Preventing an Asia-Pacific Arms Race
By Niruban Balachandran
November 19, 2012
While many foreign policy thinkers can’t resist exploring the growing probability of military rivalries between the West and East, the cold reality is that the states most likely to experience future arms races are actually within the Asia-Pacific region itself.
Recent events across the region confirm this. Building upon a long history of aggressive Chinese military posturing and territoriality in Southeast Asian waters, in 2010, Beijing unexpectedly declared “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea as “a core interest,” a contentious term usually reserved for strategic priorities such as Tibet, Xinjiang Province and Taiwan. Many foreign policy experts agree that the most dangerous regional flashpoint is the South China Sea, because at least six Asian states currently lay claim to its petroleum-rich waters and critical shipping lanes. The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) naturally interpreted Beijing’s statement as fighting words and immediately bared its teeth by demonstrating its solidarity with Washington and inviting US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and American diplomats to participate in the annual ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi.
China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, clearly frustrated with ASEAN’s strengthened alliance with Washington, warned that “China is a big country and other countries are small countries and that is just a fact.” Afterward, many Southeast Asian heads of state and diplomats accepted President Obama’s invitation to attend the first US-ASEAN Summit in New York City in September 2010. President Obama also visited his childhood home of Indonesia and other key Asian democracies shortly thereafter.
Since then, Beijing has largely backed down in an effort not to anger ASEAN. This, however, has failed to significantly reduce distrust toward the Middle Kingdom. “Charm offensive” efforts by China’s Minister of Defense at last year’s Shangri-La Dialogue to allay ASEAN fears about China’s military ambitions fell on deaf ears, according to summit attendees. The same went for Wen Jiabao’s subsequent tour of key Southeast Asian cities.
Most damning of all, the Pentagon declared plans to increase its military involvement in Southeast Asia anyway — a direct response to China’s recent assertiveness in the region. Then-US Defense Secretary Robert Gates promised that the Pentagon would sustain funding for “air superiority and mobility, long-range strike, nuclear deterrence, maritime access, space and cyber, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance” in Southeast Asia. Beijing also raised more than a few eyebrows last year when it confirmed they were building an aircraft carrier that has long-range strike capability. With the territorial dispute between Tokyo and Beijing at its apex, it is clear that regional tensions have now begun to heat up again.
According to recent data released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), there is strong evidence that there is already an arms race in the Southeast Asian region. Notably, Singapore’s arms imports have jumped by 146 percent, Indonesia’s by 84 percent and Malaysia’s by 722 percent between 2005 and 2009, partly in response to the Chinese military’s increased defense spending and creeping encroachments into Southeast Asian waters over the past several years. One other reason, of course, is that many ASEAN militaries have overlapping territorial ambitions (cases in point: multiple claims on the nearby Spratly Islands, the Paracel Islands, as well as Thailand’s and Cambodia’s military skirmishes last year). In short, the SIPRI data suggest that many Southeast Asian militaries are still suspicious of each other, especially since each has neighbors that will fiercely push back against any attempts at expansionism or supremacy. Simply standing down in the face of a rival’s threat would most likely be out of the question, given the potentially humiliating loss of face to be incurred on the international stage.
The potential intra-Asian competitions for regional dominance are therefore multitude — and not just with China. Beyond Southeast Asian states, issues with India’s growing military clout, Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula are also of concern. There are a few who disagree with the SIPRI interpretation that intra-Asian tensions are the major cause of the recent jumps in ASEAN military buildups — but the alternative hypothesis that the post-1997 regional economic recovery has fueled these defense acquisitions simply lacks the explanatory apparatus to account for the fact that many ASEAN militaries wanted their arms imports to now reach or exceed their pre-1997 financial crisis levels. “The current wave of Southeast Asian acquisitions could destabilize the region, jeopardizing decades of peace,” says SIPRI’s Asia expert Siemon Wezeman.
The Asia-Pacific region, growing confident and buoyant from an economic boom that has benefited millions, would still do well to listen to the quiet, insistent reminders of history. Echoing the tensions in the early 20th-century Balkans that eventually escalated into World War I, nationalism, expansionist ambitions, pent-up grievances, military hubris or disputed territorial claims are all possible sparks that can ignite an entire region — and make it explode.
Transparency — letting other states in neighborhood know which arms they are purchasing and where they’ll be placed — is critical for conflict prevention. An American naval presence to discourage regional adventurism and aggression can also facilitate this. Lastly, strong platforms for mutual dialogue and trade — esp. through multilateral organizations such as ASEAN and the East Asia Summit — may also help prevent escalating arms races. In a region “ripe for rivalry”, an intra-Asian arms race is a possibility we will all still have to be prepared for. Stay tuned…
Niruban Balachandran is an author, international speaker and foreign policy expert from Los Angeles, California, and is currently based in Jakarta, Indonesia.
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