Sam Seitz

Asia has emerged as a dynamic and evolving region full of established and rising powers. From the traditional powers of South Korea and Japan to a rising China to the developing countries of ASEAN, Asia is the region to watch. One area to watch in particular is regional military spending. SIPRI, a Stockholm-based think tank that publishes yearly defense spending levels, recently revealed that 6 of the 10 largest arms-importing countries are in Asia. Moreover, regional military spending has increased tremendously. This week, for example, Australia announced its largest defense spending increase since WWII. Japan, too, is rapidly increasing its military capacity and is in the middle of a contentious constitutional change designed to increase Japan’s ability to support its allies in the military realm. Even former American rivals like Vietnam are rapidly expanding military cooperation with the an effort to gain access to high-tech American weapons.

This regional trend is actually not all that surprising given the growing power of China, and it demonstrates a fundamental theory of international relations: balance of threat theory. Balance of threat theory, first proposed by Stephen Walt at Harvard, argues that states base their military spending on the perceived power and intentions of nearby states. What’s important about this theory is that both intentions and latent power matter. In North America, for example, the United States possesses immense economic and military power; it is unquestionably the regional hegemon. However, because the U.S. is a benign, status-quo power, Canada and Mexico are able to maintain relatively low military spending since the threat from the U.S. is minimal. In Asia, by contrast, the intentions of a rising China are far from clear. Indeed, there is a massive debate in the literature (see, for example, hereherehereherehereherehere, and here) about whether China is a revisionist power seeking to overturn the Amerian-led liberal international order or merely a misunderstood country that seeks only minimal aims. There are also concerns that growing Chinese nationalism might pressure the CCP to go down a more aggressive path than they otherwise would, and a recent article over at the CFR argues that China’s economic malaise might encourage Chinese adventurism. While China’s grand strategy is not entirely clear, recent trends in the South China Sea suggests that China may not be a totally benign actor. From their placement of SAMs on Woody Island to their aggressive encroachments into other countries’ territorial waters, regional actors have sufficient reason to worry about Chinese military growth. Finally, it’s important to realize that absent near certainty about other state’s intentions, states must err on the side of caution because survival is a prerequisite to every other state function. In other words, if there is any doubt about China’s intentions – and there is a lot – the rational choice is for states to arm and ally with each other in order to contain and deter a rising China.

Fortunately, the current arms buildup has not reached the point of no return. While Chinese military spending has increased significantly, it actually tracks GDP fairly closely, staying at about 2% of GDP. There is, of course, significant opacity in the Chinese military budget, and China is likely spending millions more than Western analysts realize. Nevertheless, the fact that China has not increased spending as a percentage of GDP is encouraging. Second, most of the non-Chinese military buildup has been defensive or dual-use. With a few exceptions, such as Japan’s new helicopter carriers, most countries are primarily buying small patrol boats or submarines. While these can be used offensively, they are best suited for patrolling territorial waters and imposing significant costs through asymmetric means in the unlikely event of war with China. Most of the smaller countries like Vietnam or the Philippines will never be able to beat China in a war, and their strategy is centered entirely around raising the costs of victory for China, not making victory impossible. While this might sound like a dangerous arrangement, it actually has a significant silver lining. Because these smaller countries have no ability to beat China, they have no incentive to provoke a conflict that could escalate. This makes Asia far more stable because it lowers the risk of misperceptions or miscalculations occurring.

There are also steps that the U.S. can take to minimize the risk of a spiralling arms race. For example, it can extend security guarantees to countries that are currently threatened by China but are not U.S. treaty allies. This strategy has two benefits. First, it deters Chinese aggression. While China might risk a limited war with a minor SE Asian country, it would not be so willing to risk war, no matter how small, with the United States. Second, it removes small state’s incentives to build up their arsenals because they can rely on American military might to safeguard their interests. With fewer regional actors racing to acquire ever more lethal weaponry, the risk of a spiralling arms race decreases precipitously. Of course, there are also risks. Countries might use the U.S. security guarantee as risk insurance and take dangerous or provocative actions that they might not otherwise try, thus creating a moral hazard. For example, small states like Vietnam might become increasingly assertive because they know that the U.S. will back them militarily. Fortunately, measures can be taken to mitigate these risks. The U.S. could, for example, pledge to support smaller states only if they were unambiguously the victim of an unprovoked attack, thus ensuring that states don’t risk forfeiting their security guarantee by provoking China. Of course, extended deterrence is not a clear solution, and many detractors persuasively argue that it unnecessarily provokes China. Moreover, U.S. security guarantees might not be viewed as credible. The specific strategy, however, is not what is important. What is important is that the U.S. public, policymakers, and politicians are aware of the Asian security landscape and are willing to think creatively about how the U.S. can help contribute to a stable and prosperous Asia-Pacific.

Asia is an evolving region, and the military arena is constantly changing. While we have yet to see any large-scale arms races, the threat of a spiralling security dilemma is very real. Fortunately, every regional actor has much to lose in war and much to gain through peaceful coexistence. Hopefully, smart policies and thoughtful leaders can ensure that this century is a golden age for Asia.