Asia's arms race – look whose interest is being served

Jhinuk Chowdhury
Jhinuk Chowdhury is a former journalist based in India and is currently working as an independent writer. She has worked as a business correspondent for the leading Indian daily – The Times of India – covering human resources, IT, jobs and careers. You can follow her on Twitter @jhinuk28.
People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers shout as they hold guns and practise in a drill in Beijing (Reuters / Petar Kujundzic)
As mutual distrust drives the growing military buildup in the Asia-Pacific region, bigger powers like the US will use this regional competition to settle scores with its most formidable Asian irritants - North Korea and China.

While worldwide defense expenditure continues toslide, Asia and Oceania are increasing their defense outlay.According to Strategic Defence Intelligence (SDI), the Asia-Pacific region is set to be the largest military market, especially in fighter jets, with a market share of more than 33 percent by 2025.

China, India, South Korea and Australia will lead the list of biggest spenders. The signs are visible already. India is busy working out the finer details of its recently concluded deal with France for supply of 36 Rafale fighter jets. China's military resurgence has picked up greater momentum with a 10 percent hike in its defense budget worth almost $145 billion.

Treading not too far behind are South Korea that ramped up spending by 7 percent between 2016 and 2020. Australia significantly increasing its defense budget to 2 percent of GDP within a decade.

Apart from refurbishing depleting military assets, the increasing mutual distrust in the region is driving these countries to bolster their military buildup.

In the Northeast Asian bloc North Korea's nuclear audacity continues to haunt South Korea. Recently China released a report about Pyongyang's capability to manufacture nuclear material and weapons.

As per the estimate North Korea – which has conducted three nuclear tests since 2006 - may already possess 20 warheads with capacity to generate additional weapons-grade fissile material.

In South and Southeast Asian bloc, China continues to display its temerity. The latest of its overtures are reports of Beijing building a floating island in the South China Sea which could be used formilitary purposes.

The official statement mentioned that China’s activities are mainly for civilian purposes, but also are intended to serve “necessary military defense requirements.”

Countries in dispute with Beijing in the South China Sea region, such as the Philippines and Vietnam, immediately pressed the panic button by agreeing to conduct joint naval exercises.

Further in South Asia, India remains wary of the incessant arming of its arch rival Pakistan which overtly states “deterring” India as the reason for its arms buildup. Islamabad has expressed its desire to acquire short-range tactical nuclear weapons that could directly target New Delhi.

Beijing's ever deepening defense ties with Pakistan further worries India. Recently China promised to supply Pakistan with 110 latest JF-17 Thunder fighter jets.

However, none of the blocs can face their opponents on their own: Seoul can’t confront North Korea without support, India or the smaller Southeast Asian nations can’t challenge China.

Bigger powers like the US are taking advantage of this weakness of its allies and partners - who have the desire but lack the capability - to confront two of Washington’s most formidable irritants in Asia – China and North Korea.

A Vietnamese naval soldier (Reuters / Quang Le)

So coinciding the military buildup in Asia the US has launched its next phase of Asia rebalance. This phase will focus on strengthening defense ties in the region. The US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter talks about an unprecedented increase in military presence with new stealth fighters, new stealth bombers, and several new ship classes.

To counter Pyongyang Washington will assist South Korea in its military preparedness. For Beijing the US seems to be creating a defense network surrounding China with countries like Vietnam in Southeast Asia, and India in South Asia.

The US perceives the activities of North Korea - banned from conducting nuclear tests by UN resolutions – as ‘provocative’. During Secretary Ashton’s recent visit to South Korea, Pyongyang fired two short-range missiles off its western coast. Beijing directly confronts the image of American might through its defense buildup believed to have been designed to target American forces and limit their ability to operate near the Chinese mainland.

The “anti-access, area-denial” (A2/AD) weapons,for instance can wipe out American forces from China’s innermost defense zone: the so-called “First Island Chain” consisting of the Kuril Islands, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and Borneo. Its first fifth-generation fighter, the J-20 – yet to enter service, is believed to have the potential to target American support aircraft or attack American ships and bases in the Asia-Pacific.

Assisting in Seoul's arms build up

South Korea is at the center of Washington's efforts towards reinforcing deterrence and improving capabilities on the Korean Peninsula to defuse any attack from North Korea.

Perhaps the most publicized step from Washington here is the offering of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. With THAAD Seoul can potentially counter any North Korean preemptive attack within minutes.

Additionally Seoul will also be involved in a trilateral partnership with Japan and the US for building a “first-of-its-kind information-sharing arrangement.” It will assist to collectively deter and respond to crises.

The trio released a joint statement - "Trilateral Information Sharing Arrangement Concerning the Nuclear and Missile Threats Posed by North Korea." It stated that the three countries will continue working-level consultations for effective implementation of the arrangement for sharing information on North Korean nuclear and missile threats.

Reuters / Erik De Castro

Lining up enemies' enemies

To counter China, Washington is building up a geographically distributed network of partners and deepening defense relationship with them.

For instance in Southeast Asia it is militarily equipping countries like Vietnam. US recently offered the country its guided missile destroyer and a littoral combat ship to engage with Vietnamese Navy vessels. On the same lines deeper partnerships are being forged with Singapore.

The US plans to enter into agreement with Japan and Australia to shift Marines from a concentrated presence on Okinawa to Australia, Hawaii, Guam, and mainland Japan. The maritime forces will rotate between the Philippines and Australia. This ensures continuing of the US military presence in Australia – one of the players in the Indian Ocean region (IOR) – another theater China is expanding rapidly.

A very important partner for Washington is India, which also commands considerable influence in the IOR.

India wants the role of a net security provider of the region. Washington has always supported this aspiration as India’s rise will also create a counter balance to China.

Many US analysts suggest joint development, between New Delhi and Washington, of India's next-generation aircraft carrier. The US should offer India its latest technology to help increase the Indian Navy's combat power. It should also offer access to various advanced aviation systems for airborne early warning and battle management.

However the region is getting further realigned. On the one hand, ardent US allies like South Korea and Australia are increasingly boosting relationship with China. Australia has expressed its support for Beijing led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). For Seoul Beijing is one of the biggest trading partners. Now Beijing doesn't want Seoul to accept the Pentagon’s THAAD offer. The Chinese perceive it as a threat to their military strategy, primarily to the artillery Beijing built up targeting the US.

So these US allies are constantly trying to devise a balancing act between the US and China.

At the same time China too has been trying to soften its postures towards India. Beijing wants to leverage New Delhi’s goodwill in South Asia and IOR to further its inroads in the region. In India too foreign policy analysts advise aligning deeper with Beijing and be a beneficiary to economic initiatives like the AIIB or 'One belt, one road' policy.

So it is this new reality that the US has to take into account to be able to make any dent in its long aspired Asia rebalance dream.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.