Magazine | Security | Southeast Asia

An Arms Race in Southeast Asia?

Yes, Southeast Asian states are bulking up their militaries – but that doesn’t necessarily translate to an arms race.

An Arms Race in Southeast Asia?
Credit: Antara Foto, Setpres – Krishadiyanto, Reuters

The South China Sea (SCS) tensions, which captured media attention before and right after the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) announced its award in the Philippine-filed lawsuit against China on July 12, have gone from a near boil to a slow simmer. Indeed, several moves had been made by various parties – both claimants and non-claimants – to de-escalate tensions following that fateful day.

It is likely no coincidence that the navy chiefs of both China and the United States had a discussion shortly after July 12, ostensibly to agree on ways to keep regional tensions under control. In this context, it is interesting to note that the U.S. Navy did not conduct any freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) to capitalize upon the PCA award and, except for more normal “routine patrols” in the SCS, has yet to conduct another. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China agreed on expediting the proposed Code of Conduct and set guidelines on a maritime hotline as well as implementing the code on unplanned encounters at sea (CUES) in the SCS. For its part, Manila dispatched former President Fidel Ramos to China for icebreaker talks, which helped defrost ties somewhat. The G20 Summit in Hangzhou in September added to the optimism that dire predictions about post-July 12 may not materialize after all.

But it is too early to say.

Amid these positive moves, underlying tensions remain. It is not clear, first of all, whether China will in fact embark on further provocative moves in the SCS. There are some possibilities being speculated – either an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) or island-building on the Scarborough Shoal or even both. Amid speculation that Beijing may start to build an artificial island on the shoal after the G20 Summit and before the U.S. presidential elections, Manila had made worrying revelations about having observed Chinese dredgers in the area.

It is with regard to this uncertain strategic context in the SCS that commentaries emerged – in fact preceding the July 12 award – that there is an ongoing arms race in the region. Before we delve into whether there is indeed an arms race, one may turn toward existing theories that could help better explain the regional arms processes.