Beijing might not like it, but its growing military power has sparked a new arms race in Asia, a development that could have devastating effects if cool heads do not prevail.
Try as it might to convince its neighbors and the international community that its “rise” is peaceful, the emergence of a new regional power that threatens to shake up the “status quo” inevitably creates diplomatic tensions. The fact that, for the first time in decades, a regional power could compete for influence with the US, whose navy has played a stabilizing role in the region since World War II, is creating a new paradigm that, in turn, is forcing the region to prepare for the unknown, if not the worst.
Natural fears of the unknown notwithstanding, Beijing has also exacerbated apprehensions with occasional rhetoric on its territorial claims in the South China Sea and to islets in the East China Sea — not to mention Taiwan. Making matters worse is the continued lack of transparency regarding the actual budget for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which has led to wild speculation as to the actual figures. Just this week, research group IHS Jane’s was claiming that China’s military budget could double from its current level to US$238.2 billion by 2015.
Whether that figure is on the mark or inflated, as some China watchers have already said, is of little consequence as it reflects the sense of unease that is descending upon the region.
Amid all this, the US announced earlier this year that it was “returning” to Asia, a clear sign that China is now regarded as a strategic priority by Washington. This move is also indicative of a realization by officials in the administration of US President Barack Obama that an absent US in the Asia-Pacific region could lead to even larger weapons stockpiles. Rather than see such a scenario become reality, Washington has had little choice but to strengthen its security guarantees to allies in the region.
Despite those signals from the US, countries in Asia are uncertain as to the lasting power of Washington’s renewed commitment. As a result, Vietnam has embarked on an unprecedented naval modernization program, while the Philippines is mulling arms acquisitions and defense partnerships with other Asian countries, most notably South Korea.
If this continues, the region will see more frigates, attack boats, submarines and military aircraft navigating the skies and the seas, increasing the risk of accidents, heightening tensions and ensuring greater devastation should the budding cold war turn hot.
Perhaps even more significantly, Japan earlier this week said it would revise longstanding regulations barring the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) from engaging in non-peaceful activity. With the removal of that clause, JAXA will be able to engage in work related to national defense — which can only lead to one outcome: The militarization of outer space, which, despite the best intentions, the UN General Assembly will likely be unable to prevent.
China has already taken a regional lead in that aspect and, denials aside, there is little reason to doubt that some of the devices in its satellite constellations are serving military purposes. In 2007, the PLA also demonstrated the ability to shoot down satellites in outer space, a breakthrough that evidently alarmed the US and other regional powers.
All of this is probably inevitable, as a modernizing China with growing economic clout and budding global ambitions will naturally modernize its military. What this means for all of us is that the period of relative calm in the region — the Korean and Vietnam wars aside — since the end of World War II might be over. More than ever, the onus will be on state leaders, elected or otherwise, and diplomats to ensure that the region continues to prosper. However, judging by previous cases of emerging powers and their impact on the international order, guarded optimism is probably the best one can summon.
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