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Weapons of Mass Destruction Southeast Asia's Proliferation Paradox: Without WMD Worries, Small Arms Present Big Proliferation Challenge
Feb 15, 2008 – By Barry Zellen

Arms control is defined to be any plan, treaty, or agreement that limits the production, stockpiling, yield, or proliferation of a weapons system of weapons—ranging from horrific weapons of doom such as nuclear, chemical and biological (NCB) weapons of mass destruction (WMD) on one technological extreme, to small arms and munitions on the other. When most people think of arms control, they imagine such high-stakes diplomatic negotiations as the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties (SALT) between the Cold War superpowers, whose first round of negotiations lasted from 1969 until 1972, and whose second round went from 1972 until 1979, which were later followed by the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (START), the first of which was signed in 1991 and the second in 1993.
Ever since the end of the Cold War, worries about the risks of the proliferation of WMD have topped the international diplomatic and security agenda, playing a central role in America’s post 9/11 national security strategy, and even led, perhaps somewhat hastily, to America’s first pre-emptive war in Iraq. And yet ironically, while capturing the attention of diplomats, military professionals and policymakers from the Cold War to the War on Terror, apart from the two atomic strikes by the United States against Japan in the waning days of World War II, nuclear weapons—despite their horrific destructive power—have yet to be used in combat.
In contrast, small arms—such as the ubiquitous AK-47, designed by Russian gun smith Mikhail Kalashnikov during World War II—account for 90 percent of civilian casualties in armed conflicts, far greater than those caused by conventional weapons like tanks, bomber jets or warships combined. According to the website, there are over half a billion small arms around the world—with some 500,000 people killed each year—300,000 as a result of conflicts and another 200,000 by homicide. Estimates of the black market trade in small arms range from $2 billion (USD) to 10 billion a year, making small arms proliferation one of the most pressing issues of our day, especially in the developing world where higher-priced and more technological advanced weapons systems such as the NBC weapons that dominate the headlines and the policy agendas of most governments and international organizations.
According to the Control Arms campaign—jointly founded by Amnesty International, Oxfam, and the International Action Network on Small Arms in 2003—there are around 639 million small arms and light weapons in the world today, and eight million more are produced each year by some 1,135 companies located in 98 countries. By 2020, Control Arms predicts that the number of deaths and injuries caused by small arms will exceed those caused by lethal diseases such as malaria. The Control Arms campaign has advocated the new Arms Trade Treaty to stop arms from being sold to those likely to misuse them, and in December 2006, 153 governments voted to support this proposed Treaty in the UN General Assembly. Only the United States voted against it, while 20 governments abstained from the vote, and 14 missed it entirely.
Southeast Asia: Making History by Breaking Free from History
In the rapidly developing countries of Southeast Asia, a region where numerous territorial disputes remain unsettled, and where there’s a long history of international and intra-state conflict. International conflicts embroiling the region include the long wars between Vietnam and France (1946-54), and later the United States in alliance with the Kingdom of Thailand, the Philippines, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand (1954-1975); a protracted conflict between Vietnam and Cambodia (1975-89), and a brief conventional skirmish between Vietnam and China (1975-1989)—it would seem, on the surface, to be a region at great risk of weapons proliferation, from the low to the high tech. Among the intrastate conflicts are numerous separatist movements fueled by ethnic discontent in Burma, Indonesia, Thailand, Laos and the Philippines.
Despite the complex legacy of the region’s many conflicts, Dr. Bernard Loo, an Assistant Professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore, believes that despite the numerous disputes and the long shadow cast by past military conflicts, Southeast Asia has managed to bring WMD proliferation under control, so much so that Loo believes “as far as WMD is concerned, Southeast Asia is really a non-issue,” as “all the states are the members of the three treaties and conventions” on arms control —the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; the Biological Weapons Convention; and the Chemical Weapons Convention; in addition to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the Treaty on the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone—“so in terms of WMD, it isn’t an issue at all.”
Dr. Ian Storey, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore, agrees with this assessment. As he explained, “I wouldn't say that WMDs are a major concern in Southeast Asia—that's very much a Northeast Asia issue. Basically, all the ASEAN countries have eschewed the possession of WMDs, though there have been rumors that Burma is interested in a nuclear program,” though this remains “doubtful in my mind, though you never can tell what goes on in the generals' minds in Nyapyadaw.” Storey believes “the main issue with WMDs is the transit of WMD materials and equipment through Southeast Asian waters, and Southeast Asian companies exporting dual-use technology to rogue regimes. This led to a diplomatic spat between the US and Malaysia in 2003, when a company linked to the Prime Minister's son was found to have exported dual-use technology to a middle man in Sri Lanka which then found its way to Libya.” Storey noted that “the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) has not found strong support in Southeast Asia—only Singapore has signed up to it formally, though Cambodia and the Philippines have agreed to cooperate on a case by case basis.”
An Arms Buildup, Without a Race
Generally speaking, the Southeast Asia region has managed to resist the “Security Dilemma” trap, where by a state’s inherent insecurity in the anarchy of international affairs leads it to strengthen its own defenses in an effort to reduce the risks and dangers from abroad; so much that its defense build-up is inevitably perceived to be an offensive threat by its neighbors, causing them to up the ante, fueling an inexorable arms race. The acquisition of WMD is in many ways the logical result of arms races, as WMD promise the ultimate in security: the threat of catastrophic retaliation.
As Dr. Storey has observed, Southeast Asia has managed to avoid an arms race. He recalls how “before the Asia Financial Crisis of 1997 there was a huge debate here on the so-called ‘Asian arms race,’ including in Southeast Asia,” as well as what theorists of international conflict call the “the security dilemma—much literature was generated on this topic. However, in a classical strategic sense—where countries match each other weapon system for weapon system and devote ever larger amounts of GDP spending to defense—there was no arms race.”  Instead, as explained by Storey, “What Asia witnessed was an arms build up,” driven by various underlying causes, including the regional insecurity caused by the post-Cold War U.S./Russian downsizing and the rise of China; changing regional defense doctrines which moved from tackling internal security and counterinsurgency to protecting maritime resources in Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs); intra-ASEAN tensions—particularly between Singapore and Malaysia, and between Thailand and Burma; keeping up with the neighbors, a factor Storey believes “cannot be underestimated;” and corruption. Storey noted that the region’s defense ministers are “creaming off 5% percent of defense sales.” And, related to the problem of corruption is that of favoritism. As Storey recounted, “the Thai government gave the Navy a shiny new aircraft carrier as a reward for not taking part in the May 1992 crackdown on anti-government protesters—the carrier arrived the day after the financial crisis buckled the Thai economy, and went into mothballs. It is a tourist attraction now, I believe.”
Storey believes the “enablers of this arms build up were, first and foremost, increased financial resources on the back of sustained economic growth, and secondly, a buyers market. Once the financial crisis hit, however, defense budgets were slashed and new orders cancelled—except for Singapore, where legally the government has to spend 5 percent of GDP on defense spending. The ASEAN economies are well on the way to recovery today, and hence we see defense spending rising again and new orders being placed.” Added Storey, “Submarines have been a particularly favorite item over the past few years.” But despite the recent defense rearmament, Storey points out that, “in short, in Southeast Asia at least, there is no strong security dilemma. The forces driving arms acquisitions are the need to modernize antiquated inventories, protecting offshore resources, and keeping up with the neighbors/toys for the boys.”
Diplomatic Tranquility
During the Cold War, anti-war activists often used the phrase “arms are for hugging,” and while not exactly what these activists had in mind, Southeast Asian states have managed to keep a lid on their rearmament effort, avoiding an arms race without ignoring their appetite for armaments.
As Loo observed, “one of the strange things of Southeast Asia is it’s potentially quite unstable,” particularly when you consider the “number of residual territorial disputes that continue to plague the region, with lingering mistrust of states even without the territorial issues.” But “that being said, there seems to have emerged in the last thirty years a certain normative environment where we seem to say we know we have all these problems, but guess what? We’d rather just ignore them or sweep them under the carpet or deal with them in as diplomatic a fashion as possible.”

As Loo explained: “We’ve come to the conclusion we don’t want to resolve these things violently but to resolve them amicably. As a result, the political or diplomatic atmosphere in the region is really quite positive, within that context whatever arms control issues or problems we may have, these seem to be pretty much drowned-out by the positive political atmosphere that we have.”

Indeed, “while the prospect of an intra-ASEAN war cannot, of course, be ruled out,” Storey believes it remains “highly unlikely; there are tensions and rivalries between and among ASEAN states, but nothing that would ever lead to conflict, in my opinion.”
Small Arms, Big Problem
Without an arms race, and with no real WMD threat in the region, Storey believes that “the primary arms control issue in Southeast Asia should be the proliferation of small arms. The region—particularly mainland Southeast Asia—i.e. Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam—is awash with small arms, partly a legacy of the three Indochina Wars but also because of an extensive black market in light arms. Criminal gangs, terrorists and armed separatists have relatively easy access to such weapons. Corruption is also a problem—in the Philippines, for instance, there have been persistent allegations that senior members of the armed forces, as well as troops on the ground, have sold their M16s and other weapons to separatist groups such as the MILF, as well as the communist NPA.” Added Storey, “Other, heavier weapons are also available, but not in large quantities. The U.S. was very concerned about insecure shoulder launched missiles in Cambodia (MANPADS) in the run up to the APEC Summit in Bangkok 2003, and paid the Cambodian government to destroy several hundred,” one of which is now mounted above the desk of the U.S. defense attaché in Phnom Penh. When it comes to small arms, Storey observed that “very little is being done to tackle this problem. Like illegal narcotics smuggling it is hard to tackle the problem because of pervasive corruption and porous borders. Gun culture is also strong in some parts of Southeast Asia, especially in the southern Philippines.”
Dr. Loo also believes that “the real security issue is the proliferation of small arms, for which there is no international standard that we have been adhering to.” As he explained, the small-arms weapons manufacturers in Southeast Asia, with the exception of Singapore, “tend to be low-level kinds of military industries that focus on small arms and munitions” of which “only so much goes to armed forces—the rest of it, you have to ask, where does it end up?” Likely recipients include regional terrorist organizations like Abu Sayyaf (also known as al-Harakat al-Islamiyya), the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), and Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), as well as national liberation groups like the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), which has been waging a guerrilla war for independence from Burma since 1949.
With so much terrorist and separatist activity taking place across Southeast Asia during the last half century, and continuing in the current period, Loo has found “the standard official response” by governments across the region has been a collective non-response, and a chorus of agreement “that there were other problems—of economic development, poverty, and income distribution” that “have been occupying their attentions. They tended to see these various separatist movements as essentially driven more by social and economic drivers than by anything else.” Thus, officials have “never really seen the nexus between small arms proliferation and these rebel groups.” But “if you can look at the various groups,” Loo reflected, “where do they get their armaments from? These are rebel groups that seem to be thriving very well. This tells us there must be an effective small arms movement going on in the region—this is the real security concern for us.” Loo estimates that the “proliferation of small arms in the region could number in the hundreds of thousands” weapons and that “these various rebel groups that are floating around the region” appear to be getting their small arms on black market.
Loo noted that the “primary mechanism for security issues in the Asia-Pacific region is the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), and its Track II partner, the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP).” Storey explained that ARF is “the principal forum where arms control issues are discussed,” and in order “to encourage transparency and confidence building the ARF has pushed its participants—remember the ARF is a process, not an organization—to publish annual defense white papers,” and “many Southeast Asian countries now do so, though the quality varies (one of the most open and transparent is Cambodia's defense white paper, written with the help of Australia).” As well, Storey noted “the ARF has also established an arms register and has encouraged participants to list major arms acquisitions. I am not sure how effective this has been (I have never seen any lists, but that is not to say that do not exist).” He added that “ASEAN itself does not deal with arms control issues” as it is “far too sensitive.”
While there are a number of individuals and organizations looking into the issue of small arms proliferation, Loo noted the depth of the problem has yet to sink in with policymakers who, “in this region, at least, tend to still focus their energy on the terrorist problem. What they fail to see is the nexus between the two—the rebel groups, their armies, need to have some source of weapons.” The scope of the problem has “basically not registered on the minds of policymakers in the region. Even in academic circles—CSCAP in particular—efforts to raise the issue of small arms-proliferation have been greeted with a profound non-interest. But that’s really because we’ve had broader security considerations, at least this is what officialdom will claim.”
Such issues include “the North Korean nuclear problem, the environment and its various security implications, preventive diplomacy, and crisis management—various broader security issues that, for a variety of reasons, were felt to be more urgent, more important, or simply easier to deal with.” Loo finds the issue remains “quite politically sensitive,” making it “difficult to acknowledge the problem” —as that “might very well rebound on them.” But “the sheer logic of it,” Loo believes, suggests the “production of small arms must go somewhere other than official military markets—but by admitting it is a problem they are tacitly admitting there is a black market, and that we are somehow involved it. That may explain why they don’t want to publicly acknowledge it as a security issue.” Added Loo: “I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if there were state-sponsored efforts to sell weapons to the various groups, basically to any buyer really. But for a variety of reasons, those policymakers have never seen small arms proliferation at all!”
Cold War Legacy, Porous Borders
The challenge of small arms proliferation in Southeast Asia dates back to the Cold War and its numerous proxy wars, insurgencies, separatist movements, revolutionary struggles, and inter-state conflicts. “Too a large extent, it was a legacy of the Cold War”—particularly in the case of Cambodia where “there were thousands and thousands of AK47s. At the end of the Cambodian crisis, well what happened to them? I don’t think the stock-taking of Khmer Rouge weapons stockpiles have been very thorough, things like this are very hard to track—things like land mines, too. Cambodia was replete in land mines. Where have these things gone? The Cold War didn’t help things.”
Storey also noted the persistent problem associated with land mines, which continues to be “a big problem in Cambodia, and claim hundreds of lives each year. There are quite a number of NGOs working to clear landmines in Cambodia, but it is a slow and dangerous process. China and Vietnam have cleared landmines from along their joint border.” Additionally, Storey observed that “unexploded ordinance (UXO), mainly left over from the Third Indochina War (The American War) is a big problem in Laos, and again claims hundreds of lives each year. NGOs, including some funded by the U.S. government, are working to help mitigate the problem.”
Further compounding the problem, Loo noted, is the dual challenge of the region’s long, porous borders, and governments’ relative weakness when it comes to border control. Case in point: Indonesia, the “largest archipelagic state in the world,” whose coast guard and maritime police are “nowhere near sufficient to police in territorial waters, let alone the EEZ.” Similarly, Malaysia, with a considerably stronger central government and more manageable borders than neighboring Indonesia, has a significant problem with illegal immigration, especially along its long border with Indonesia on the island of Borneo. Because most countries in the region “do not have effective policing, their borders are so porous there’s any number of smuggling activities going on as a result for which we have a very limited ability to deal with effectively,” Loo said. Even in Singapore, which is “small and relatively well policed, there is still a small smuggling problem going on,” as its borders are “not as hermetically sealed as they would want to be,” resulting in an influx of illegal migrant workers in Singapore. And, “while mainly socioeconomic problems rather than a security problem, it’s just a small skip and jump from there”—as there “might be security implications down the road.” Added Loo: “It doesn’t take much imagination to see how it could transcend the economic and social and into the security dimension.” And, “as for countries like the Philippines, or Indonesia, forget about it—since there’s no where they can effectively police their borders.”
Loo believes that when it comes to weapons proliferation in the region, “one saving grace, ironically, is poverty.” That’s because like governments, the terrorists and separatist groups “are not exactly wading in cash either,” and are thus “not able to afford the level of armaments they would like to have. If the government doesn’t have the resources to deal with these issues effectively, the converse is that the terrorists and the separatists don’t have the resources to exploit these kinds of opportunities right now, at least on the scale that we hope never to occur.” That’s one reason why even the role of Malaysian industrial design companies in the A.Q. Khan nuclear weapons network is not entirely worrisome. Indeed, Loo believes “they were being used for precision engineering purposes, to manufacture key components of the nuclear cycle—essentially unwitting participants in this network,” and “I suspect most of them really didn’t know what it was for.” In contrast to the ubiquity of small arms, “the nuclear cycle is a technologically complex phenomenon—really knowledge of one or two key areas of the cycle does not allow you extrapolate from that this is how we manufacture a nuclear device—as a result, it’s less of a problem. The real problem is the proliferation of knowledge—a lot of the nuclear secrets are really no longer secrets,” with the “technological specifications for early reactors in the 1940s now declassified,” and “any number of people with sufficient education can access this literature, and gain access to this information—at least in theory, the knowledge has proliferated, this much I think is certain—it is whether or not the engineering capacities have proliferated, and that—so far—I think is a less of a problem, at least to my knowledge.”
Noting North Korea’s nuclear test last year, “If we accept that the North Koreans have gone nuclear—it means what is really a technologically backward country has managed to make that technological leap.” And while it remains unclear if they have successfully weaponized this technology, Loo is “fairly certain that they can create a device. And if North Korea can figure it out, then any number of us can figure it out.” However, Loo pointed out that “in Southeast Asia, we see nuclear weapons as a security problem that we do not want to have.” That is why all ASEAN states are members of the Southeast Asia nuclear weapons free zone, and all are members of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and its various conventions and agreements. And, because most of us are still fairly dependent on external supplies, external trade, and in some cases external aid, the one thing we are really sensitized to, to put it quite bluntly, is pissing off the international community.”
The one exception to Southeast Asia’s collective rejection of nuclear technology is in the area of nuclear energy as a “clean, alternative fuel,” and Loo noted the “Indonesian government is now considering plans to construct nuclear power stations granted under IAEA conditions, so it’s of no concern with proliferation. But the concern is, do you want to build a nuclear reactor on a geologically active zone? The environmental lobby in Indonesia has basically said it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to determine that building a nuclear reactor on a geologically active zone is probably not the smartest thing to do—as far as the nuclear dimension is concerned, the real problem for us is a Three Mile Island, a Chernobyl or a China Syndrome concern—pick any one of those images,” which Loo added are “bloody frightening images.” The other two states in Southeast Asia with an interest in nuclear energy are Vietnam and Malaysia. “Both countries have started to examine the possibility—conducting feasibility studies of nuclear fuel as an alternative.” But as Loo explained, “All three countries have made it absolutely clears—if they do produce atomic energy will be under the IAEA, and have all signed onto the Southeast Asia nuclear weapons free zone—so it really is of no interest for them to go down that particular path. There’s no strategic utility for them to go down that particular path. The only potential exception to that particular rule is Vietnam in that Vietnam’s relations with Beijing remain problematic, but that has not been the case for some time,” so while Vietnam “might in theory consider a nuclear capability as a potential deterrent in its relationship with China, in reality its relationship with China has been much, much improved from the Sino–Vietnam War of 1979.” Added Loo, “And when you deal with the Vietnamese—and in my conversations with Senior Vietnamese military officials it comes out clearly—their sense of confidence in their existing capabilities, that they could repel jut about anybody, it’s not arrogance or hubris but confidence that they could deal with any aggressor. So what’s the strategic benefit of nuclear weapons? They simply make you look like the pariah states; it makes no sense strategically, politically, economically—it makes no sense. And you can say same thing about the other countries in Southeast Asia that have nuclear fuel aspirations.”
As for Singapore, while “nuclear fuel actually is one of the ways by which we could go down in terms of viable long term access to energy, the Singapore government thus far doesn’t want to go down that path—to be honest the technological issue has not been an issue for the country, but the political issue has. But for Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia, probably in that order, nuclear fuel is starting to look as an attractive option for them.” But not nuclear weapons. As Loo explained, “To a large extent, it’s almost a cultural thing for us: we just decided that we did not want to go down that particular path, and the feeling does seem to be pretty universal across the region. When you look at it rationally, it makes no sense what so ever—we don’t want to go down that path.”
Loo observed that “the only other arms control issue—and not really in the strictest legal sense—is the question of land mines.” He noted that Singapore “is one of the few countries in the world that has refused to sign onto the Ottawa Agreement with regards to the production, storage, and potential use of land mines—one of the others that absolutely refuses that convention is the United States. If you talk to the Ottawa Convention people they will tell you, they’ve discussed this with the Singapore Ministry of Defense, which says land mines are not part of their operating doctrine but—and this is an important but—they do not want to rule it out altogether.” In contrast, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines “have all signed on the Ottawa Convention—most of the other countries don’t see a need for it, don’t really have any stockpiles of that weapon—it’s only Singapore that is the exception to that rule.” Like the problem of small arms, land mines are also a “residual problem more than anything else” from the Cold War, with Cambodia facing the greatest challenge in terms of a saturation of its land mines along roads and border regions in the countryside. As for Singapore’s resistance to the Ottawa Convention, “the Singapore government may not have any significant stockpiles of land mines, but Minister of Defense doesn’t want to rule out their use if things go south pretty damn quickly. But it has no significant stockpiles currently.
Recalling the realist political philosophy of Sir Thomas Hobbes, who wrote his famous Leviathan during the English Civil—conjuring up a political force so powerful that the enmity felt by man toward fellow many in the brutal, war-torn state of nature would be oppressed by Leviathan’s awesome might, into a reluctant but stable peace—this seems to mirror the dynamic taking place in Southeast Asia where historical enemies now live in peace, and the nuclear genie, sought by so many other states around the world, remains firmly in his bottle, with the consent of the governments of the region. As Loo reflected, “Hobbes’ Leviathan applies really, really well to the individual countries,” and in fact “applies really well to Singapore. At the national state level, it already really well applies. Why not to the region?”
Indeed, as Loo observed, “the atmosphere overall is really positive and in a sense quite oppressive against any potential downturns to the security environment. In other words, if there were potential crises that threatened to emerge, the positive diplomatic atmosphere is quite oppressive in drowning out all these potential negatives.” And that’s precisely what Hobbes imagined when he conjured up his Leviathan to pacify his fractious land, and impose a lasting peace.

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