An East Asian Arms Race: Does It Even Matter?
Image Credit: Dan via

An East Asian Arms Race: Does It Even Matter?


It is difficult to say whether there is an ongoing arms race in East Asia. Some take it as a given that China and the United States are engaged in an arms race, and that the U.S. is losing. Others argue that China’s increased defense spending will lead the rest of the region to follow suit, or that China’s development of MIRVed nuclear missiles will spark a regional nuclear arms race. Still others note that most of the region’s defense budgets were at 25 year lows as a percentage of GDP in 2014 while China’s defense spending continues to increase.

Whatever the case may be, most observers treat the concept of an arms race in Asia as self-evidently negative. But is that truly the case? Must an arms race have negative consequences for regional security and stability? Historical evidence and logic say no. Arms races do not lead inevitably to conflict.

There are two fundamental requirements before states enter into wars: capability and intent. The first comprises military forces, economic wherewithal, and demographic factors, among other components. It is the means of war, money and guns. The second is the desire to embark upon war. It consists of a grievance, opportunity, or other cause de guerre, and the belief that war is the only, or even just the best, option available to achieve the desired outcome.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

An arms race involves only the capability side of the equation. Looking at the historical record demonstrates that the relationship between arms races and eventual war is not cause and effect. The classic case is the Anglo-German naval buildup before the First World War. The two countries did indeed rapidly expand their navies, and in the end they did go to war, but there was no obvious intention for war between the two countries. Circumstances outside their control, separate from the arms race – a rigid alliance structure, sudden assassination, and widely-held belief in the social virtues of armed conflict – led Europe to war.

Another interesting example is the interwar naval arms treaties involving the United States, United Kingdom, and Japan. Those countries actively limited their naval construction programs in the belief that naval armaments had been a factor in the rush to war in 1914 and correspondingly that preventing any change in the naval balance would relieve pressure. In the end, the treaties were broken by the Japanese because they were intent on imperial expansion and the three powers went to war.

The final classic example is the nuclear arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States. In this case, a rapid arms buildup from the 1950s onward, spurred by such mistaken beliefs as the “Missile Gap” on the US side, did not result in war between the two states. As early as the 1960s, both sides had the ability to quite literally eliminate the other from the face of the Earth with their nuclear arsenals, but that did not change the situation. Neither side had any intention of engaging in either a nuclear or massive conventional war with the other. From these three examples it is clear that a simple argument that arms races lead to war is incorrect.

The more interesting question when pondering arms races involves a potential adversary’s intentions. In the context of an East Asian arms race, what are Chinese intentions? If we look at the historical record it does not seem that China’s expanding military will necessarily be used for aggressive campaigns. China last went to war in 1979, fighting a brief conflict with Vietnam in response to that country’s invasion of Cambodia the year before. Before that, it fought a short border war with India in 1962 after repeated border clashes as it sought to consolidate its control over Tibet. Earlier, in 1950, China went to war against the United Nations on the side of North Korea after Douglas MacArthur led his troops all the way to the Yalu River. If you take Beijing’s point of view, its wars have been defensive, to protect its interests and allies against aggression. That is, of course, what every nation that has ever gone to war believes, but from the outside China’s historical record is not obviously aggressive.

China does have a recent history of aggressive rhetoric about Taiwan and islands in the East and South China Seas, though. Taken at face value, this would indicate that expanded Chinese military capabilities will be used offensively. However, talk is cheap whereas war is not, and rhetoric is just as often used to mask intentions as display them. Aggressive public statements are an easy way to placate nationalist sentiment at home and apply diplomatic pressure abroad. I do not have any doubt that China desires both de facto and de jure control over Taiwan, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and the various islands and reefs of the South China Sea, but it is more likely that China will continue its current “salami-slicing” diplomatic tactics than it will use its expanding military to engage in campaigns to seize the islands. China currently has the capability to seize these territories (Taiwan possibly excepted), even if it couldn’t defend them against recapture, and so continued restraint speaks volumes to Chinese intent. While we fret about the PLA Navy’s newest frigate and latest stealth fighter, China will slowly use diplomatic maneuvering to achieve its ends well below the threshold of open war.

Of course, intentions are slippery and can change drastically without warning. That is why military capability is so often discussed. You can count and analyze tanks with some degree of certainty that tomorrow they won’t suddenly become submarines. Capability, however, is not a substitute for intent and it does not do to study one without the other. Whether an arms race is occurring in Asia or not, it should be remembered that war is not caused by weapons, but by people. China’s defense spending continues to increase, and its neighbors’ budgets may follow suit, but this does not change anything fundamental about the region’s international relations. Keeping the capability/intent framework in mind allows you to see past the bluster about rising defense budgets and expanding capabilities and focus on what really matters: who wants what, and are they willing to fight for it.

Ian Sundstrom is a surface warfare officer in the United States Navy and holds a master’s degree in war studies from King’s College London. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of the United States Department of Defense.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief