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Arms races can sometimes be stabilising. The United States and the Soviet Union built massive nuclear arsenals during the Cold War. Yet, the risk of mutual annihilation these created ultimately stopped Moscow and Washington from crossing the Rubicon – notwithstanding some very close calls along the way, such as the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.
But arms races more often precede major conflict. The classic example here is the Anglo-German contest for naval supremacy at the start of the 20th century, which helped spark World War I.
Arms racing, by definition, involves intense bilateral military build-ups that are both rapid and reciprocal. The numerous such contests currently unfolding across Asia appear to be of the historically more combustible kind.
For one thing, Asia’s arms races are becoming dangerously interconnected.
The US and China are in the early stages of what could become a century-defining nuclear arms competition. Beijing is rapidly expanding its nuclear arsenal, which currently numbers over 400 warheads. According to the Pentagon’s latest estimates, this figure could grow to as many as 1,500 warheads by 2035, putting China on a par with the 1,770 warheads that America now deploys.
That rapid growth in China’s nuclear capabilities has spilled over into an increasingly testy relationship with India. New Delhi’s interest in developing nuclear weapons was, in fact, a direct response to China’s first atomic test in 1964. When India finally came out of the nuclear closet in the late 1990s, it cited China as the reason for doing so. Today, faced with an expanding military threat from Beijing, New Delhi could have produced enough weapons-grade plutonium for 200 or more bombs, while its newest missiles (such as the Agni-V) can strike anywhere in China.
India’s burgeoning capabilities have, in turn, prompted Islamabad to augment its nuclear arsenal. This has almost doubled in size, from 90 to 165 warheads, in a little over a decade. There is speculation that Pakistan could overtake the United Kingdom, which boasts 225 warheads, to become the world’s fifth-largest nuclear power.
These tit-for-tat dynamics, which are a defining feature of arms racing, are evident beyond the nuclear domain. In the conventional military realm, for example, Canberra’s controversial decision to acquire nuclear-powered, conventionally armed submarines has been justified in large measure by rapidly growing Chinese naval and missile capabilities.
They are also evident in the cyber domain. In its December 2022 National Security Strategy, for instance, Tokyo announced that it would quadruple the size of a recently established cyber defence unit to counter the mounting cyber warfare capabilities of China and North Korea.
The asymmetric nature of Asia’s arms races generates further instability. Where there was once a relatively even balance of military power across the Taiwan Strait, that equilibrium is now a thing of the past. The increase in Beijing’s military spending over the past two years, from US$214 billion (S$285 billion) in 2021 to US$242 billion in 2022, was greater than Taiwan’s entire 2022 defence budget of US$16.2 billion.
Similar disparities are evident on the Korean peninsula, where Pyongyang is advancing its missile programmes at breakneck speed. In 2022, North Korea conducted almost 100 missile tests. It is, in 2023, on track to better that record. Some of those tested, such as the gigantic Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), can strike the continental US.
South Korean leaders worry they can no longer rely on the US nuclear umbrella for protection against the North. As with Western European capitals during the Cold War, they query whether a US now within range of North Korean ICBMs will ultimately be willing to sacrifice a major city like San Francisco to defend Seoul.
Revealing these anxieties, President Yoon Suk-yeol mused recently that South Korea might develop its own nuclear weapons. Public opinion polls suggest that three-quarters of South Koreans support this option. Yet, such a development might force Tokyo to break its longstanding nuclear taboo, especially given Japan’s deeply troubled history with China and the two Koreas.
Even while much of the world continues to admire the courage of Ukrainian forces in their David-versus-Goliath struggle against Russia, President Vladimir Putin’s February 2022 invasion has reinforced the message that nuclear-armed countries are much less likely to suffer such a fate.
It has also served as a chilling reminder to smaller powers that they are vulnerable to surprise attack, further fuelling Asian arms racing. Taiwan’s normally cautious leader Tsai Ing-wen, for example, has responded to the Russian invasion by vowing to ramp up the island’s asymmetric warfare capabilities, including through the “mass production” of drones, missiles and warships.
Ukraine’s lessons are pertinent for South-east Asia’s small and middle powers. Traditionally, this sub-region has been insulated from wider Asian arms racing. The costs of the Covid-19 pandemic and internal security preoccupations still act as a drag upon some South-east Asian defence budgets, such as Myanmar’s following its latest military coup.
But the South China Sea serves as a transmission belt for Asian arms racing dynamics to spill into this sub-region. Prompted by growing Chinese pressure, Indonesia plans to buy Rafale fighter aircraft and Scorpene-class submarines from France, while the Philippines is purchasing powerful BrahMos anti-ship missiles from India.
Yet, the uneven nature of Asia’s arms races significantly diminishes the prospects for arms control agreements of the kind that fostered stability between the superpowers during the Cold War. At a time when its atomic arsenal is only a quarter the size of America’s, for instance, Beijing has no incentive to freeze its fast-expanding nuclear forces.
Taken together, the increasingly interconnected, multi-dimensional and asymmetric nature of Asia’s arms races heightens the risks of misperception and miscalculation. These are also leading causes of conflicts past, such as World War I. History never repeats, but it often rhymes. The risk that Asia’s arms races might spiral into major conflict is rising.
This article is written by Professor Brendan Taylor and first appeared in The Straits Times.