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Asian Arms Race Panel

June 25, 2012

Although China’s rise as a superpower is a near-constant theme in the political conversation these days, the majority of the discussion centers on the country’s dramatic economic ascension and that seemingly inevitable moment when it will overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy.  Lost in much of this is the fact that China’s military spending is also rising at a rapid rate that demands significant attention from policy-makers, both in Asia and America.  The research institute, Swedish International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), estimates that China’s annual defense spending rose from approximately $30 billion in 2000 to around $160 billion in 2012.  The United States still spends four and a half times that, but with current growth-rates, China should reach it by 2035, or perhaps even sooner when factoring in America’s expected cuts to its defense budget.  In the last few months, with the wars in the Middle East winding down, the Obama administration has talked about a “pivot” of American focus to the continent of Asia.

On the morning of June 19, 2012, two panels at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) examined the Chinese military buildup and its impact on the rest of Asia.  Right off the bat, moderator Thomas Donnelly admitted that the event, “Arms racing in Asia? Who’s winning, who’s losing” was somewhat provocatively titled.  In fact, none of the panelists saw a real arms race taking place on the continent.  Michael Mazza described the situation as more of a modernization, albeit one sparked by China’s recent military expansion.  This “modernization” came in varying forms, ranging from the Philippines’ purchase of some rather antiquated decommissioned American ships, including one from the Second World War, to the new advanced supersonic jets now being deployed by Singapore.

To the average outsider without a detailed knowledge of the situation on the continent, however, much of the buildup would seem rather excessive.  Aside from a few minor North Korean attacks on South Korea, there has been virtually no armed conflict between Asian states in the last twenty years.  The true explanation for why the atmosphere is as tense as it is has to do more with some underlying yet simultaneously very well-known aims certain states have.  The obvious one is the interest both North and South Korea have in ending, on their terms, their now 62 year civil war, still technically ongoing having never signed a peace treaty.  Bruce Bechtol addressed these circumstances, discussing how the ROK (as he termed the South) has been proficient in deterring a war, but considerably less able to prevent its neighbor’s periodic military provocations, like the 2010 sinking of the ROKS Cheonan.  Bechtol also warned about the likelihood of future incidents given South Korea’s vulnerability to long-range missile, artillery, and cyber-attacks.

The less prominent, yet arguably more critical issue from an American point of view is China’s long-standing objective of incorporating Taiwan into its country, peacefully or otherwise.  To accomplish this militarily, China would not need to achieve hegemony in the region, but rather just the ability to delay the United States long enough to defeat the Taiwanese.  Mark Stokes spoke on the value Taiwan provides as an ally, from its advanced technical expertise to its unsurpassed knowledge of how China operates internally.  A hot topic among all panelists was a new American strategic concept, called “AirSea Battle,” designed to combat a challenge like a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.  A tightly coordinated air and naval force was generally agreed to be the most effective way to neutralize the type of area-denial capabilities China would employ in the Taiwan Strait in the event of an invasion.

While the outlook for the United States and its allies seemed strong or at least stable in certain areas, there were also several causes for concern.  Speaking on India, Chuck Jones expressed his disappointment that it had no coherent modernization plan and that it hoped to produce everything internally, instead of looking to the open market.  Japan-expert Michael Auslin, on the other hand, was pleased with Japan’s strategic planning, but still concerned that its economic and political problems, along with the fallout from the environmental disasters this past year, could be severely weakening the only Asian nation with the ability to play a leading role in the continent’s security.  Finally, there was widespread apprehension among the panelists about sequestration, where in the event that Congress cannot come to an agreement on dealing with the deficit, hundreds of billions will be instantly cut from defense.  Besides the tangible loss of military capability it would cause, Michael O’Hanlon wondered whether the message it would send to American allies would be even more detrimental to its influence in the region.  Should these fears be realized and given the extent of China’s blistering ascent, as the United States pivots its attention towards the continent, it could run the risk of the continent pivoting away, towards China’s sphere.

Jacob Greenberg, Boston College ’12, is an intern at the Eisenhower Institute DC office, and will be making contributions to Ike’s Anvil.

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