Is an Arms Race in Asia Inevitable?

Does the United States need to maintain its alliances in East Asia to prevent a regional arms race?  According to a post at the Diplomat, written a few weeks back by Michael Mazza of the American Enterprise Institute, a hypothetical regional arms race is one of the major reasons the United States needs to maintain a presence there.  Coming on the heels of Charles Glaser’s provocative piece in Foreign Affairs that argued the United States could do without defending Taiwan, Massa argues that the United States must continue to defend the Republic of China to ensure U.S. allies of its commitment to the region.

Massa’s piece is well worth the read, and he makes a solid strategic case for a continued U.S. commitment to Taiwan’s defense—citing Douglas MacArthur’s reference to Taiwan as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier.”  His other points are much less convincing though—particularly his assertion that protests in the Middle East demand the United States take the side of “freedom-seeking” people around the globe.  His argument about the possibility of an arms race in Asia offers the opportunity for an interesting debate though.  Massa says,

As China rises and puts increasing pressure on its neighbours—many of whom are US allies—it’s essential that those allies consider the United States to be a dependable security partner. Without that assurance, the region is more likely to descend into unwanted and unnecessary arms races, as countries work on their own to balance China and potentially each other as their military might grows.

This logic does have some historical basis.  Victor Cha has written about how the U.S. alliance system in Asia was designed specifically as a “powerplay” to control the ambitions of unpredictable leaders such as Syngman Rhee and Chiang Kai-Shek, and to prevent the reemergence of Japan as a regional power.  Beyond control though, U.S. security guarantees alleviated the need for regional actors to invest heavily in their own militaries.  While this formulation provided reassurances at the time, it unfortunately ignores the benefits that friendly nations in the region could now provide the United States if they were allowed to pursue greater capabilities of their own.  As far back as 1964, not long after the United States codified its alliance in East Asia through a series of bilateral security treaties—and even as it was contemplating how to pursue a non-proliferation regime—Secretary of State Dean Rusk wondered whether U.S. security interests in Asia would be better served if Japan, as well as India, obtained nuclear weapons because it would better position them to act as a check against China.  This sentiment was recently revived by the governor of Tokyo—one of Japan’s most powerful politicians—who claimed it was past time Japan considered pursuing a nuclear weapons arsenal of its own given China’s rise and numerous U.S. preoccupations elsewhere in the world.

Obviously, nuclear weapons have always been a particularly sensitive subject for the Japanese because seeing as their sole use in wartime took place on Japanese soil.  The recent damage to nuclear power plants following earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck Japan last month means the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Japan is likely to remain taboo for some time to come.  But Japan need not acquire nuclear weapons to effectively aid in containing China because a conventionally strengthened Japan could adequately act in a certain capacity in this regard.  Japan had already been moving in this direction of it’s own accord.  Of course, the devastating earthquake again plays a role here because the economic damage—conservatively estimated to be about $300 billion at this point—will make it difficult for the Japanese government to justify additional expenditures on its military while recovering from its myriad crises.

In any hypothetical arms race though, China’s response to the expansion of Japanese, or Taiwanese or South Korean, military capabilities—or pursuit of nuclear weapons—would then determine whether an arms race would begin.  China’s ambitions would seem to make an arms race probable, but it is hardly inevitable.  China has natural disadvantages that will make even a bid for regional hegemony difficult.  Japan, Russia, India, Indonesia, Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia, Australia and others, all have reasons to see China’s ambition’s checked in one way or another.  If these states were to take the lead in certain areas of interest to themselves, the United States could act as an extra-regional balancer.  The U.S. naval presence in the Pacific and Indian Oceans would easily facilitate this dynamic in an “over the horizon” capacity.  Facing such a confluence of forces China could decide it is better off not pushing its luck.  Seeing as its economic growth will not continue on a straight upward line, China could feel secure in the protection provided by its somewhat modest nuclear arsenal and relative increases in its air and naval capabilities.   And if China decides not to pursue a prudent course, U.S. allies will be better prepared to act in their own defense if a regional crisis were to emerge.

Unfortunately, one of the key factors paving the way for Chinese expansion at this juncture is America’s overstretched policy.  If Mazza is right, the United States is holding its allies back from being more effective in checking China’s ambitions.  Japan is likely all to happy to see the United States continue to carry the financial burden for its defense.  And, seeing its main military threat in the Pacific bogged down in the Middle East and Central Asia—and possibly North Africa—China is likely to continue acting boldly in its territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas and attempting to expand its influence absent the type of strong regional balancer the United States is purposely preventing from emerging.

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3 comments to Is an Arms Race in Asia Inevitable?

  • Jeff

    “must continue to defend the Republic of China to ensure U.S. allies of its commitment to the region.”

    continue to defend against?

  • Jeff

    Aren’t we a clear and present danger to China by having a presence in that region?

  • Matt Fay

    All states present some danger to one another to a certain extend–it’s called the “security dilemma”–but China’s strategy now is to try and expand it’s influence in the region. This strategy will ultimately bring it into competition with the interests of other states in the region–most of them US allies. US presence isn’t necessarily a “clear and present danger” to China but it certainly is an impediment to China’s ambitions. The question is whether or not acting as that impediment is in the US interest? I would say that there is a US interest in seeing China’s ambitions somewhat checked but I don’t think it is enough of an interest to risk direct conflict–particularly when there are other states in the region with a much greater interest who often free ride on American security guarantees.