Asia's Week: It Transpires That an Arms Race Is Under Way

Apr 4 2014, 4:58pm CDT | by

Asia's Week: It Transpires That an Arms Race Is Under Way
Photo Credit: Forbes Business

The time finally arrived for elite international media to pick up on the arms race in Asia. Not that this is likely to check the wasteful and potentially deadly rush, but at least it may put policymakers under more of a glare.

It’s been apparent for awhile that mainland China was building up its navy and amassing missiles on its coast.  That rush, in the face of no concrete threat, has been widely decried.  It is also a big reason why East Asia military spending has tripled from 1988-2012, to $302 billion, the fastest increase of any region in the world, according to figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Now, however, states on the potential receiving end of a Chinese blast have developed more of an arms appetite. Who wouldn’t want an enticing submarine? Certainly India isn’t content to wait–and it isn’t even being led by a Hindu nationalist yet. The state-enabled merchants of this hardware (and software) can be counted on to serve it up at top dollar.  This week came news that Japan–while sounding its own martial drums–also is getting back into weapons exports.  Will a display case for Pentagon contractors be part of President Obama’s baggage in his late-April trip to Asia?

Conceivably, drones and other surveillance fare could prove defensive and useful in reassuring nervous antagonists that no immediate attack looms that requires preemptive response. If true, some purchases might have a peace payoff.  Don’t expect much sharing, however. The painful MH370 plane disappearance, if anything, has shown how guarded each military involved in the search is about sharing the extent of its electronic knowledge.

On top of the gut- and brain-blasting firepower that conventional weapons bring, there’s the ongoing nuclear threat, from the North Korean dictator and the hotheads in Pakistan. (One hopes the Chinese and Indian chiefs have surer fingers on the buttons…and there was a bit of seeming good news when Japan opted to return some weapons-grade plutonium to the U.S. at a talkfest in the Hague.)

The best hope for maintaining the general peace that has fostered Asia-Pacific’s recent prosperity–and allowed its resources to go toward wealth-creating rather than asset-destroying investments–is for a broader popular understanding that unprovoked or unnecessary shows of force do not lead to national greatness or good tidings.  The elite media attention won’t translate into mass opinion, but sometimes ideas trickle down. The popular will, in turn, is best reflected in countries with some form of democracy, of which there are gradually more in Asia.

In more concrete terms, some argue that firm and open alliances among nations can actually discourage conflict even as they sometimes seem to engender more preparation for war. If that is true, the various trip wires for the U.S. in Asia-Pacific may have a positive effect. (See contributor Stephen Harner’s arguments to the contrary when it comes to the especially risky China-Japan standoff.  Also contributor Doug Bandow’s contentions in regards to South Korea.) In any case, an indigenous security pact, something more convincing than the fractious ASEAN axis, would hold more widespread appeal.

Oh, then there’s another powerful peacekeeping recipe for the region: continued good luck.


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