Geographies in Depth

Why Asia's 'arms race' is not quite what it seems

Military vehicles carry DF-10 ship-launched cruise missiles as they travel past Tiananmen Gate during a military parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Beijing Thursday Sept. 3, 2015

China is flexing its military muscles - but there's no need to panic yet Image: REUTERS/Andy Wong/Pool - GF10000191343

Tim Huxley
Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (Asia) Ltd
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum on ASEAN

It is hard to follow international news without becoming aware of the dangerous geopolitical tensions in Asia. These tensions have become ever more prominent during the present decade - indeed, security in the region is now in greater peril than it has been since the 1970s.

During 2018, efforts by the US, South Korea and others to mitigate the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes have been to the fore, but there is also widespread concern among policy-makers - and increasingly businesses - in the region and beyond over the worrying implications of China’s arrival as an assertive major power, willing to risk its relations with big and small powers alike as it flexes its strategic muscles.

As Australian academic Brendan Taylor has emphasised in his newly-published book The Four Flashpoints: How Asia Goes to War, “a major war in the Asia-Pacific is more likely than most people assume”. In Taylor’s view, the region is in a “crisis slide”, in which the “cumulative pressure” of crises over the Korean peninsula, the East China Sea, the South China Sea and Taiwan is pushing the region “closer to conflict”. And as my colleague Ben Schreer and I have argued, the Trump administration’s America First policy and confused messaging have further undermined regional stability.

Increased military spending and arms purchasing by regional countries are often identified as key indicators of a deteriorating regional security predicament. Almost as a reflex, some commentators point to the growing dangers of a supposed Asian ‘regional arms race’; this piece from the South China Morning Post is typical. There is a widespread impression that regional states’ escalating military spending and reckless development of offensive military capabilities are increasing the risk of conflict.

Closer examination, though, reveals that the hard evidence of military developments in the region does not come close to the intense bilateral rivalry and speed of classic arms races involving major offensive capabilities, such as the contest for naval superiority between Great Britain and Germany at the start of the twentieth century, or that between the US and the Soviet Union for strategic nuclear superiority in the 1950s and 1960s. As shown in this graphic illustrating International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) figures on defence spending in what American officials and others increasingly refer to as the ‘Indo-Pacific region’, China is a long way from competing with the US in terms of military effort. At the same time, no other regional state comes close to competing with China.

 China is the biggest military spender in the region - but it still pales next to the US
China is the biggest military spender in the region - but it still pales next to the US Image: IISS

And while many Asian governments are increasing their defence spending at quite a rate, they are mainly doing this commensurately with their economic growth, which has been famously rapid for most of the current century. This graphic – also using IISS figures - focuses on Southeast Asian states’ military efforts as a percentage of GDP over the last 25 years, but a similar picture of defence effort shadowing economic growth is apparent across Asia.

 Southeast Asian countries' increased defence spending has mirrored their economic growth
Southeast Asian countries' increased defence spending has mirrored their economic growth Image: IISS

Many factors go into the formation of defence policy and levels of defence spending by Asian governments, but it seems clear that the sheer availability of greater resources is an important one. And regional states do not, apparently, generally feel compelled to increase their defence efforts more quickly than their economies are growing.

Media reports often highlight expensive arms purchases by Asian governments. But military capability is complex, and buying new ‘kit’ does not provide countries with instant capabilities, as is often inferred. Other important elements of capability include appropriate doctrine, suitable training, inspiring leadership, high morale, vital logistic support (including defence-industrial capacity), relevant combat experience and a high level of operational integration between military branches and services. Besides, mastery of the cyber domain may be emerging as the sine qua non of military capability, potentially providing the capacity to take down an opponent’s ability and will to fight even before a shot is fired.

Only a minority of Asian armed forces possess all these key capability elements. In many cases, while they might be able to hold domestic insurgents or other forms of unrest at bay, or engage in border skirmishes, their forces would be unable to mount sustained operations against those of other countries. Moreover, most of the military capabilities under development in the region remain essentially defensive.

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This applies not least to China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). China’s major, sustained, long-term defence effort is certainly enhancing the capabilities of the PLA, which would in any conflict now be able to complicate US operational planning and activities severely. But China’s long-range offensive capabilities – its nuclear deterrent aside - remain limited. The PLA is still a long way from matching American capabilities, and it would have little hope of winning any conflict with the US, whose military presence and commitments continue to ensure the security of the whole region.

More lavish military spending and arms acquisition by Asian governments mean that they would be able to inflict greater damage on adversaries in the event of conflict. But these military efforts – with the unique exception of North Korea’s nuclear and missile development programmes – are themselves not the most likely causes of conflict in the region. Political differences between states deriving from geopolitical ambition, and potential miscalculation, are far more dangerous and likely causes of war.

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