S-E Asia military programmes get more US funds

ASIA - The Pentagon has increased its allocation for foreign military financing and training programmes for South-east Asia to US$90 million (S$115 million), up 50 per cent from four years ago, as the United States government "rebalances" its defence diplomacy ties with countries in the region.

US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said President Barack Obama's government wants to improve the military capabilities of South-east Asian nations that it views as its partners. Providing new defence technology and equipment will reflect the rising prominence of this region to the US.

Mr Hagel revealed the steep rise in the extent of financing in a speech to Malaysian officers at the Ministry of Defence on Sunday.

Under the foreign military financing programme, the US gives out grants and loans so countries can purchase its defence equipment and services.

"We are also increasing commercial defence trade and ultimately moving towards co-production and co-development of new platforms with our closest partners in the region," he said.

This, he explained, will allow the US to share its technology and expertise to deepen its security partnerships in the region.

Mr Hagel is visiting Kuala Lumpur for the first time, as part of a week-long trip to Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Brunei, where he will attend the ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting this week.

He said cyber security and maritime security will be among US priorities at the meeting, as the US strengthens its defence engagement with ASEAN countries through joint military exercises and regional cooperation.

"The US is helping the region to bolster their cyber and maritime defences to make sure we are protected from risks - there is no substitute for regional cooperation," he said. "As part of this rebalancing, we are making these joint military exercises more robust and inclusive."

Dr Oh Ei Sun, a political analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said Mr Hagel's visit to Kuala Lumpur is significant on two fronts - assisting Malaysia in increasing maritime security, especially given the recent invasion in Sabah by a group of armed supporters of the self-styled Sulu sultanate from the southern Philippines, and scouting a strategic location to assess the South China Sea disputes between China and ASEAN countries.

Malaysia is one of the claimants in the maritime disputes.

"Malaysia is a friendly party to the US and is at the southernmost tip of the South China Sea territorial claims by China, making it a strategic location for military intelligence and surveillance purposes," Dr Oh told The Straits Times on Sunday. "Mr Hagel's visit to Malaysia could pave the way for the US military to increase its presence here."

At a joint press conference earlier on Sunday, Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said it was important for Malaysia to have "friends" who not only appreciate the country's system but also share, cooperate and were keen to take ties to a higher level.

Mr Hagel also said the US is striving to build a positive and constructive relationship with China, in which one of the goals is to help denuclearise North Korea.

"China is an important country with North Korea, so we must work with China," he said.

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