How Asia’s leaders triggered the world’s most rapid arms race

North Korea dominates headlines but neighbouring nations are also stockpiling arms

A 2015 military parade in Beijing, China
A 2015 military parade in Beijing, China
(Image credit: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

North Korea yesterday fired ballistic missiles in an escalation of an arms race waged by Asia’s most powerful players over the past decade.

The test launch, which was in breach of UN resolutions, was the second missile launch by the hermit kingdom in a week and showcased weapons “capable of striking targets across South Korea and Japan”, The Times said. But North Korean leader “Kim Jong Un’s new toy is a relatively minor addition to an arsenal of new weaponry being acquired by its Asian neighbours”, the paper continued.

The South recently “became the only non-nuclear country able to fire ballistic missiles from a submarine”. And Fumio Kishida, a candidate to become Japan’s prime minister, has said his country should acquire “fighter jets or missiles that can take out enemy missiles on the ground before they are launched”.

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Amid China’s rapid military expansion and festering territorial disputes, events threaten to “an ominous turn”, said Al Jazeera, as efforts “to tip the strategic balance” by other foreign powers in Asia also accelerate.

Off the sidelines

The expansion of Asian military capacity is being driven by a refocusing of attention “from the Atlantic to the Pacific”, said The Times’s Asia editor Richard Lloyd-Parry.

“Compared with Europe and the US, Asia has the world’s largest population and its fastest-growing markets.” However, the region is “unstable and tension-ridden”, with “an uncomfortably diverse range of political systems” ranging from democracies including Australia, South Korea and Japan to “crude oppressors” such as North Korea and Myanmar, he added.

The trend has been intensifying for a number of years. Intelligence analyst Brijesh Khemlani argued a decade ago that “growing interest and involvement of India, China and the US” in Asia “may well end the relatively benign security landscape that Southeast Asia has enjoyed for the last two decades”.

In an article for the Royal United Services Institute think-tank, he argued that “the backdrop of an increasingly assertive China and lingering political and territorial disputes” meant the region’s “security environment is witnessing a silent change”.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s (SIPRI) arms transfers database, weaponry deliveries to Southeast Asia nearly doubled between 2005 and 2009 compared with the five preceding years. Deliveries to Malaysia jumped by the highest rate, at 722%, while those to Singapore increased by 146%, and to Indonesia by 84%.

The SIPRI found that China’s military spending totalled $252bn (£182bn) in 2020, an increase of 1.9% over 2019 at at time when many other nations cut military spending due to the Covid pandemic. The hike marked a rise of 76% over the past decade.

Japan ($49.1bn/£35bn), South Korea ($45.7/£34.4bn) and Australia ($27.5bn/£19.9bn) were the other big military spenders in the region last year. All four countries boosted their spending between 2019 and 2020 and have steadily increased their military budgets over the past decade.

Having “once stayed on the sidelines”, nations across the region are now “following in the footsteps of powerhouses China and the United States” by “building arsenals of advanced long-range missiles”, said Reuters.

Before this decade is over, the news agency added, Asia will be “bristling with conventional missiles that fly farther and faster, hit harder, and are more sophisticated than ever before” prompting “a stark and dangerous change from recent years”.

“The missile landscape is changing in Asia, and it’s changing fast,” warned David Santoro, president of the Pacific Forum. “Missile proliferation will fuel suspicions, trigger arms races, increase tensions, and ultimately cause crises and even wars.”

The potentially deadly “combination of economic wealth and political tension” in Asia “means that countries all over the world see an interest in maintaining stability in the region and showing a military presence there”, said The Times’s Lloyd-Parry.

Noting that the UK’s new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, will travel through Asia on its maiden voyage, he warned that the arrival of foreign powers - set to the backdrop of increasing Asian military might - has set the countries of the region further “on edge”.

Danger in the Pacific

Asian nations have “generally managed to avoid direct combat with one another since the Vietnam War”, said Michael T. Klare, professor of peace and world security studies at the Massachusetts-based Five Colleges consortium. The conflict between China and Vietnam in 1979 is “the sole exception”, he noted.

However, he continued in an article for Foreign Affairs, there are signs “tension in Korea and a number of territorial disputes in the South China Sea area could provide the sparks to ignite a regional conflagration”.

And “the acceleration of regional arms races is made more worrisome by the absence of any regional arms control talks, such as those now under way in the Middle East”.

One goal behind Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan was to realign foreign policy towards the region, a move described in Washington as a “pivot to Asia”.

The US is seeking to “base medium-range missiles within striking range of China and North Korea” in the Asia-Pacific, Al Jazeera said, as “accurate, non-nuclear missiles based close by its adversaries would tip the strategic balance further back in its favour”.

Meanwhile, Australia and Japan - two key US allies - have also “announced their intentions to boost defence spending and adopt a more aggressive military posture”, the broadcaster added - a move attacked by critics as “an offensive military stance” that will only “encourage China to boost its own offensive capabilities”.

“North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons is a dramatic and obvious cause of alarm to its neighbours,” said Lloyd-Parry.

But the North is by no means the only Asian player to do so, and “with so much uncertainty, and so much new military force and equipment” across the region, “the potential for miscalculation is always present”.

The Economist has previously described Taiwan as “the most dangerous place on Earth”, owing to its position as a pinch point between two of the world’s military superpowers.

But as Reuters noted, more and more of the Asia Pacific is becoming “caught between China and the US” - suggesting that the “most dangerous” tag may soon extend to the entire region.

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