Several analysts this past weekend have discussed the possible emergence of a new “arms race” developing between the US and China. Unlike the nuclear and ballistic missile race that characterised US-Soviet relations during the Cold War, this race involves unmanned drones, the sinister aerial predators capable of wreaking untold damage courtesy of a technician controlling a joystick several thousand miles away.
Whilst China has made no secret of its drone programme, the scrambling of Japanese F-15 fighter jets to airspace over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands last week in anticipation of intercepting a Chinese drone raised alarm bells. Is China using its latest military hardware to further intimidate the Japanese in its territorial disputes?
The Cold War arms race was one of the tensest developments of the 20th century, as American and Soviet leaders rapidly built up their arsenals of nuclear weapons, intercontinental ballistic missiles and conventional high explosives in an escalating duel for global military supremacy.
Unlike America and China today, the US and Soviets were evenly matched in their technological developments and the vast stockpiling of such deadly weapons led many to fear nuclear annihilation. Whilst some analysts saw the arms race as an inexorable path towards conflict, others believed that an equality of arms helped stabilise the tenuous balance of power that existed between the world’s two superpowers.
Despite a lessening of tensions in the 1980s, it was only the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) 1, signed in 1991, and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union that brought the arms race to a close.
China has taken great strides in its military and technological development in recent years, fuelled by unprecedented economic growth and a hawkish military. Yet the fact remains that America is years ahead in terms of its military strength and capability. The Chinese may be able to produce drones that fly higher and are cheaper to manufacture but they do not possess the stealth capabilities and firepower of their American equivalents.
However, this is not to say that a “drone race” of sorts might not develop. The Department of Defense will soon be making significant cuts to the American defence budget, whilst Chinese military spending will only increase.
Other worrying permutations exist. It is believed that the Chinese have sought the advice of Iranian military officials, who have usurped technology from an American drone that crashed near their Afghan border two years ago. A burgeoning Sino-Iranian military relationship would certainly concern the US and its allies.
Furthermore, the development of drone technology is inextricably linked to the increasingly concerning issue of cyber warfare, in which the Chinese are equally as adept as their American counterparts. Cyber-espionage could lead the Chinese to obtaining further military secrets from the US and, with the country’s industrial capacity, allow them to build highly sophisticated drones at an alarming pace.
The American military pivot towards the Asia-Pacific is helped by the Japanese alliance. Despite constitutional restrictions, the Japanese Self-Defence Forces have an intimidating military capability and can aid the US in slowing Chinese power projection across the region.
What is not in doubt, however, is that the Chinese want military supremacy in their backyard. They have the financial power to begin to make strides against the ageing and ailing economies of Japan and the US and deliver China towards the superpower status so desperately craved by Mao Tse-Tung, something which the Chinese have not enjoyed in centuries.
If the race has yet to start, it soon will.