A New Arms Race in the Pacific? China’s Challenge to US Predominance

Arms races, the competitive build-up of military might by two or more states, have littered history since time immemorial. From the era of the Homeric epics, through the Warring States period in China, and across Medieval Europe, states of comparative stature have frantically raised armies against one another and stockpiled weapons. The results in each case have invariably been war.

Yet it was not until the twentieth century that the true potential of an arms race became realised. As armaments became increasingly sophisticated, the chances of restricting an arms race to a small region were greatly diminished, regardless of what states were involved. One need only look at the two great arms races of the twentieth century. Firstly, the Anglo-German naval race at the beginning of the 1900s, accompanied as it was by large-scale militarisation. This phenomenon is widely regarded as one of the premier causes of the First World War amongst historians, and all are aware of the slaughter that engendered. Secondly, there was the Soviet-US arms race, in which both nations stockpiled weapons of mass destruction, thus threatening a global nuclear holocaust. Fortunately, containment and common sense prevailed to prevent that disastrous eventuality.

There are, of course, contrasting views on the endemic potential encompassed within an arms race. For many Realist scholars, particularly those of the Offensive school, an arms race is tantamount to a declaration of war, in that an increasingly militarised environment within a state will provoke actors into seeking relative gains at the expense of their rivals. Other Realists believe the outcome of an arms race is determined by the balance of power within which the militarising states operate. If that balance is strong, as it was during the Cold War, conflict is likely to be avoided. The alternative prospect is, naturally, far bleaker, as was the case in 1914. Neoliberal academics tend to take a more positive view, suggesting the increased interdependence of global economic markets make conflict an irrational option, and that state enmity is best diluted through international institutions. There are undoubtedly many other theoretical standpoints which could be considered.

Nevertheless, depending on which camp people place themselves in, if any at all, they are likely to have contrasting opinions on the potential of the latest arms race threatening to develop. That is, the Chinese challenge to US military predominance in the Pacific Ocean; more specifically, the South China Sea.

China’s Naval Modernisation

Each day, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the politically-influential Chinese armed forces, strengthen their capabilities. In particular, Chinese naval modernisation has progressed rapidly over the past few years, with most attention being given to the South Sea Fleet, which operates almost exclusively in the South China Sea.

The South China Sea, an enclosed segment of the Pacific Ocean that is surrounded by many of East Asia’s largest states, is a hotly-disputed area of maritime territory. China claims the whole Sea as its own, but counter-claims of varying degrees exist from Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.

These smaller states are not willing to forgo their claims easily, and China’s naval expansion can be seen as a deliberate move to strengthen the country’s power-projection capabilities into the disputed area.

So what is the importance of the sea? Besides containing some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, with huge volumes of goods transited to and from the world’s workshop in China, experts believe the Sea contains massive unexploited reserves of oil and natural gas. With continued Chinese economic growth increasingly reliant on expensive resource imports, having access to abundant energy reserves close to home would be a significant boost to the country’s development.

Consequently, the replacement of China’s archaic frigates and warships, the adding to the fleet of nuclear-powered submarines and, perhaps most significantly, the purchase and renovation of an old Soviet aircraft carrier, China’s first, have worried the region’s littoral states. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has tried to engage China in multilateral dialogue to resolve the dispute, yet the effectively toothless institution’s cautious approach to dissuade Chinese expansion is deemed insufficient by many. Therefore, in a desperate attempt to preserve their territorial sovereignty, the South China Sea claimants have sought support from the preeminent military power in the world; one that maintains a keen geostrategic interest in the Pacific: the USA.

China's first aircraft carrier - purchased from Ukraine

US Military Dominance in the Pacific

Since the conclusion of the Second World War, in which the US army fought a sustained and bloody battle with the forces of Imperial Japan, American military domination of the Pacific has remained un-toppled. Indeed, the region retains a great strategic importance to the US. Not only is the US bound by a mutual defence treaty to ensure the external security of Japan, which is forbidden a conventional standing army under its constitution, but it also has long-standing ties with South Korea, with whose assistance it seeks to securitise the Korean peninsula from the volatile northern state of Kim Jong-Il. Additionally, the US has a commitment to preserve the status quo in Taiwan, an island China deems as part of its territory, despite the existence of separate governments and bilateral ties. To that end, the US navy maintains a strong presence in the region.

The US Army keeps a commander naval force stationed in both Japan and South Korea, where thousands of American troops regularly take part in military exercises with their hosts, ready for potential action. Japan also gives shelter to the US Seventh Fleet, which counts amongst its inventory the USS George Washington, a nuclear-capable supercarrier able to support a large squadron of fighter jets. If that was not sufficient, the US has also pledged “to increase the maritime capacity of the Philippines” through training and logistical support, and has even conducted naval exercises with Vietnam, the country where the US suffered its greatest humiliation just forty years ago.

This increasing of US security ties in East Asia over the past few years is more than a benevolent effort on the Americans’ part. It is, of course, part of a larger geo-political game, in which the ultimate goal of the US is to stifle the growing influence of China. By concluding friendly defence arrangements with the other claimants in the South China Sea dispute, as well as maintaining traditional ties with South Korea and Japan, the US can restrict China’s expansion by strengthening states that would be powerless to stop the Chinese individually. Does this militarisation of an outwardly-peaceful region threaten to provoke a new arms race in the Pacific?

A new arms race?

At the present time, an arms race does not exist in the Pacific, nor is it likely to in the immediate future. Chinese naval modernisation is progressing at a ferocious pace, yet the PLA is still far weaker, both in terms of military technological expertise and power-projection capabilities, than US forces in the region. For a true arms race to emerge, opposing forces must be fairly matched in terms of their military prowess. In such circumstances rate of production is the key, as each side tries to accumulate more of a particular weapon or weapons than its counterpart. This phenomenon was evident with the Anglo-German race to produce dreadnoughts pre-WWI, and the US-Soviet effort to manufacture more nuclear warheads than each other throughout the Cold War.

Such a situation does not exist between China and the US. However, that is not to say that it is impossible in the future. With great mistrust and competition existing between the two nations, direct opposition in terms of military capacity will always be a potential outcome. When taking into account China’s relentless development and economic expansion, coupled with a United States that will soon be forced to make significant budget cuts to alleviate its painful debt, the balance of power in the Pacific may yet alter. Nobody knows what effect budget reductions, forced or otherwise, will have on the US armed forces. It is probable, however, that the US will have to scale back its global presence. With over 60,000 forces stationed in East Asia, the Pacific region is an obvious target for cutbacks. If an event such as this occurred, and China continues its military advancement, an arms race would become a greater likelihood, particularly in terms of nuclear-capable submarines and aircraft carriers, for instance.

This, of course, remains a big if. For now, the US is showing no signs of diluting its presence in the Pacific, eager as it is to stave off the threat of an increasingly-powerful China. In the last month, President Barack Obama has pledged to send two-thousand marines to be stationed in Darwin, Australia, a state on the periphery of the Pacific hotspot, yet undoubtedly also keen to hedge its bets against Chinese expansion. In what seems a quite unnecessary move, this latest decision to send troops to the region looks to be a repetition of the American tactic to provide military support to as many states surrounding China as possible, thus isolating the Red Dragon in case of a crisis. Obama’s equally brazen claim that the Asia-Pacific region is a “top priority” to the US, despite the ongoing war in Afghanistan and American interest in the Middle East, is further warning that China is seen as a severe threat to the US in the Pacific.

Such rhetoric and actions as Obama’s often lay the groundwork for increased militarisation, particularly when nationalist tensions are running high. The PLA is notoriously hawkish in its foreign policy ideals and such bluster from foreign politicians, who the Chinese generals believe have little stake in “their” region, is unlikely to sooth sentiments. One need only think of Admiral von Tirpitz’s fierce calls for an expanded German navy at the beginning of the twentieth century to see the influence rhetoric can have on military planning. With agitators of a similar vein evident amongst the PLA, a new sphere of accelerated militarisation looks highly probable.

Will an arms race evolve?

An arms race in any region significantly increases the potential for war; that is a given. Before, many International Relations theorists believed such a phenomenon between powerful states made conflict inevitable. The Cold War damaged that idea. Nevertheless, everyone will agree that an arms race, and the increasingly militarised climate it naturally engenders, is highly undesirable.

Fortunately, we are some way off that stage in the Pacific; yet complacency at this point would be folly. The manoeuvring of the US in the region over the past few years, concluding agreements with a number of regional states that neighbour China, both under the Bush and Obama administration, highlights American fears. Politicians and military leaders in the US are concerned about China’s “rise”, and the potential decline in influence of their country on the global stage. Whilst Chinese military expertise remains inferior to that of the US, the trajectory of both countries’ developments threatens to close that gap in the coming decade. In such a situation, with nationalist rhetoric on both sides, and a shared mistrust in bilateral relations, an arms race would become a greater possibility.

It is perhaps therefore unsurprising that the US is embarking on a policy similar to George Kennan’s famous “containment” plan of the Cold War, albeit on a regional rather than global scale. By fostering alliances and shared goals with nervous East Asian states, whose leaders fear being undermined by an expansionist and powerful China, the US can both help alleviate the spread of pro-Chinese sentiment and simultaneously emplace a contingency plan in case of military engagement in the region.

This in itself is a dangerous precedent. If the US continues to increase its presence in the Pacific, despite potential budget cuts, it raises the chances of a trigger event occurring, which could bring conflict with China. As the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand showed in 1914, an isolated event, relatively unconnected with inter-state relations, can set in motion dire consequences within a highly militarised climate. Whilst the Asia-Pacific has not reached that stage, potential trigger-points exist: an act of nationalist aggression against Taiwan; unilateral attacks conducted by US or Chinese patrol boats; harassment of oil companies in the region. Any of these events, which could occur without political authorisation, could precipitate conflict between the world’s two greatest powers. Without open and well-meaning dialogue between China and the US, and the persisting trajectories of regional competition and military expansion, the unthinkable could happen. Just look at history.