In late February, I attended the Ditchley Park conference on power rivalries in Asia. A sub-theme of the conference was to explore whether the region was being drawn into an arms race. Like all good conferences, it didn’t end in a series of pre-packaged answers, though I think my broad impression from listening to the conversation around the table was that we’re looking now at a region that has become strategically more competitive over the last year or two. Still, I can’t see Asia as a region characterised by arms racing—at least, not in the narrow technical sense that the region as a whole is locked into an action–reaction dynamic producing weapons arsenals excess to requirements. True, some of the harder-wired strategic relationships—in south Asia or northeast Asia, for example—have a little more of the action–reaction dynamic than others. But broadly speaking, defence spending in most Asian countries isn’t especially high as a percentage of GDP. And strategies tend to be asymmetric rather than symmetric.
Look at our own defence spending. Does it constitute the Southeast Asian leg of an arms race? No, and there’s not much prospect of its quickening abruptly. Indeed, there’s something approaching bipartisan agreement that defence isn’t a priority compared to domestic spending. That’s a position common to many of the countries that took part in the wave of military operations that followed 9/11, and the duration, cost and uncertain outcomes of those ventures have induced a weariness about the effectiveness of military force to achieve desired objectives among publics at large. But it’s also testimony to the rising social welfare demands upon many Western budgets. Most Asian countries are facing similar pressures to spend more in other budget sectors. And even if we were spending more on defence, would the net effect be stabilising or destabilising? A broad view of US allies and partners in Asia is that the US ought to be spending rather more here, precisely because it’s a stabilising presence in the region.
Now, what’s interesting about Asia isn’t arms racing or defence budgets. What’s interesting is that regional strategic competitions tend to be characterised by a search for what we might call ‘gamechangers’—any factor that offers force-multiplier-level enhancements against a potential adversary. Some of the potential gamechangers take the form of new kinds of military equipment. Around the region as a whole, a greater interest in cyber and space capabilities, conventional prompt-strike weapons, drones, ballistic missiles, ballistic missile defences, hypersonic weapons, power-projection capabilities, and—as a final resort—nuclear weapons, testifies to an increased interest in military gamechangers.
But gamechangers needn’t always require new technological breakthroughs. China has reaped substantial strategic gain from pursuing maritime presence as a gamechanger: witness the reaction to its rather small naval exercise south of Indonesia a few weeks ago. But it supplements that power projection effort with a range of other options, including space, cyber and hypersonic programs. South Korea, by contrast, seems to be looking to a mixture of cyber capabilities, conventional prompt strike weapons and longer-range ballistic missiles as a deterrent to North Korea’s growing nuclear program.
Still other gamechangers are political or diplomatic. Burma’s strategic relocation from being a friend of China and North Korea to a normal player in Southeast Asia, for example, exhibits gamechanger behaviour. The Abe government’s deliberate revival of nationalism in Japan can similarly be perceived as gamechanger behaviour—one which suggests the Japanese government believes that domestic public opinion is a primary constraint upon its ability to play a meaningful regional role. Robotics and ballistic missile defence feature as supplementary technological Japanese gamechangers. Australia’s own gamechangers are primarily diplomatic: we’re pushing for greater US engagement in Southeast Asia (the real meaning of the US marine deployment in the Top End), and for Indonesia to emerge as the true power core of a Southeast Asian region with greater ballast. Enhancements we might make to the ADF over coming years will supplement those objectives.
So what’s all that mean for regional security? Well, the overall conclusion has to be a pessimistic one: regional countries are increasing their hedging behaviour, pursuing options intended to exploit what they perceive to be their asymmetric ‘edge’. Around the region, the core of cooperative endeavour remains economic; in the strategic field, competition is growing. It’s that factor, rather than arms racing plain and simple, that’s the real worry.
Rod Lyon is a fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and an adjunct associate professor at the Griffith Asia Institute. Image courtesy of Flickr user Phil Long.