The Asia-Pacific region is at peace—but it is buying a lot of weapons
Feb 27th 2016 Economist
Though parts of Asia are racked by long-running insurgencies, terrorist groups, banditry or low-level civil wars, it is striking that the continent has not suffered a full-scale war between countries since China’s brief and bloody punitive invasion of Vietnam in 1979. All the more striking, then, that the region now accounts for almost half of the global market for big weapons—nearly twice as much as the war-ravaged Middle East, and four times more than Europe.
This week the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which maintains a database of arms transfers, published data showing that six of the ten largest importers of heavy weapons are in Asia and the Pacific: India, China, Australia, Pakistan, Vietnam and South Korea. From 2011-15 the region as a whole bought 46% of global arms imports, up from 42% in 2010-14. Asia is not witnessing a classic arms race between two great powers and their allies, of the sort Britain and Germany engaged in before the first world war, or a cold-war contest like that between America and the Soviet Union. But certainly Asian countries are competing to modernise their military forces. The “Military Balance”, an annual report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a British think-tank, noted this month that most have seen “sustained, multi-year increases in defence spending”.
China’s rise and recent assertiveness are most often cited for the arms build-up. In the East China Sea, tensions have grown between China and Japan over the uninhabited Senkaku, or Diaoyu, islands. Since 2012 China has been sending ships and planes close to the islands in ways designed to challenge Japan’s claim to be administering them. In the South China Sea, China finds itself at odds with a number of South-East Asian countries, especially the Philippines and Vietnam, over even tinier islets, rocks and reefs. By means of massive artificial island-building over the past two years, disregarding the concerns of rival claimants, China seems simply to be taking what it thinks is its own. That helps explain, for example, why Vietnam’s arms imports in 2011-15 were eight times higher than in the previous five years, taking its share of the global total to 2.9%. The country has bought eight combat aircraft, four fast-attack craft and four submarines. A further six frigates and two submarines are on order.
Even were China not filling in the sea so enthusiastically, its military build-up would probably provoke a reaction. In particular the rapid expansion of its navy, with the apparent intention of eventually upsetting American primacy in the western Pacific, represents a big shift in the strategic order. Other regional navies are also modernising—above all by buying submarines. Besides Vietnam’s purchases, India has ordered six from France, and Pakistan has bought eight from China, which is also providing two to Bangladesh. Germany is to deliver two to Singapore and five to South Korea, which has sold three of its own manufacture to Indonesia. Australia is to buy between eight and 12, with fierce competition for the order between France, Germany and Japan.
But Tim Huxley, Asia director of the IISS, says it is misleading to see military spending in the region as “all about China”. Rather, it points to a much longer trend reflecting the region’s rapid economic growth and increased wealth. Countries have a range of external and internal security concerns. For example, despite its tiny size, Singapore is much the biggest defence spender in South-East Asia, outspending even Indonesia, with 45 times more people. Yet Singapore has no territorial claim in the South China Sea. Rather, its (unstated) fears have more to do with potential instability in its own immediate neighbours.
Also encouraging continued military spending is that none of Asia’s big strategic fissures, dating back decades, is really narrowing. India and Pakistan have been arguing and at times going to war over Kashmir since 1947. For China, victory in the civil war in 1949 was incomplete, because Taiwan remained outside its grip, and it has never ruled out the eventual resort to military force to achieve “reunification”, if peaceful means run out of steam. The Korean war ended in 1953 with an armistice but no peace treaty; North Korean dictators—three generations of belligerent Kims—have stoked tension ever since. China’s invasion of northern India in 1962 and subsequent withdrawal left the two countries’ competing claims over each other’s territory unresolved.
At times back-channel talks over Kashmir have led to hints of a breakthrough between India and Pakistan. But none of these disputes—nor those in the South and East China Seas—is subject to anything resembling a peace process, and none is discussed in more than broad-brush terms at any of the various regional security talking shops. Armies, lobbying for a budget to buy the latest kit, can always point to the risk that a dispute might flare up into conflict; and to the need to build up a deterrent capacity.
THAAD’s the way they don’t like it.
One country’s deterrence, of course, can be another’s threat. In response to North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests this year, for example, conservative politicians in South Korea are again calling on the government to develop its own nuclear deterrent. They are very unlikely to have their way. But the South has been in talks to deploy an American anti-missile system, known as Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence, or THAAD.
This in turn alarms China, which argues that the associated radar threatens its own security and has lobbied hard to dissuade South Korea from adopting THAAD. Another aspect of China’s assertiveness is its readiness to intervene in other countries’ security policies. It has even suggested to Australia that it should think twice about buying Japanese submarines, because of historical sensitivities over the second world war. This diplomatic expansionism, however, tends to have much the same effect as the sea-filling kind: raising alarm and hackles, and driving China’s neighbours closer to America—and to suppliers of heavy weaponry.