A Looming Arms Race in East Asia?

May 14, 2014 Topic: Economic Development Region: Asia

A Looming Arms Race in East Asia?

The answer might surprise you.

Indonesia is a good potential example of this dynamic; their defense spending is increasing, yet it does not entirely appear to be a reaction to China (in fact, many point to Australia as their key external threat), may be a reflection of a growing economy and is significantly impacted by domestic politics. Meanwhile, South Korea’s defense budget is not necessarily driven by China as a primary consideration, but rather by the threat from North Korea.

It is true that numerous persistent tensions remain unresolved in East Asia. These disputes are significant and frightening within the context of increased Chinese belligerence. Most notably, in recent years, maritime disputes between a number of East Asian countries over various uninhabited islands have intensified. These disputes include competing Chinese, Philippine, and Malaysian claims over much of the South China Seas and Chinese and Japanese claims to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. While many countries are involved in these disputes, China’s claims are by far the largest and most aggressive. In the past few years, China has more vigorously defended these claims, leading to occasional incidents of violence. Chinese disputes with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands have been a major factor in the rise of Shinzo Abe, Japan’s current prime minister. Focused on making Japan a normal nation, Abe has begun to speak much more openly about revising Japan’s “pacifist” Constitution, purchasing offensive strike capabilities for its Self-Defense Forces, and reviving pride and patriotism among the Japanese people. This, in turn, has prompted a much more vocal reaction from both the Chinese and the Koreans, who have not yet come to terms with Japan over its history. In the past few years, China has not only aggressively challenged Japanese claims over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, it has unilaterally declared an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) that directly contradicts Japan’s ADIZ established during the Cold War.

In sum, in many areas, East Asia looks more politically stable, economically prosperous, and integrated than it did a quarter century ago. However, there are still significant questions about whether China can rise peacefully, and whether the states in the region can resolve their numerous maritime disputes. The longer-term trends in the region are all positive, but the point of disconnect needs to be identified. First, regional multilateral architecture has developed, providing greater confidence in the region’s ability to manage differences in the post–Cold War era. Second, China’s phenomenal economic growth has propelled it into the role of regional hub of economic investment and trade, and this has produced even greater and less-costly opportunities for the economies of Asia. Identifying whether and when this rather reassuring vision of the region may erode will be important. When might threat perceptions in the region change?

Policy Implications

The United States must get Asia right. The East Asia region is more important than ever for the United States in economic, diplomatic, and military terms. Furthermore, successive U.S. presidents have made East Asia a core focus of American grand strategy. Most explicitly, President Obama announced a “rebalance” to Asia. However, the manner in which the rebalance is being implemented is widely misunderstood. The policy was—and is—framed, first and foremost, in terms of the “soft” elements of U.S. power. The 2010 National Security Strategy of the United States emphasized that economic and diplomatic approaches would be the foundation for continued U.S. strength and influence abroad, while military approaches were to be secondary. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton argued, “it starts with forward deployed diplomacy.” As Brad Glosserman has pointed out, “That order matters. Framing the rebalance is the recognition that U.S. engagement of the Asia-Pacific region has been too narrow and the military has borne a disproportionately large burden.”

Yet even in 2014, it appears that the United States’ grand strategy for East Asia is too “military focused.” As the Senate Foreign Relations Committee recently concluded, the United States “should make clear that the policy is about broadening U.S. engagement, not containing China; the rebalance seeks to expand economic growth, ensure regional security, and improve human welfare for the benefit of all, not the detriment of one.”

The data presented in this essay supports that argument: East Asian states appear to be privileging economic, diplomatic, and business strategies in their foreign policies, not military strategies. If this data is accurate, a U.S. strategy that emphasizes economic and diplomatic concerns over military issues will be in sync with East Asian states’ strategies.

If states have limited defense spending because they see few direct threats to their survival and because they prefer to use institutions and diplomacy to deal with issues that arise, then the U.S. rebalance to Asia is in sync with the American desire to share burdens—the result of fiscal constraints in the United States, a new attitude about getting our own house in order, and a desire to strengthen regional architecture. In this way, regional attitudes about defense spending are critical to the rebalance.

It may be that most East Asian countries will soon make a clear choice and openly ask for U.S. primacy, and begin outright balancing against China. China and the United States may indeed divide up the region into two blocs. But neither has yet happened, and until it does, American policy makers might be wise to carefully consider the possibility that the future of East Asia may lie between these two extremes. Policy and planning that effectively pursue U.S. strategic interests will be best served with a clear understanding of how East Asian states view their security environment.

The pessimists may be right, and—just wait—the region may be heading towards a classic bipolar confrontation where containment, blocs, and military deterrence are at the forefront. However, the evidence on military spending in East Asia leads to the conclusion that although the region does contain potential flashpoints, countries are seeking ways to manage relations with each other that emphasize institutional, diplomatic and economic solutions rather than purely military solutions.

David C. Kang is a professor of international relations and business and Director of the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California. He tweets at: @daveckang

Image: Flickr/Official U.S. Navy Imagery/CC by 2.0