Asia’s military developments
4 Nov 2013|

Chinese Soldiers in The Forbidden City - Beijing.I’ve just got back from the Korber Foundation’s 154th Bergedorf roundtable in Jakarta. They set me the easy task of describing Asia’s five most significant military developments, along with their drivers and the confidence-building measures that could help manage associated risks. And they gave me ten minutes to do it.

So, dear reader, here is a whirlwind tour of significant Asian military developments. My criterion, given that the remit of the workshop was peace and security in the Asia–Pacific, was that the issues chosen had to have the potential to cause friction or—worst case—conflict if not managed carefully. Here’s my list:

1)      General increase in military capability and force modernisation as a result of increased industrial and economic power in the region

2)      Unmanned systems

3)      Offensive capabilities in cyberspace

4)      DPRK nuclear weapons

5)      PRC A2AD capability and the US AirSea Battle concept

(I thought hard about submarines as well.) The first item—general military modernisation—is a natural consequence of increased industrialisation and prosperity in Asia broadly. In many ways, there’s nothing more noteworthy about Asian nations buying ships, submarines and combat aircraft than it is for European countries (Or, for that matter, Australia). But Asia doesn’t have the decades of experience of operating top end warfighting platforms that other parts of the world have.

Items two and three (unmanned systems and cyberattack) are global developments that aren’t unique to the Asia–Pacific theatre. That doesn’t, of course, mean that they’re benign and won’t require careful management. We’ve seen recently around the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands that the operation of unmanned systems for surveillance and reconnaissance can raise tensions to an unhelpful degree. Simply put, there are no agreed international rules of the road for the use of unmanned systems. As well, drones might soon be found at sea (both on and below the surface) and on land as well.

Similarly, cyber warfare is in a fairly embryonic state of development and suffers from the same lack of a shared agreement of what the rules of behaviour should be. In this case I think there’s an added complication from the often-presumed (but probably not real) relatively anonymity and/or disavowability of activities in this space.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons, along with their developing missile technology, takes an already delicate balance on the peninsular and introduces a theatre-wide element to it—and perhaps an intercontinental one at some point in the future. It also doesn’t help the Japan-ROK dynamic.

Finally, the rise of China is the most important dynamic in the region and almost by default creates a situation of great power rivalry. Now, not all rivalry is a bad thing, and it needn’t be in this instance. Much has been written about China’s anti-access, area denial military capability (A2AD), which has been a focus of the PRC’s force development since at least the Taiwan Strait crisis of the mid 1990s (PDF). To that extent, it’s aimed at blunting the ability of external powers generally, but the United States in particular, to intervene via its power projection capabilities. (Just a note of caution on interpretation: developing powers historically become strong close to home due to the advantages afforded by proximity long before they become theatre wide or global powers.) And China doesn’t have a monopoly on A2AD—any strong military air and maritime capability almost by default has A2AD caoability. The general modernisation I mentioned above means that most Asian nations will be able to exercise some A2AD.

But regardless of the motivation behind the development of China’s A2AD capability, the United States is responding by developing its own operational concepts, designed to allow it to continue to have the option of projecting hard power. My own view is that that’s easier said than done, but the United States is the one power at present that can seriously contemplate it. The net result is an increasing sense of military great power competition between China and the US, which increasingly provides the backdrop to other issues in the region. When the two major economic and military powers in the western Pacific (and the world) are thinking out loud about systems like anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles and deep strike, with each other as the obvious referent, we should all be paying attention.

But I have to cheat and add a sixth item to my list of five.

6)      PRC/US nuclear capabilities

It’s not a recent development, as China and the US have both been nuclear powers for the last 50 years, but there have been indications that China is expanding and updating its nuclear arsenal of late. (Though my colleague Ben Schreer thinks we should examine the evidence and implications with a cool head). In any case, I think there’s too much written about the conventional power balance without taking into account the nuclear element in analyses of Asia-Pacific security. And its presence on my list follows directly from the A2AD/ASB theme.

Any discussion of major power military competition that ignores the nuclear weapons of the two sides is lacking the most complex and difficult part. To me it’s inconceivable that a nuclear power could launch a ballistic missile at another nuclear power and expect it to be understood with 100% certainty to be a conventional weapon. And I think the same applies to deep strike designed to degrade command and control and situational awareness capability—while applicable to conventional warfare, it also looks disconcertingly like the preparation for a first strike. It’s far from clear how escalation could be managed. As Paul Dibb explained here (and here) recently, we ignore such questions at our peril.

Andrew Davies is ASPI’s director of research and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of Flickr user Patrick Rodwell.