Arms Race: 21st Century Style


Professor Till’s recent article on the potential for an arms race in East Asia made me think about how we traditionally conceive of an “arms race,” in what ways modern arms races might diverge from that definition, and what behavior we might see that could look like an arms race but that’s not motivated by traditional arms race logic.  Appreciating the logic of arms racing may help us identify when such races are happening, and what effects they can have.

Till identifies the most famous examples of arms races; the U.S.-UK-Germany dreadnought race of the 1910s, and the U.S.-Soviet nuclear delivery system race in the Cold War. The traditional logic of the arms race is bound up in the security dilemma; what makes one state more secure makes its adversaries less secure. Even defensive measures such as a wall (or a missile defense system) can render potential foes insecure by neutralizing their offensive deterrent.

In large part because of the examples of the World War I naval spring and the Cold War nuclear buildup, we’re primed to expect symmetrical arms races, where one side purchases some number of X system, the other side attempts to build X+1, and hijinks ensue.  Perhaps more commonly, differences in national interest and national capability produce asymmetrical races, in which the competitors try to counter each other through dissimilar means (air defense systems vs. bombers, for example). These races are potentially less destabilizing than symmetrical races, although much depends on the geopolitical context.

Of course, asymmetric arms races make arms control more difficult, in part because the sides have difficulty agreeing on the relative merit of weapon systems.  A dreadnought is a dreadnought and an ICBM is an ICBM, but what combination of submarines and DF-21s makes for an aircraft carrier? To the extent that the public pays attention to arms races (and its attention surely waxes and wanes), it seems to focus on numeric comparisons; do we have more battleships than the Germans, or more bombers than the Russians? Then again, few have seriously proposed arms control as a solution to the East Asian-maybe-an-arms-race.

It’s worth mentioning that some incentive for expending national treasure on arms comes from motives that have little to do with international security. Advanced weapons can buy influence abroad and prestige at home. Political leaders often relish the opportunity  to toss some money at key contractors and constituents, and defense spending can act as (clumsy) stimulus in uncertain economic climates.  Even if China’s growth slows, there is no guarantee that Chinese military spending will slow.

Given all this, one final possibility is that an arms race could, inadvertently, have salutary global effects.  If states build ships for prestige as much as for security, and if they build more because their neighbors build more, and if (as the Cooperative Strategy suggests) maritime power can be understood in positive sum terms, then naval arms races could make management of the global commons easier. The next maritime catastrophe of similar magnitude to the 2004 tsunami will, in all likelihood, witness the co-participation of Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Australian, and New Zealander amphibious ships in relief and rescue operations. If this happens, the people in jeopardy probably won’t worry too much about the wicked dynamics of the security dilemma.

March 9, 2013 at 01:58

You're probably right about the US's intention which is accepted by the majority of the world. As for the moment, china wants to challenge US's position but has nothing to stand for it.  Also, judging by the way china has been behaving in the SCS and ECS, we need the US more than ever.

March 9, 2013 at 01:52

So, it is OK for such goliath to bully and invade smaller nations?

Kim's Uncle
March 9, 2013 at 01:29

I don’t think the belligerent CCP led country will last beyond 15 years ! If china had a more representative and civilized government, then there not be an arms race in Asia.

John Chan
March 8, 2013 at 23:31

@American Patriot,

There is no difference between strategy nukes and tactical nukes, nuke is nuke, once a nuke is used the

Armageddon of humanity is drawn; American will be villain to the extinct of human species even themselves get wiped out in the process.

Remember USA has less than 10 cities with populations over 1 million, while China has hundreds. USA will never survive at the end of your proposal.

March 8, 2013 at 23:08

300 million country trying to contain the rise of a 1.3 billion country? It is really possible? u.S should wise up and end their futile policies against China.

Kuan Yu
March 8, 2013 at 16:54

China is bigger than the US. Never again should such a goliath be invaded, threatened and bullied with impunity by such players.  

March 8, 2013 at 10:37

Whatever arguements put up by the writer cannot deny the fact that US intends to be the sole superpower forever. It may seems that China may not be able to challenge this position in the future but if just look back three years ago China's military strength is not expected to be what it is today. Western critics and forecasts always seem to be off-target, probably purposely.  

Obama Can Be No. 1
March 8, 2013 at 06:38

Who is the fear monger creating all that demand for US's weapons of war? Yep, the US' weapons and munitions manufacturing corporations' No. 1 salesman  - Mr Barrack Hussein Obama.  Of course that is to be expected.  Afterall they hired him to work for them ever since they funded his campaign and guided his career.  Who  says US's democracy is good and to be lauded?  it is corrupt, and that word has lost its meaning the US of A.

American Patriot
March 8, 2013 at 01:43

What we need to do is increase deterrence within the region. This means we need a large amount of tactical nukes in south korea and japan. We also need to station all of our nuclear subs with second strike capabilities in the south and east china seas.


If we turn Asia into the largest powder keg the world has ever seen, it will make the Chinese think twice about its arms buildup and stop it from trying to take over the first and second island chains. So we need another arms race, but it must be more about nukes rather than conventional means.

March 7, 2013 at 14:27

China should concentrate on building up its naval and air forces and decrease its land forces. U.S doesn't care about PLA's land forces, but if China builds 12 aircraft carrier groups and more long range bombers and nuclear subs, U.S will take chinese military more seriously.

China's current level of military spending is too low. It should be increased.

March 7, 2013 at 12:56

China will keep spending on military upgrading to ensure that she can defend herself successfully against US hostilities.  The history of the last 200 years, not the CCP, is the driving force of Chinese military spending.

talking points
March 7, 2013 at 01:55

Correction. China's defense will stabilze between 1.6% to 1.8% of GDP

talking points
March 7, 2013 at 01:33

Mr. Farley, true, there is no guarantee China will slow down its defense spending even its economy slows.

But judging from wording out of China's congress meeting, it will slow down. the language said: the defense spending it transitioning from compensatory increase to normal increase.

That means it views past increases as making up in nature. it will now stablize around 1.5% of GDP.

I personally feel not happy about this. I prefer it stops at 2.5%.

If the arms race occurs in east Asia, you could see each country spends up to 4-5% of GDP. China + Japan + Korea GDP will soon past US GDP, which means the combined defense spending of these three countries is more than US. this could happen in next 10 or 20 years.

Now you see the dire consequences of Hillary's knee jerk pivot. it enboldend Japanese right, increased insecurity of China, and it might relegate US to be a secondary power in asia pacific.

Because of US's global commitments, it will be even more inadequate for it to police Asia Pacific.

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