Arms races, naval or otherwise, get a bad rap. They are usually regarded as the military expression and consequence of the existing state of international relations, but they can also develop a momentum of their own, wasting money, exacerbating already tense relations between states and threatening to destabilize whole regions. Instead of reflecting policy as Clausewitz reminds us the military should do, arms racers determine it. All too often, moreover, they seem to make conflict more likely.
In the Asia-Pacific region many media outlets and pundits fear that a naval arms race is indeed developing and lament its possible consequences. It is not hard to see why— Whether it is Malaysia’s Scorpene submarines, Vietnam’s Kilos, India’s unprecedented naval building program or China’s new carrier the Liaoning and its carrier-killing ballistic missiles, naval modernization across the region is producing, if not always an overall increase in numbers, then at least substantially more impressive offensive and defensive naval capabilities.
And all of this is coinciding with, or even produced by, rising maritime tensions in the East and South China Seas. There are more narrowly focused tensions too, with analysts especially debating the dismayingly competition between China’s “counter-intervention” strategies and capabilities, and the U.S.Air-Sea Battle construct. Vietnam’s Kilos can also be seen as a more modest version of an anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) strategy. These examples all suggest a worsening competition between “offensive” and “defensive”capabilities.
But is all this really developing into a naval arms race similar in style (and potentially effect) to the Dreadnought race that took place between Britain and Germany before the First World War – and even if it is, how serious might its consequences in the Asia-Pacific Region actually be?
While the answer to this question partly depends partly on how one defines a naval arms race, there are some major differences between pre-war Europe and the situation now. Most obviously—and with some exceptions like China, Singapore, and India— Asian countries today are devoting a far smaller proportion of their national treasure to defense than did Britain, Germany and the other countries of pre-war Europe. In general, naval armaments are making much slower technical advances than was the case a century ago, with acquisition programs around the area being more incremental, deliberate, and less determined by transformational technology. It is hard to think of a modern equivalent, for example, of HMS Invincible, brand spanking new and revolutionary when commissioned in 1909 but obsolescent when sunk at the Battle of Jutland seven years later in 1916.
Compared to then, technological transformation now is much steadier, and the importance of maintaining an edge over rivals more debatable, given the rise of asymmetric technological/political/legal alternatives and strategies. Crucially, few national leaders, diplomats, or even sailors talk in arms race terms, and they certainly do not justify their efforts by the need to “get ahead.” On the contrary policymakers make every effort to avoid publically naming possible adversaries that they need to build against.