Will arms growth in Asia threaten the ‘long peace’?
7 Mar 2013|
South Korea's T-50 Golden Eagle

Asian powers are complicating an uninterrupted thirty-year peace by becoming a bumper market for the international and regional weapons trade. Now that standards of living in Asia are on the rise, and internal stability is increasingly the order of the day, governments are feeling the pressure to provide more than rhetoric to protect the fruits of their prosperity. China’s rapidly growing naval capability is also encouraging its neighbours to hedge by developing their own forces. This, in turn, raises tensions between within existing relationships in Asia. Neighbourly suspicion and nationalism serve to divert attention from equally pressing security challenges like natural resource depreciation, natural disasters and insurgency. It is unlikely that large-scale procurement is an effective response to the localised nascent risks faced by Asia–Pacific powers today.

A recently released SIPRI list of the 100 largest arms companies in the world in 2011 has delivered some food for thought. Global arms sales have decreased since 2011 but Asian activity has charged ahead. Of the 100 top companies of 2011, 16 were from Asia (including four from Australia), contributing $US23.9bn (a 79.6% increase) to the regional weapons trade turnover. Regional economic growth, combined with better access to military technology (largely supplied by the US, Russia and western Europe), has allowed Asian nations to quickly leapfrog generations in military equipment. As well, increasing wealth and industrialisation have created favourable conditions for indigenous weapons development and intraregional trade. Japan and South Korea in particular have stepped up their regional exports.

It’s important to note that expanding procurement programs aren’t just a function of increased GDP—hedging against Chinese military power is a significant driver of the increase in Asian arms investment. Jung Sung-Ki of Defense News suggests the increased interest in South Korea’s jets and ships from countries like Malaysia and the Philippines is a direct response to China’s naval capability build-up. But Asian counties can’t ignore their neighbours in defence planning, making for a complex regional dynamic of incremental arms competition that potentially threatens our region’s uneasy peace.

There are domestic political drivers as well. For example, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan is pushing for greater weapons procurement despite the nation’s deep economic malaise. Abe has signalled stronger arms trade with the US after lifting its effective moratorium on arms development joint ventures and exports in 2011. Against a background of the Senkaku/Diaoyu territorial dispute with China, it’s as much a populist political measure as an indicator of strategic policy direction.

The trajectory of Asia’s regional growth is not assured, and oblique security challenges also threaten to undermine the current prosperity of Asian powers. Inadequate access to natural resources like water and food stocks, natural disasters, cybercrime and insurgency do not enjoy as much media attention or as much divested GDP as conventional weapons purchases. Dr Mark Rosegrant of the US-based International Food and Policy Institute has signalled food security as this decade’s major security concern for Asia. Insurgent activity in Asia has intensified in the last year: Burma, Thailand, India, China and now Malaysia are dealing with armed rebel activity. Cybercrime threatens to undermine the trust required for genuine trade in Asia. None of this can be solved with FA-50 fighter aircraft or Type 209 submarines.

Military build-up won’t make Asia safer. New approaches must be developed to deal with changing strategic circumstances in the region. But the security environment in Asia could turn nasty if spending sprees on hardware aren’t matched with deft diplomacy. Considered strategic and defence thinking will need to incorporate a range of Asia’s security challenges—both traditional and nontraditional. Otherwise the ‘long peace’ in Asia may not last much longer.

Sarah Norgrove is currently undertaking ASPI’s internship program. Image courtesy of Flickr user 대한민국 국군 Republic of Korea Armed Forces.