Rethinking the consequences of naval modernization in Southeast Asia : a heuristic approach
Koh, Collin Swee Lean
Date of Issue2016
S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies
The existing scholarship on naval modernization in Southeast Asia focuses mainly on the motivations underpinning those acquisitions as well as characterizing whether they fit the description of naval arms racing. While postulating that the regional naval modernization efforts taking place in the region cannot be characterized as arms-racing, these studies hold that there are still reasons for concern because of the proliferation of offensive, supposedly destabilizing force projection-type naval armaments in the backdrop of unresolved interstate territorial and sovereignty disputes. The absence of any negotiated naval arms control measures and perceived weakness of regional institutions, particularly the one revolving around the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), further feed the pessimistic outlook that naval modernization can be potentially destabilizing. Contrary to this “conventional argument”, this thesis instead proposes a heuristic approach to rethink the consequences of naval modernization. Sampling across the wider Indo-Pacific region and Northern European examples over a time-span of 1980-2014, the analytical framework comprises the aggregate naval force structure; national policy discourses; participation in confidence- and security-building (CSBMs) as well as cooperative measures (COMs); and last but not least, the application of limited threat and use of naval force. This thesis finds that states may convey benign strategic intent and seek to avoid being drawn into or entangled in security dilemmas through the following ways. First, states may discern the destabilizing potential of naval armaments and exercise unilateral naval arms control in this regard. Second, they may moderate their policy discourses such as by avoiding threat-labelling and verbal threat of force while advocating diplomacy and interstate cooperation. Third, states may also intensify their participation in CSBMs and COMs. Finally, they may convey benign strategic intent by de-emphasizing the application of limited threat and use of naval force while at the same time, calibrating its mode and extent, as well as the types of naval forces employed for such expediencies. Therefore, using the proposed heuristic analytical framework to examine how naval armaments influence strategic behavior, this thesis argues that naval modernization is not necessarily destabilizing. In fact, it further postulates, such buildups may potentially be stability-inducing.