Asia’s mad arms race


Asia is currently in the middle of an unprecedented arms race that is not only sharpening tensions in the region, but competing with efforts by Asian countries to address poverty and growing economic disparity. The gap between rich and poor-calculated by the Gini coefficient that measures inequality-has increased from 39 percent to 46 percent in China, India, and Indonesia. While affluent households continue to garner larger and larger portions of the economic pie, "Children born to poor families can be 10 times more likely to die in infancy" than those from wealthy families, according to Changyong Rhee, chief economist of the Asian Development Bank.

This inequality trend is particularly acute in India, where life expectancy is low, infant mortality high, education spotty, and illiteracy widespread, in spite of that country's status as the third largest economy in Asia, behind China and Japan. According to an independent charity, the Naandi Foundation, some 42 percent of India's children are malnourished. Bangladesh, a far poorer country, does considerably better in all these areas.

And yet last year India was the world's leading arms purchaser, including a deal that will spend $20 billion dollars on high performance French fighter planes. India is also developing a long-range ballistic missile capable of carrying  multiple nuclear warheads, and buying submarines and surface craft. Its military budget is set to rise 17 percent this year to $42 billion.

"It is ridiculous. We are getting into a useless arms race at the expense of fulfilling the needs of poor people," Praful Bidwai of the Coalition of Nuclear Disarmament and Peace told the New York Times.

China, too, is in the middle of an arms boom that includes beefing up its navy, constructing a new generation of stealth aircraft, and developing a ballistic missile that is potentially capable of neutralizing U.S. carriers near its coast. Beijing's arms budget has grown at a rate of some 12 percent a year and, at $106.41 billion, is now the second largest on the planet. The U.S. budget-not counting the various wars Washington is embroiled in-runs a little over $800 billion, although some have estimated that it is over $1 trillion.

While China has made enormous strides in overcoming poverty, there are some 250 million Chinese officially still considered poor, and the country's formerly red-hot economy is cooling. "Data on April spending and output put another nail into hopes that China's economy is bottoming out," Mark Williams, chief Asia economist at Capital Economics told the Financial Times.

The same is true for most of Asia. For instance, India's annual economic growth rate has fallen from 9 percent to 6.1 percent over the past two and a half years.

Tensions between China and other nations in the region have set off a local arms race. Taiwan is buying four U.S.-made Perry-class guided missile frigates, and Japan has shifted much of its military from its northern islands to face southward toward China.

The Philippines are spending almost $1 billion on new aircraft and radar, and recently held joint war games with the U.S.  South Korea has just successfully tested a long-range cruise missile. Washington is reviving ties with Indonesia's brutal military because the island nation controls the strategic seaways through which pass most of the region's trade and energy supplies.

Australia is also re-orientating its defense to face China, and Australian Defense Minister Stephen Smith has urged "that India play the role it could and should as an emerging great power in the security and stability of the region."

But that "role" is by no means clear, and some have read Smith's statement as an attempt to rope New Delhi into a united front against Beijing. The recent test of India's Agni V nuclear-capable ballistic missile is largely seen as directed at China.

India and China fought a brief but nasty border war in 1962, and India claims China is currently occupying some 15,000 square miles in Indian territory. The Chinese, in turn, claim almost 40,000 square miles of the Indian state of Arunachai Pradesh. While Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh says that "overall our relations [with China] are quite good," he also admits "the border problem is a long-standing problem."

India and China also had a short dust up last year when a Chinese warship demanded that the Indian amphibious assault vessel Airavat identify itself shortly after the ship left the port of Hanoi, Vietnam. Nothing came of the incident but Indian President Pratibha Patil has since stressed the need for "maritime security," and "the protection of our coasts, our 'sea lines of communications' and the offshore development areas."

China's forceful stance in the South China Sea has stirred up tensions with Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, and Malaysia as well. A standoff this past April between a Philippine war ship and several Chinese surveillance ships at Scarborough Shoal is still on a low simmer.

China's more assertive posture in the region stems largely from the 1995-96 Taiwan Straits crisis that saw two U.S. carriers humiliate Beijing in its home waters. There was little serious danger of war during the crisis-China does not have the capability to invade Taiwan-but the Clinton Administration took the opportunity to demonstrate U.S. naval power. China's naval build-up dates from that incident.

The recent "pivot" by Obama administration toward Asia, including a military buildup on Wake and Guam and the deployment of 2,500 Marines in Australia, has heightened tensions in the region, and Beijing's heavy-handedness in the South China Sea has given Washington an opening to insert itself into the dispute.

China is prickly about its home waters-one can hardly blame it, given the history of the past 100 years-but there is no evidence that it is expansionist. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said in February "No country, including China, has claimed sovereignty over the entire South China Sea." Nor does Beijing seem eager to use military force. Beijing has drawn some lessons from its disastrous 1979 invasion of Vietnam.

On the other hand, Beijing is seriously concerned about who controls the region's seas, in part because some 80 percent of China's energy supplies pass through maritime choke points controlled by the U.S. and its allies.

The tensions in Asia are real, if not as sharp or deep as they have been portrayed in the U.S. media. China and India do, indeed, have border "problems," but China also describes New Delhi as "not competitors but partners," and has even offered an alliance to keep "foreign powers"-read the U.S. and NATO-from meddling in the region.

The real question is, can Asia embark on an arms race without increasing the growing gulf between rich and poor and the resulting political instability that is likely to follow in its wake? "Widening inequality threatens the sustainability of Asian growth," says Asian Development Bank economist Rhee. "A divided and unequal nation cannot prosper."

More than half a century ago former General and President Dwight Eisenhower noted that "Every gun that is made, every warship that is launched, every rocket fired signifies...a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed...this is not a way of life at is humanity hanging from an iron cross."

Americans have ignored Eisenhower's warning. Asian nations would do well to pay attention.

This article originally appeared in Dispatches from the Edge. Photo by Samuelraj - Professional Photographer // CC 2.0

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  • Conn Hallinan offers another one of his pro-China pieces now appearing on various progressive websites on the net. It's a good example of how people on the left view China and its associated issues through 40 year old Cold War glasses that cast the US as the root of all evil of the world, and don't seem to grasp the simple fact that just because US foreign policy is heinous does not mean that other nations are not heinous as well (and may well be even worse). As with his previous pieces, Hallinan also seems to have no access to Google and lives in a pro-Beijing fantasy world to boot. Sad.

    He begins by correctly deploring the arms race now quietly taking place in Asia, but resolutely refuses to assign the blame for it to Chinese expansionism. The whole piece is an artful pro-China construction, but this paragraph is a classic:

    "China is prickly about its home waters—one can hardly blame it, given the history of the past 100 years—but there is no evidence that it is expansionist. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said in February “No country, including China, has claimed sovereignty over the entire South China Sea.” Nor does Beijing seem eager to use military force. Beijing has drawn some lessons from its disastrous 1979 invasion of Vietnam."

    There is no need to review the dreary history of Chinese expansionism here. Suffice to say that the Tibetans or the Vietnamese or the Taiwanese or the Uyghurs would find the claim that "there is no evidence that it is expansionist" a bit incredible. Rather, I'd like to draw attention to the way, with the phrase "China's home waters" reconstructs international waters -- the South China Sea is mentioned in the previous paragraph! -- which no emperor of China ever claimed and to which Beijing's claims are entirely modern and post-WWI, as "China's home waters." Ugh.

    I also like the way that he piously repeats China's foreign minister's statement that no one claims the entire South China Sea without mentioning that China has, indeed, done just that through the infamous Cow's Tongue map. This is an exceptionally odious example of cherry picking. It would be easy to find 100s of belligerent statements from Chinese officials observing that the South China Sea is Chinese and the nations around it are "playing with fire." Naturally Hallinan throughout the piece presents only China's views; we never get to hear Taiwanese, Japanese, Malaysian, Indonesian, or Vietnamese voices.

    This construction of "China's home waters" appears above as well in this fulsome wave of historical and ideological sewage.....

    "China’s more assertive posture in the region stems largely from the 1995-96 Taiwan Straits crisis that saw two U.S. carriers humiliate Beijing in its home waters. There was little serious danger of war during the crisis—China does not have the capability to invade Taiwan—but the Clinton Administration took the opportunity to demonstrate U.S. naval power. China’s naval build-up dates from that incident."

    Yes, you read that correctly: Hallinan writes about the 1995-6 Straits Crisis without ever mentioning that it was caused by China firing missiles into the waters off Taiwan during and prior to a democratic election! Instead, Beijing is "humiliated" -- the victim! Let's quote Wiki:

    "Beijing intended to send a message to the Taiwanese electorate that voting for Lee Teng-hui in the 1996 presidential election meant war. A third set of PLA tests from March 8 to March 15 (just shortly preceding the March 23 election), sent missiles within 25 to 35 miles (just inside the ROC's territorial waters) off the ports of Keelung and Kaohsiung. Over 70 percent of commercial shipping passed through the targeted ports, which were disrupted by the proximity of the tests. Flights to Japan and trans-Pacific flights were prolonged by ten minutes because airplanes needed to detour away from the flight path. Ships traveling between Kaohsiung and Hong Kong had to take a two-hour detour."

    Omission of this vital fact suggests that Hallinan is either totally incompetent or a complete shill for Beijing. But let's look at his other claim, which says that China's "more assertive posture" and its military build up date from the missile test crisis in 1995-6. If you run a quick Google Search, you find a CRS report on China's naval modernization program. It observes in a footnote to the discussion on when the build-up began:

    "6 China ordered its first four Russian-made Kilo-class submarines in 1993, and its four Russian-made Sovremennyclass destroyers in 1996. China laid the keel on its first Song (Type 039) class submarine in 1991, its first Luhu (Type 052) class destroyer in 1990, its Luhai (Type 051B) class destroyer in 1996, and its first Jiangwei I (Type 053 H2G) class frigate in 1990.
    7 First-in-class ships whose keels were laid down in 1990 or 1991 (see previous footnote) likely reflect design work done in the latter 1980s."

    Anyone with any experience of China knows perfectly well it is a common tactic of Chinese apologists to treat Chinese expansionism as a defensive response to Western perfidy by pointing to incidents like this. China's military build up began long before Clinton decided to put US aircraft carriers into international waters (not "China's home waters") to support Taiwan during a democratic election. Once again, one is stuck with the choice that either Hallinan is Google-challenged or else he is shilling for Beijing.

    It is easy to rip a piece as incompetent and transparently pro-Beijing as this one, but on a deeper level, the widespread appearance of this piece on Left-oriented websites highlights the ongoing problems of (1) progressive neglect of Asia in general -- lefties can always find room for another 10,000 words for the Middle East but the continent of the future, the factory of the world, barely rates a mention in the Lefty web world; and (2) specific neglect of Taiwan and its democracy among progressives; and (3) deep misunderstandings and misrepresentations of China, especially treating it as exotic and exceptional.

    This kind of ignorance and neglect is doubly wrong: one on hand, it is totally discrediting since it is utterly at odds with reality; on the other, it leaves China policy to the Right. Progressives can't default the China issue to what they claim are a bunch of warmongers (let alone actually supporting Beijing as Hallinan does here) and then complain that US policy is warmongering -- that's painfully similar to liberal Christians who do not proselytize and then complain that all the new religious growth is among fundamentalists.

    Posted by Michael Turton, 05/26/2012 1:38am (3 years ago)

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