Territorial disputes in the South China Sea have highlighted the ongoing tensions between China and countries including the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam, with the US also weighing in recently with its proposals for a bigger military presence in the region.
Both Vietnam and Malaysia are undergoing regional military build-ups, and the Philippines doubled its defence budget in 2011 after pledging to conduct joint military exercises with the US.
Meanwhile, Brunei has not been complacent, with additional spending and partnerships shaping the defensive posture of both the nation and the region for coming years.
In late May, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) took a step closer towards establishing a formal arrangement for a regional defence industry collaboration during the eighth Asean Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) held in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar.
Defence ministers of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam met to discuss regional defensive needs and future defensive cooperation and concluded the conference by agreeing to a three-year programme.
Defence budget boost
The meeting followed a March announcement by Second Finance Minister Pehin Dato Abdul Rahman Ibrahim about the state’s proposal to increase the government’s defence budget in the 2014/2015 fiscal year.
The budget for the Ministry of Defence, unanimously approved later that month by the Legislative Council, is set to rise by 39 per cent in this financial year to US$719 million. Around 45 per cent of the budget is earmarked for payroll, while recurring expenses represent nearly 24 per cent of the total.
The largest increase however come from the 32 per cent earmarked for “special expenditure”, which in 2013/2014 represented only nine per cent of the budget. Special expenditure includes materials and equipment procurement, with the hike a clear indication that Brunei may purchase new military equipment in 2014/15.
A Royal Brunei Air Force (RBAF) commander was among the first to speak up about the intended use of a budget of around US$183 million.
RBAF Commander Pehin Major General Dato Mohd Tawih told the local media in March, “We are in the process of looking for an aircraft. But from which particular country, you will just have to wait for the announcement.”
The commander also declined to comment on what sort of aircraft, though the RBAF has a fleet primarily comprising helicopters.
The rise in budget may also lead to an uptick in the number of personnel being trained with the government partnering with CAE, a Canadian aviation firm, for the construction of a pilot training centre.
The CAE Brunei Multipurpose Training Centre is expected to be complete in mid-2014 and will be a regional destination not only for pilot training but also for professionals in healthcare and emergency management.
The facility will house PC7 and Blackhawk attack helicopter simulators, which will be used by the RBAF to improve the skills of its pilots as well as the only S92 helicopter simulator in the region for training professionals from the offshore oil and gas sector. To date, eight countries have agreed to send helicopter pilots to train at the centre.
The Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) and the Royal Brunei Navy (RBN) conducted their annual bilateral naval exercise in early June. Exercise Pelican, as the operation is called, is a programme aimed at deepening the interoperability of the fleets of the RSN and RBN involving naval and helicopter units.
Medical and disaster response
The increased focus on military spending and operations, has also led to a medical and disaster response component. In May, the Asean Chiefs of Military Medicine Conference (ACMMC) was held in Brunei to bring together the regional authorities in combat medicine. The ACMMC, though focused on military medicine, took on a theme of regional cooperation.
Lieutenant Colonel Dr Mohd Hafizul Hj Mohd Hassan, RBAF chief medical officer and ACMMC chair, highlighted the military medical partnership among ASEAN states. “In recent times, we have witnessed remarkable military medical collaboration between nations in response to major disaster in the Asia-Pacific region whether in real-time or in exercises,” he told conference attendees.
In the same month, Brunei hosted the Asean Committee on Disaster Management (ACDM) in a bid to promote regional co-operation.
With the regions’ militaries looking to collaborate, particularly in medicine and disaster response, which have civilian applications, regional countries appear to be also looking towards the peace-time benefits of military build-up.