavier frigates and submarines to defend its unique position by the Strait of Malacca, one of the world’s most significant shipping routes. Its corvette-like vessels are also impressive, six Victory-class corvettes (600 tonnes) and 12 Fearless-class offshore patrol ships (500 tonnes), but they are certainly not as new as some of the vessels boasted by Singapore’s neighbours. The Victory-class was acquired in 1990-1991 while the Fearless-class was introduced between 1996 and 1998. Therefore, it will also be of interest to see whether Singapore seeks to obtain any newer vessels which can serve as a bridge in capabilities between the Victory-class corvettes and the heavier Formidable-class frigates.

dsc_5220It is Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia that boast the largest complements of corvettes in the region, however. The Royal Thai Navy’s coastal defence is led by two Tapi-class corvettes (1,200 tons) and two Pattani-class offshore patrol ships (1,460 tons), which are joined by two Ratanakosin-class corvettes (960 tons), three Khamrosin-class corvettes (630 tons), three Hua Hin-class patrol boats (600 tons), six PSMM Mark 5-class patrol boats (300 tons), and 18 smaller patrol boats and fast attack boats of varying capabilities but all rather aged. The Philippines and Indonesia both have vast island chains within their respective territories, requiring corvettes and smaller patrol vessels just as much for counter-trafficking and counter-piracy operations as for countering conventional maritime forces. The Philippine Navy possesses one Pohang-class corvette (1,200 tons), two Rizal-class corvettes (1,250 tons), nine Miguel Malvar-class corvettes (900 tons), and three Emilio Jacinto-class corvettes (700 tons). Indonesia tops out ASEAN’s array of corvettes with three Fatahillah-class corvettes (1,450 tons), 16 Kapitan Patimura-class corvettes (950 tons), and 65 other missile boats and gunboats with a displacement of approximately 100-250 tons.

Yet it is unclear how much of their forces Indonesia or the Philippines would be able to deploy in the midst of a South China Sea conflict. As mentioned previously, many of these vessels have been used practically as inland patrol vessels. There are also some potential weak links in the chain should ASEAN establish some form of formalized maritime alliance. The Royal Malaysian Navy only offers four Laksamana-class corvettes (675 tons) and an array of 16 smaller missile boats and gun boats that could generally only be used to harass Chinese forces. Burma certainly has an impressive force in its own right – consisting of three domestically produced Anawratha-class corvettes (1,100 tons), six Houxin-class missile boats (500 tons), 10 5 Series-class missile boats (500 tons), and 15 Hainan-class gunboats (450 tons), but the military junta has already demonstrated that it will remain aloof from territorial disputes in the South China Sea and generally supports China’s policy toward Southeast Asia.

The Royal Cambodian Navy is in shambles, consisting solely of five outdated Turya-class torpedo boats (250 tons), five Stenka-class patrol boats (250 tons), and a lone Shershen-class fast attack boat (175 tons). But Cambodian authorities would be just as disinclined to engage in defence sharing as their Burmese counterparts. During Cambodia’s 2012 ASEAN chairmanship, Cambodian officials consistently interfered in efforts by other ASEAN member states to reach a common position on the South China Sea’s territorial disputes. Given the understanding on security issues shared between Cambodian and Chinese officials, as well as China’s status as Cambodia’s largest source of foreign investment and aid, it is apparent that Cambodia has relatively no need for the security guarantees ASEAN could provide as a regional counter-balance to China.

Vietnam is the unpredictable factor in the region. The Vietnam People’s Navy has a few corvettes of its own, including a Pauk-class corvette (580 tons), eight Tarantul-class corvettes (540 tons), and 23 patrol ships with displacements ranging from 200 to 375 tons. The Vietnamese government has also ordered two more TT-400TP gunboats (450 tons) from domestic shipbuilders with delivery expected in late 2015 or early 2016. This leaves Vietnam with a force perhaps not as sizable as that of Indonesia or the Philippines but with greater capacity to intervene should China seek to settle territorial disputes with Vietnam by force.

As Malaysia will hold the 2015 Chairmanship of ASEAN, the prospects for a maritime force in support of the bloc’s proposed Political-Security Community will depend to some degree on whether Malaysian officials will be willing to show leadership. If Malaysia looks to acquire new vessels and insists on placing maritime security on the agenda of upcoming ASEAN meetings, some arrangement could be struck by the end of the year. But this will require artful diplomacy, especially in the face of Burmese and Cambodian opposition. With Malaysian officials speaking predominantly about the need for a single market in the region and promoting a conclusion to negotiations regarding the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, such a drive for maritime security may not be forthcoming.

Paul Pryce is a Research Analyst at the Atlantic Council of Canada. His research interests are diverse and include maritime security, NATO affairs, and African regional integration.

This article can be found in its original form at the  
NATO Council of Canada and was republished by permission.

Sea Control 67 – Japan’s Defense Budget

seacontrol2Welcome back to the Asia Pacific segment of Sea Control! In this episode Natalie Sambhi picks the brains of Dr Malcolm Cook of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Singapore) and Dr Ben Schreer of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (Canberra) on Japan’s recent budget increases; Japan’s relations with the US, Australia and Southeast Asia; and what the taking of Japanese hostages by ISIS might mean for its foreign policy in future.

DOWNLOAD: Sea Control 67 –
Japan Defense Budget

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Forecast 2015: Maritime Challenges in the Indian Ocean

Guest Post by Vijay Sakhuja

What could be the trend lines for 2015 in the Indian Ocean? A quick survey of events, incidents and trends in the Indian Ocean during 2014 suggests that the region witnessed cooperation, competition and inclusiveness among the littoral states.

Three baskets could be identified: geopolitical, geostrategic and geo-economic, to help forecast trends in 2015. However, a caveat is in order i.e. these baskets can spring a number of surprises, given that ‘prediction is a risky business’.

IORA: Moving from Australia to Indonesia
In the geopolitical domain, the region remained peaceful and pan-Indian Ocean multilateral organizations such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) were proactive and provided the platform and leadership to address issues of common interest among the partner states. The Perth Communiqué released in September 2014 reinforced the Association’s commitment to ‘building a more stable, secure and prosperous Indian Ocean region’ and promote the IORA’s six priority areas of cooperation. The regional navies met under the IONS banner and addressed a number of common security issues confronting the region.

Later in 2015, the IORA baton will pass from Australia to Indonesia who would continue to carry the great work done by the earlier Chair – India. The new government in Jakarta led by President Joko Widodo has endorsed the importance of maritime matters through the establishment of a new Coordinating Ministry for Maritime Affairs and announced the doctrine of ‘global maritime axis’ (poros maritim dunia). In addition, South Africa, the next Vice Chair of IORA, will prepare to take the leadership role in 2017. These provide ‘continuity and purpose’ to the IORA.

China and the Maritime Silk Road: Increasing footprints in the Indian Ocean
China would continue to make attractive offers to Indian Ocean states and seek support for the MSR. Its forays in the Indian Ocean can potentially sharpen difference between China and India and may even lead to these powers becoming more assertive.

During 2014, the Indian Ocean geostrategic environment, though peaceful, was a bit tenuous. The presence of Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean created unease in New Delhi. Though predicted, it surprised the Indian strategic community and the Indian Navy is beefing up capabilities to respond to the Chinese forays in the Indian Ocean.

India was also ruffled by the Chinese Maritime Silk Road (MSR) initiative and its growing popularity among a number of Indian Ocean states particularly Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives. New Delhi believes that the MSR can potentially help China consolidate its naval / maritime strategy of access and basing in the Indian Ocean in support of PLA Navy’s future operations.

Continuing US Anchor
The US will continue to be the strategic anchor and security provider in the Indian Ocean and its role welcomed by the regional countries to ‘correct security imbalances, challenge the hegemony of any dominant power and ensure regional stability’.

Likewise, the UK decision to permanently position a number of power projection platforms  in the Persian Gulf prompted New Delhi to recall the idea of  Indian Ocean ‘Zone of Peace’ and withdrawal of extra regional naval powers from the Indian Ocean.

2015: End of Piracy, Attractiveness of Drug smuggling and Re-emergence of Maritime Terrorism in the Indian Ocean
One of the important positive developments in the Indian Ocean was the near total suppression of piracy in the Gulf of Aden / Somali coast. It took eight years for the naval forces from nearly two dozen countries including a number of UN Security Council resolutions, to send pirates back home.

However, another ugly face of illegal activities at sea i.e. drug smuggling appears to have caught the attention of the Indian Ocean countries. During 2014, the multinational forces operating in the Indian Ocean intercepted a number of dhows/boats carrying narcotics from South Asia bound for destinations in East Africa. Perhaps what is more disturbing is that east coast of Africa emerged popular among drug smugglers from Colombia. Kenyan President Kenyatta’s initiative to oversee the destruction of a vessel carrying about 370 Kilograms of heroin worth US $ 11.4 million in international market exhibited Indian Ocean countries resolve to counter global trade in narcotics.

The rise of the Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), the new wing of the Al Qaeda, has already raised a new threat whether Pakistan will become a haven for maritime terrorism.

Will 2015 see the idea of “Blue Economy” leaping forward?
The geo-economic environment in the Indian Ocean witnessed the emergence of a new concept ‘Blue Economy’ led by Seychelles and Mauritius. The idea is resonating among a number of Indian Ocean littorals including Australia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, South Africa to name a few. The leaders are committed to the sustainable development of living and non-living marine resources to enhance food and energy security.

Will 2015 ensure better Search and Rescue Coordination?
Perhaps the most traumatic and heartrending events in 2014 were the tragic loss of Malaysian Airlines flight MH 370 in the southern Indian Ocean, which still remains a mystery, and the more recent loss of Air Asia flight QZ 8501 in the Java Sea. These were stark reminders of the need to develop robust search and rescue (SAR) mechanism in the Indian Ocean. Yet, these incidents exhibited the Indian Ocean countries’ commitment to provide ‘public goods at sea’ and a number of navies deployed their navies for SAR.

Dr Vijay Sakhuja is the Director, National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Maritime Foundation. He can be reached at director.nmf@gmail.com.

This article is courtesy Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS), New Delhi and originally appeared at http://www.ipcs.org/article/china/ipcs-forecast-the-indian-ocean-in-2015-4797.html It is a precis of the larger document of the same name, that is part of the IPCS’s ‘Forecast 2015’ series. Click here to read the full report.