The undetermined future of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) remains a concerning indicator for the state of global nuclear disarmament and arms control. While understandably less headline-worthy as potential nuclear-induced doomsday or promises of developing advanced warheads, not much has been said about their conventional counterparts. Specifically, not much has been said about the preparedness of states in facing the challenges brought upon by the rapid pace of new technologies in conventional military capabilities.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the world’s global military spending rose to US$1.8 trillion in 2018, the highest in real terms since 1988. Driving much of this spending was the pivotal role technology played in shaping the character of warfare and the ambiguity of the international or given regional environment. In conjunction with the inherent unpredictability of strategic threats, many armed forces resorted to capitalising on technological disruptions to avoid potential surprises.
While not inherently detrimental, the issue with such an approach lies in the choices decision-makers take in maintaining security. This approach, marked by a dependence on state-of-the-art technology, long survived the Cold War and it has not shown signs of changing. This is problematic when newer technologies, including weapon systems such as lethal autonomous systems, cyber warfare instruments and biological weapons, are being introduced. They are not fully understood nor scrutinised over the effects they may have on the overall military balance of a particular region or the broader international environment.
These concerns are particularly germane for the Asia Pacific, a region long highlighted as ripe for arms racing in the eyes of external onlookers. This constant shadow has often left negative interpretations of the future of arms purchases and developments for the region.
Yet, at the same time, this perspective tends to overlook contextually specific interests and dynamics that compelled the states to contribute almost a third of the world’s arms purchases in the first place.
When considering the driving factors for the increased spending of the Asia Pacific, the situation in the region does show that obvious explanations are often there for good reason. Regardless of general suspicions towards modernisation efforts as a facade for undisclosed intentions, it remains to be the main reason for such purchases. Much of the region’s armed forces, while not necessarily occurring at equal rates, are on the general path of overhauling their outdated platforms.
Furthermore, improved prosperity of these countries, such as rising incomes, economic growth and improving industrial capabilities, create a much more encouraging environment to do so.
Another driving factor is the multipurpose role of the military, whose involvement goes beyond traditional defence repertoire to be added under the general purview of socio-economic development and stability. However, this greater demand for the necessary infrastructure and platforms to do so has exacerbated intra-agency rivalries. A notable example is the constabulary role of the navy in tackling illegal fishing operations in Southeast Asia as an additional protective measure for local fishing industries. This is largely attributed to overall better access to funding and resources vis-à-vis their civilian counterparts. The preference in doing so has not only aggravated existing schisms between civilian and military forces, but also blurred the intended scope of the armed forces.
It demonstrates that while there is a predominant military focus in arms expenditures, the struggle remains in achieving sophisticated development without overshadowing other portfolios within a given national budget. A McKinsey and Company assessment of Southeast Asian defence industries highlighted that there is greater likelihood in acquiring, or perhaps building them on the long-term, versatile platforms to allow for modernisation and upscaling to occur within budgetary constraints.
Included in these platforms are special mission aircrafts geared towards maritime patrol and anti-submarine and airborne early warning systems. In a similar vein, cargo and transportation vehicles are considered for dual purposes, such as humanitarian aid and disaster relief. These reflect the generally inward focus of Asia-Pacific states, even in matters such as defence.
However, it does not imply that these developments are occurring within a vacuum. There remains inter-state competitive dynamics, regardless of the absence of traditional indicators of arms racing. Thus, both proactive and reactionary measures are taken by states based on their threat perceptions of the environment around them. Evident responses have been noted in regional competitive dynamics between India, Japan, South Korea, and even the United States, responding to how they saw fit to respond to China’s actions regionally and beyond.
Combined with the existing flashpoints in the region and the general sense of distrust, the chances of spiraling into more aggressive competitive dynamics still needs to be respected as a possibility.
The aforementioned considerations denote that both internal and external demands shape the rationale for defence procurement. It is driven by strategic considerations based on technological superiority, which ultimately rests on the demands for an effective technology policy with an adept handling of operations and budget. However, this will depend on how states of the region are able to future proof themselves for subsequent technological disruptions. More often than not, the push towards technologically intensive solutions has not worked as intended. The reason for such is that, despite the challenges threatening stability and security, there has been no viable alternative in sight.
Its inflexibility has shown itself through the inability to adapt to disruptions and changes. The accessibility of the global markets for potential competitors cannot be overcome in ways other than increased competitive spending and the ability for potential adversaries to resort to asymmetric counter-measures have not deterred further attempts to seek even more advanced systems.
Over time, defence research and development efforts have become less and less capable of generating and reacting to disruptive technologies. For those states without established industries, they are disadvantaged by lacking the necessary infrastructures to not only maintain their purchases but to develop their own local industries to maintain defences. Even cases such as Southeast Asia have not done so with the full intention of competition, but merely a method of boosting their national economy. Furthermore, should this transformative period occur, if the investment is limited, attempts to keep pace would only become a fruitless effort.
It is important to reiterate that simplistic conclusions about fearing inevitable arms races should not dictate future conversations on arms dynamics. The complicated and often conflicting goals of the Asia-Pacific region show how the considerations of internal and external pressures are not always balanced.
The region also remains playing “catch up” in not only aspects of national development, but also to gain an advantage in their ability to maintain its security. Existing issues and regional competition notwithstanding, greater dialogue and confidence-building measures are needed regarding such expenditures and the related industries to prevent from encouraging an unsustainable cycle of arms expenditure dynamics. While not overwhelmingly successful, it had been the approach for their nuclear counterparts. Indeed areas of ambiguity can be reduced even though the points of uncertainty may not be fully eradicated.
This article first appeared in the ISIS Focus 1/2020 No. 10