Friday, 3 June 2011

Controlling Asian Arms Race

The Indonesian Navy's reportedly successful test-launch of a Russian-built Yakhont supersonic anti-ship missile over a distance of 250 kilometers on April 20 highlighted the growing ability of Asian militaries to destroy targets at long range. These countries are also expanding their capacity to deploy more substantial forces over greater distances.

It is true that buying new equipment does not auto-matically improve military capability. But when bolstered by developments in doctrine, training, C4ISR, logistical support and joint-service operations, and placed in an environment where the local defense industry is increasingly able to adapt, and in some cases produce, advanced systems, it is clear that many armed forces are improving their all-around capabilities.

In its latest annual edition of The Military Balance, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (which has a Singapore-based Asian branch) highlighted significant shifts in the distribution of relative military strength away from the West and toward Asia. While economic problems are undermining defense spending in the United States and Europe, Asia is becoming increasingly militarized.

Sustained economic growth in Asia is boosting resources to the armed forces, which often leverage their substantial political clout for material benefit in authoritarian or semi-democratic political systems.

In recent months, much media coverage has justifiably focused on developments in China's People's Liberation Army, notably its aircraft carrier and J-20 fifth-generation combat aircraft programs. But the PLA's anti-ship missile and submarine programs, which receive less media attention, are perhaps more strategically important, particularly for the U.S. Navy.

Military developments in other Asian states are also significant. India has major procurement programs underway, including the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft competition, and is expanding its own aircraft carrier capabilities. South Korea is quite rapidly building a blue-water navy.

In Southeast Asia, several states - notably Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam - are investing in air and naval capabilities. And despite stagnant defense spending and the recent national disasters, Japan's revised National Defense Program Guidelines foresee major capability improvements.

The Asian strategic context, cha-racterized by a major power balance in long-term flux, widespread suspicion among Asian states and a range of latent conflicts that could worsen, provides rationales to expand military capabilities.

It is well known that concerns over China's relentlessly growing power and assertiveness, doubts over the future U.S. strategic role, escalating anxiety over North Korea's nuclear and missile programs, not to mention its generally aggressive behavior, and renewed worries about Taiwan's security influence Asian states' defense choices. These rationales constitute the conventional wisdom and allow many Asian governments to justify boosting military spending.

What makes contemporary Asian military modernization programs dangerous is that they often reflect undeclared efforts to hedge against the ulterior motives of other regional players. This is leading to potentially destabilizing interaction among defense strategies, doctrines and capability development programs.

China's strategists are viewing military power not just in the context of Taiwan but in relation to the country's territorial claims in the East and South China Seas. Some Southeast Asian states are upgrading their armed forces not on the basis of their overt, but anodyne, military modernization explanations, but because they want to deter adventurism by China - and by each other - in the South China Sea.

South Korea's defense planners think not just about a potential meltdown on the peninsula but also Korea's possible strategic rivalry with Japan in a post-unification scenario. And as China's Navy expands its operations into the Indian Ocean, India thinks increasingly in terms of balancing its major-power rival.

While boosting conventional deterrence may be the leitmotif of these developments, there is great emphasis on developing capabilities that could be used offensively and possibly pre-emptively.

Whether or not there is an arms race in Asia is a favorite essay topic for university courses in international relations and security studies. But this is a curiously semantic debate. It is evident that contemporary military developments in Asia closely resemble neither the pre-1914 Anglo-German naval arms race nor the U.S.-Soviet missile race of the 1960s.

However, it also is clear there is a real danger of multiple and wastefully expensive subregional military competitions destabilizing Asia's security, and that there are no effective regional security institutions to mitigate this threat.

By Tim Huxley, executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-Asia in Singapore.