Conventional Arms Rivalry in the Asia-Pacific

(23-25 October 2001)


On October 23-25 October 2001, the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies held a conference on "Conventional Arms Rivalry in the Asia-Pacific" region.  The conference was convened to better understand the defense modernization efforts of the region’s nations, particularly their attempts to acquire and incorporate more and better conventional weapons in their inventories. Specifically, sessions focused on the causes and extent of regional arms competition, force modernization trends, the proliferation of land, maritime, and air force systems, the “software” dimension in defense modernization, the prospects for conventional arms control, and the implications of these trends for the prospects for conflict and for the U.S. posture in the region.


While world military expenditures declined by some 11 percent in real terms between 1992 and 2000, the figure for Asia rose by 16.5 percent. A re-energized arms buildup in Asia and the Pacific has become especially evident in the last two years.


No one single factor can fully explain the phenomenon of military modernization and arms build-up in the Asia-Pacific region. However, a key factor emphasized by conference participants is the role of

competition and rivalry among the states of the region as they react to perceived military imbalances and try to delimit their strategic space.  Another key factor has been East Asia's recovery - - still underway - - from the economic crisis that began in 1997.


In addition to these explanations, there were other factors adduced to explain the buildup.  One participant argued that the current world era of information and globalization is an era of heightened competition among countries and this is abetting arms competition.  In a similar vein, it was said that the RMA has ushered in a new era of “ringing out the old and ringing in the new,” and this is engendering increases in military budgets.  More pointedly, there was an argument that the U.S. is trying to maintain its superpower status and thus is trying to strengthen its military capability.  As this plays out, other countries are reacting to and increasing their defense spending. 


Some participants emphasized the desires of nations and key defense producers for sales and profits.  It was noted that the end of the Cold War led to a sharp drop in domestic demand for armaments in the major producer countries.  This greatly intensified already strong pressure to secure export orders.


While the region is rapidly consolidating itself into a single security system, there was a consensus that there is no region-wide action-reaction-based arms race.  However, there are geographically limited races involving China and Taiwan, and India and Pakistan, which are worrisome and dangerous.  There is, moreover, a quite robust region-wide process of precautionary or hedging investment in military capabilities.


Compared to the pattern of weapons acquisitions some years ago, the current arms competition in the region has fallen into a few new patterns.  First, any planning for conflict is now mainly long-term. To this extent, countries have modified the previous practice of equipping their militaries with whatever advanced hardware they could acquire.  Instead, their acquisition from the international market is more target specific and selective and is aimed at a set of fixed war scenarios. Second, the arms buildup is guided more by the concepts of the Revolution in Military Affairs than was the previous round.  As a result, the quality of weapons is emphasized. Indeed, interest in the RMA has generated an invisible arms competition.  Third, many regional countries are devoting more national resources to constructing a better technological infrastructure for long-term military modernization rather than quick gains.  All this is happening against the background of a sense of Asia-Pacific insecurity that increasingly dominates the mind-sets of regional leaders and security analysts.


The conference included workshops on defense modernization in Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia, and South Asia.


In Southeast Asia, there is no arms race, given that these states are not openly antagonistic towards one another.  Generally, they also have not reacted immediately to each other's purchases of modern weapons systems, although elements of this phenomenon are increasingly evident in Malaysia-Singapore relations.  However, it is also obvious that what Southeast Asian armed forces are doing is not maintaining the military status quo. 


Clearly, the armed forces of the region are enhancing existing capabilities as well as acquiring new capabilities. There is also clearly an element of competitive arms acquisitions. Some states, for example, have resolved to reduce Singapore's lead in sophisticated weaponry. There is thus evidence of arms racing behavior that is short of a full-blown arms race.


Southeast Asia also is acquiring arms to counter-balance what these nations perceive to be an increasingly unfavorable strategic environment. This includes a U.S. allegedly intent on reducing its presence in the region, a China more assertive of its territorial claims and beefing up its military capabilities, and a Japan that is unable to make up its mind as to what its security role in the region should be. 


South Asia is the region where military expenditures rose the most consistently during the 1990s, with an overall increase of 50 percent in real terms over the decade.  In 2000, the combined defense budgets of the region were 23 percent higher in real then than were military expenditures in 1998.


A variety of explanations were adduced for this state of affairs.  One is the continuing arms race or arms rivalry between India and Pakistan.  For example, India - - in the aftermath of the Kargil War - - is trying to develop a better capability to undertake military operations in high altitude and extreme weather conditions and this is requiring major military acquisitions for the Indian Army extending some years in the future.   More broadly, in the absence of substantial confidence building measures, all of India's neighbors are suspicious of New Delhi and its military capabilities, irrespective of the reasons that this is acquired.  There is a corresponding demand within these ruling elites to match Indian capabilities where possible through military acquisitions. 


Other factors abetting the demand for military hardware in South Asia include the growing threat of international terrorism, the rise of China, and growing nationalism in the region. Terrorism has long been a primary strategic concern for both India and Sri Lanka.  One participant argued that, in the aftermath of September 11, there would now be a new expenditure of money and effort in the direction of counter-terrorism and away from conventional arms. At the same time, India is preparing itself against a modernizing Chinese PLA and this is a key factor abetting Indian hardware acquisitions.  Finally, growing populism in various South Asian states allows military leaders and bureaucratic elites to exploit rising nationalistic tendencies to acquire new weapons.


Conference participants were particularly concerned about the India-Pakistan rivalry. Apparent earlier but pronounced today, the conventional arms asymmetries between India and Pakistan are increasingly a source of military instability. Acute financial difficulties have put a damper on Pakistan's ability to acquire and pay for new weapon systems. The worsening conventional arms imbalances between India and Pakistan virtually guarantee a high level of nuclear crisis instability in the event a conventional conflict begins.  This is inherent in the fact that Pakistan is unlikely for the foreseeable future to be able to deploy a nuclear second-strike or retaliatory capability against India.


In Northeast Asia, threat perceptions and resource availability guide force modernization efforts. China is trying to improve its military capabilities based partly on concerns about possible U.S. intervention in a Taiwan conflict.  This is driving the PLA to modernize, increase its strategic reach and redefine its “strategic frontier.” Other Northeast Asian nations, in turn, are reacting to China’s military efforts, responding in kind and trying to offset China’s growing power. There is an emerging arms rivalry between China and Japan, as these countries perceive each other as latent threats.  Without cooperative efforts, they could be trapped in an arms race.


Japanese force modernization is actuated by the security challenges posed by North Korea and China.  South Korea, on the other hand, remains concerned about the threat from the North but also is worried about the potential for U.S. disengagement from the region and the emergence of regional powers as potential threats.  It is thus strengthening air and naval power and fostering the independent development of C4ISR and indigenous defense research and development. The crux of force modernization is to enhance navy and air force capabilities.  There is thus an emphasis on national C4ISR systems, multi-role fighter aircraft, maritime surveillance aircraft, modern surface combatants, submarines, EW systems, and rapid deployment forces. The end of the Cold War has made South Korea's security environment more precarious and uncertain.


There was considerable debate as to the implications for the prospects for conflict of the regional arms buildup.  While a range of views was expressed, most participants felt that there is no basis for complacency.  There was considerable agreement that arms acquisitions by states already in a strategic competition - - a "conflict dyad" - - increase the probability of war. In addition, there was a sense that force modernization programs have lowered the threshold for actual conflict as they have provided states in the region with force projection and conventional capabilities to use or threaten to the use of force as options in resolving disputes.  Such options were once unavailable. Finally, it was observed that the level of violence will surely be raised if conflict occurs.