Academics and strategists have modeled arms races extensively. At the fundamental level, researchers concur that an arms race is an extraordinary deadly rivalry between at least two opponent states, which can manifest itself either qualitatively (technological advancements) or quantitatively (numerical superiority), and which may possibly bring about war. This essay will challenge the existence of an arms race in the Asia Pacific. In support of this argument, this paper will be organised into three key parts. Firstly, the expenditure of the militaries in the Asia Pacific will be examined. It will show that military expenditure in terms of measure of arms requisitions can be correlated to military capabilities. Secondly, the definition of “arms race” will be outlined in order to determine the existence of an arms race. Lastly, the tension, conflict and ongoing situation in the Asia Pacific region will be discussed to postulate the possible existence of an arms race in the coming years.
The two fundamental requirements before states enter into wars are capability and intent. Capability comprises of many factors including of military forces and economic resources whereas intent is the desire to embark on war. Military capabilities rather than intentions are often discussed and analysed as a measure of arms race because intentions can be amended significantly without any warning. Therefore for the purpose of this essay, the military expenditure will be used to be a measure of military capability. A classic example of an arms race is the low-cost nuclear arms race between the US and the Soviet Union during the cold war. From 1951 to 1965, the US and the Soviet Union produced a total of 37,737 nuclear weapons (31,613 for the United States and 6,124 for the Soviet Union) . As shown in Table 1, the U.S.’s Nuclear Weapons increases tremendously and the Strategic Forces cost over $1 trillion, averaging $74 billion annually during this period.
As China’s economic influence grew significantly over the last few decades, its military capabilities grew correspondingly as well. For example, the commissioning of China’s first homegrown aircraft carrier and the launching of China’s second aircraft carrier in 2012 and 2017 respectively have provided to be a major boost for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) of China as a worldwide military power. With the consistent growth in China’s economic and military capabilities, China is being viewed by many as “a series of test cases for how a powerful China may behave”. Specifically, many concerns have been raised over China’s actions in the South China Sea disputes. In 2014, an oil-drilling rig was situated by China within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone set by international law. These actions have been perceived both in the region as well as on the world stage as China’s continued assertion and quest for its interests. China’s aggressive claims to the islands in the South China Sea plays a crucial role in Southeast Asian states increasing their Defence expenditure from the period in 2014 to 2015 as seen in Figure 1.
Between 2000 and 2015, Russian military spending grew by more than five times as much as American military spending. At the same time, the development of Chinese military spending overtook US advancement in excess of nine times as shown in Figure 2.
The rapid development in military spending for the past two decades ever since the end of the Cold War indicates that there is indeed an arms race in the Pacific region to an extent.
In order to determine the existence of an arms race in the Asia-Pacific, the term “arms race” needs to be clearly defined. Hammond defined arms race as (1) predominantly bilateral relationship, (2) where each party particularly assigns the other to be a foe, (3) where a high level of open ill will and enmity exists between the parties, (4) where each party’s military/political arranging is straightforwardly based on the abilities and aims of the other party, (5) comprising ” extraordinary and consist increases ” in military spending and arms acquisitions, (6) with the aim of looking for predominance over one’s adversary through terrorising. With the increased military spending in the Asia Pacific intended to aid in the deterrence and defence against possible diverse threats, it may have the unintended consequences of undermining regional security and stability where tensions are high, contributing to arms races or arms competitions leading to a classical ‘security dilemma’. Comparing, the military spending during and after the Cold War, it certainly is not an arms race for the current situation in the Asia Pacific. A close look at the South China Sea dispute makes it difficult to be categorised as an “arms race per se in Southeast Asia in terms of adversarial relationships, military planning, numbers of arms being acquired and the rate of acquisitions. Due to China’s incredible maritime advancement as observed in the launch of its latest home built aircraft carrier, China might be seen as an immediate threat by some Southeast Asian nations, particularly South China Sea disputants who may need to think about the possibility of a military encounter with Beijing over those claims.
Moreover, there exist uncertainties over whether the US has the will to remain actively engaged in the region since Trump’s withdrawal of the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2017. Bitzinger claims that the Southeast Asian countries` defence budgets are the sum of various national and international considerations that is dedicated mainly to the ‘maintenance of status quo’ intended to maintain a regional military balance, rather than gain hegemony or superiority over competitors. As such, the arms programs adopted are for upgrading or replacing of military equipment to cope with growing naval and maritime-related capabilities amongst the Asia states and to maintain state security from emerging non-traditional security threats such as terrorism, arms smuggling, illegal migration and piracy, as well as humanitarian relief and intervention efforts and peacekeeping, such as that carried out in East Timor from 1999.
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