Asia’s Quest for Arms
From the Arabian Sea to the Pacific Ocean, countries are beefing up their arsenal at a scale not seen since the arms buildup by the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. A military hardware-buying binge has engulfed the Asia-Pacific and South Asia as the world’s military balance seems to be exhibiting a radical shift in partnership with the global economic balance. The defense budgets of these countries and the expanding size of these budgets over the past decade offers ample testimony to this claim. South Korea’s defense budget in 2010 stood at $26.5 billion, more than double of what it was 10 years ago. Similarly, India’s defense budget in the same year, estimated at $32.3 billion, increased by 151% over the previous decade. If these numbers appear impressive, they are dwarfed by the figures from none other than China. China’s defense budget, a gargantuan $81.1 billion in 2010, increased a whopping 358% from the previous decade. No further signs are necessary to indicate that military preparedness ranks high on the agenda of these countries.
Though it is true that most of the Asian countries delayed the modernization of their armed forces due to regional financial crises towards the end of the twentieth century, the level and aggression with which these countries are pursuing arms deals is rather astonishing. At this juncture it is important to understand the reason behind this conspicuous urge to develop larger and more advanced militaries. What threats do countries in the Asia Pacific perceive that warrant an arms buildup of such massive proportions? Each of these countries may have certain specific reasons but the overarching concern shared by all of them is the ever-escalating regional hegemony of China.
China’s economic clout has been well complemented by its military. With over 2.2 million active troops and 6500 battle tanks and plans to add much more to its armory, China’s military might is head and shoulders above that of any of its neighbors. To place these figures in perspective, Vietnam has over 450,000 active troops and 1315 battle tanks. It is thus unsurprising that China has never faced major obstacles while asserting its dominance over its neighbors with regards to territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas. The manner in which China has been able to dictate terms during these clashes, most notably during its tiff with Japan over certain islands near Taiwan, is remarkable. These disputes are certain to raise their head in the foreseeable future as China continues on its path to secure access to key natural resources to satiate the voracious appetite of its economy.
In addition to the threat of China’s economic and military clout, the countries in question are fearful of the United States’ willingness and ability to intervene in these territorial conflicts. American allies in the Asia-Pacific have traditionally relied on the US for military support and have believed that they would be able to count on the US to beef up their national security. With the impending shift in the concentration of the global economic and political influence from the west to the east, this seems to be a legitimate concern. The worries about the reliability of US support is further lent credence by the fact that the US and its allies in Western Europe are looking to scale down their military operations and spending in the coming years. Cuts to the US defense budget, a major bone of contention among lawmakers, seem to be more of a reality as the government seeks to find ways to trim its debt.
The measures taken by each of the countries have revolved around a modernization of the military and aggressive arms purchases. South Korea best epitomizes this view. The country, which has been at the forefront of the arms race in the Asia-Pacific, has around 687,000 active troops and 2800 battle tanks. It has aggressively pursued its strategic goals, especially since tensions with North Korea continue to persist. An increase in attacks from its belligerent neighbor and China’s support for the country are South Korea’s biggest concerns. Being a key US ally, it also stands to be a major casualty from the perceived decline in the United States’ military interests in the region.
Australia, whose army primarily played roles in international peacekeeping efforts in the past, is not a country that you expect to hog headlines in the domain of arms purchases. The island nation, however, has also thrown its hat into the ring and is looking to aggressively expand its military. This may seem surprising since Australia has been one of the greatest beneficiaries of China’s rise as an economic behemoth. Australia has benefitted hugely from the natural resources boom fueled by China’s insatiable appetite for metals and minerals. Looking at this situation from a different lens, however, the country perceives China’s aggressive stance in the Pacific with much suspicion. It aims to spend a mammoth $279 billion over the next 2 decades to add to its burgeoning arsenal as it embarks on its biggest initiative to expand the army in the post-World War II era.
Vietnam, which also has a checkered history with China as far as territorial claims in the South China Sea are concerned, does not have the resources to match China but has offered the navies of foreign countries access to its deep-water port in Cam Ranh Bay in the hope that they may be better equipped to secure the country’s shipping routes. Its relatively limited means, notwithstanding, Vietnam is actively seeking to complement its military expansion by engaging in joint naval exercises with its key allies in the region.
No discourse on Asian geopolitics is complete, however, without mention of China’s economic rival, India. Countering China’s regional dominance has been the primary motive behind India’s arms buildup. India is particularly concerned with China’s friendship with its neighbors, Pakistan in particular. China has been active in completing infrastructure projects and developing ports in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh among other countries in the Indian Ocean as part of its String of Pearls strategy to protect its critical trading routes. The growing threat from China combined with the ever-present threat from militants and tensions with Pakistan boiling over provide adequate grounds for India undertaking a massive modernization of its army. Equipped with the world’s third largest army by number of troops, the South Asian giant spent 40% of total military expenditure between 2009 and 2010 on new equipment.
The mightily impressive numbers and the far-reaching implications involved imply that the scale of the arms buildup among the countries simply cannot be ignored. Besides destabilizing the region, the potential severity of future territorial conflicts could cripple the nerve center of global trade, particularly that of the transportation of crude oil. Given the massive stakes involved, any diplomatic fallout has the potential to escalate into a full-blown conflict. The perceived strength of the US will be crucial in determining the pace at which the military development programs are carried out. Though the US claims that its interests in the Asia-Pacific is not on the decline, the countries involved are getting increasingly wary of the possibility of the US offering a security cover during a conflict. Though it is highly likely that mutually assured destruction would deter these countries from entering into a war, it seems safe to claim that potential clashes can be expected to be much more heated than in the past.