Embrace the Arms Race in Asia

December 10, 2021
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There is a lot of concern that the rapid build-up in Asia of Chinese and American military power will make war more likely, and that such a war between nuclear-armed powers will be hugely destructive. In this view, arms races are wasteful tragedies that unfold when adversaries fail to negotiate security at a cheaper level of expenditures. Warnings about arms races are also used by concerned anti-war groups, and by China as part of its public diplomacy campaign. For example, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesmen Zhao Lijian warned that “the US, the UK and Australia’s cooperation in nuclear submarines severely damages regional peace and stability, intensifies the arms race.”

But arms races do not cause war. Every case of war that followed an arms build-up was the consequence of the weakness of the attacked party. Any caution by the United States and its allies in equipping for war will reduce deterrence, and will set the circumstances for whether there is a decision to go to war in Beijing. It will tempt Beijing with the prospect of a successful fait accompli attack against Taiwan and its outlying islands of Kinmen, Wuqiu, Matsu, Pratas, Itu Aba, and Penghu.

The popular idea of an arms race is that two adversarial countries are in a confrontational build-up of weapons and soldiers, the accumulation of which worsens tensions, produces misunderstandings, and leads to war, either because of an accident, or because of a desperate bid by one side to seize the initiative and attack because of an unpredictably closing window of opportunity. The notion of an armaments competition goes back to the 1859–1861 Anglo-French naval war scares, during which French technical expertise temporarily surpassed the English in the construction of ocean-going ironclad battleships. The term “arms race” is a British journalistic expression, possibly first used in 1921, of the competitive Anglo-German ship-building spree starting in 1898.

The naval arms race in Northeast Asia most commonly involves comparing total ship numbers in the People’s Liberation Army-Navy and the U.S. Navy. With this crude indicator, China’s naval fleet is expected to rise from 355 in 2021, to 460 by 2030, as compared with 297 ships currently in the U.S. Navy. However, in naval warfare on the open seas, counting platforms capable of launching anti-ship missiles and amphibious ships provide a better comparison of naval power. Although, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Military Balance, China has only increased its fleet from 138 to 145 major combat vessels since 2005, of these, fully 49 submarines and 68 surface ships were newly built after 2005. China has a further 179 coastal combatants (55 Type-056, 60 Type-022, 24 Type 037) with 840 deck missile types that may play a role along the Taiwanese littoral and the Filipino island of Luzon. Limited sensors, air defense, and storm worthiness makes these of limited use in open waters. In contrast, the U.S. fleet has declined by 12 vessels to 213 major naval combatants since 2005, excluding aircraft carriers. China is also expected to surpass the United States in numbers of submarines. According to the Defense Department’s latest report on China’s military power, if Beijing maintains the same rate and proportion of shipbuilding, then by 2030, it will possess 187 major surface combatants, and 70 attack submarines. The U.S. Navy maintains a major advantage, however, in the number of missile tubes. It currently possesses 9,044 vertical launch tubes (though not all are filled), as compared with China’s 1,696, a critical measure of a fleet’s firepower. These launch systems are a marked improvement over turrets, because their elimination of reload delays, enables a higher response rate against a saturation attack of anti-ship missiles.

However, in a fight to establish sea control and blockades in the oceans, aircraft carriers will predominate because of their unsurpassed scouting range, and because the quantity of aircraft-dropped ordnance dramatically outnumbers ship-launched anti-ship missiles, at ranges of up to several hundred nautical miles. And here, the United States has a clear advantage: If we include amphibious ships capable of carrying the F-35, the U.S. Navy has a critical lead in aircraft carriers over China (20 versus, soon to be 3, by 2024), although — troublingly — the United States is still having difficulty making the political choices necessary to focus military resources on the Indo-Pacific.

True, U.S. aircraft carriers would be vulnerable if Chinese submarines, maritime patrol aircraft, and satellites were to be overcome its anti-scouting techniques. But this speaks to the importance of the U.S. effort to keep up with China’s arms build-up. Further, it’s often noted that China has a large detection network of maritime militia and 16,000 fishing vessels. If the next war follows the practices of World War II, these non-combatants will lose their legal protections afforded by the 1907 Hague Convention, and will not be able to remain at sea. Japan, anticipating the vulnerability of its commercial fleets, recalled them from the Atlantic on July 2, 1941. During the war, the U.S. blockade targeted Japanese vessels as small as 25 tons, inflicting 70,000 casualties on Japan’s merchant marines. The 130 P-8A/I Poseidon platform used by the United States and its allies in Asia, may be equipped for cost-effective blockade enforcement. Furthermore, given China’s precarious food security situation, a naval blockade of China’s food imports may be a significant deterrent.

Measuring the precise extent of an arms race and the balance of forces becomes more complicated as we consider the disposition of third-party navies in more distant seas. Although the Chinese fleet is concentrated in the Northeast Pacific, opposite a U.S. fleet dispersed across the world’s oceans, China must also contend with the significant allied fleets of Japan, Taiwan, and Australia, comprising 73, 30, and 17 major surface combatants, respectively. They also total 1,372 missile launch tubes, almost the same number as China. India is predisposed to policing the maritime lanes across the Indian Ocean but has been drawn in to extensive military-related discussions through the auspices of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (known as the Quad) and its ever-closer relationship with the United States. The manner in which Russia would use its fleet is the big wildcard.

It is often feared that arms races are the cause of war among great powers, because arms barons and war profiteers influence foreign policy, as first elaborated by John Hobson in his 1902 book, Imperialism, an influential work for Vladimir Lenin and subsequent Marxist theorists. However, as naval and strategic historian Bernard Brodie pointed out, Hobson later repudiated his whole argument as unsophisticated. The United States certainly has significant forensic and legislative experience in exercising scrutiny over its arms providers. Furthermore, a direct comparison of expenditures with China is misleading because 38 percent of the $690 billion U.S. defense budget is dedicated to salaries and benefits, and at least 10 percent of that budget is dedicated to strategic transportation. Whereas militaries in the developing world typically spend ten percent or less on salaries, China’s personnel spending reported to the United Nations is an average of approximately 30 percent, which raises issues about comparability.

There is an influential and parallel academic debate that pits proponents of the spiral model, who assert that arms race dynamics do indeed increase the likelihood of war, against the deterrence perspective argued here. The spiral model is grounded in the mechanism of a security dilemma, in which preparations for defense are misinterpreted as preparations for war, and the independent variable of tension, in which rising mutual hostility increases the likelihood of war. The weaknesses of the spiral model are that it is dependent on difficult-to-measure psychological factors, and relies on mathematical models that tend to be detached from reality. World War I is often raised by spiral theorists as the archetype of pre-war tensions unintentionally escalating disputes to war. This interpretation is largely the result of bias within political science of looking for unintentional mechanisms of war associated with nuclear deterrence, whereas among military historians, there is a consensus that the culprit was German militarism. The 1914 July Crisis that preceded it was subsequently used as a model for the risk of escalation to nuclear conflict during the Cold War, and influenced key decision-makers. For example, President John F. Kennedy had read Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August just before the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

However, more recent historiography has reached a consensus and found that the 1914 July Crisis was deliberately exploited by Germany to manipulatively mobilize Austria-Hungary. The best new treatment of the case is by Dale Copeland, who demonstrates that states exploit closing windows of opportunity, rather than slipping into war unintentionally. In contrast, those who think arms races are dangerous, predict that the easy availability of weapons, or presence of large arsenals themselves, stokes war-causing tensions. The starkest counter-evidence of this is the paradoxical absence of Pakistani-Iranian security competition, despite their significant arsenals, comfortable use of force by both regimes, and aggressive assertion of their respective spheres of influence. In fact, Tehran and Islamabad strategically ignore each other.

In contrast, deterrence approaches have much better evidence. Since the 1940s, academics and think-tanks have explored such counter-intuitive nuclear weapons concepts as perfect stability, missile defense instability, tacit bargaining, protecting allies, and the impact of proliferation on war. Research programs using the Militarized Interstate Dispute dataset from the Correlates of War project, and the International Crisis Behavior Project, culminated in the rational deterrence debate at the end of the 1980s. The result was also a rich collection of case studies. Good predictive models of deterrence remain elusive because of the rarity of deterrence failure, and differing risk orientations of leaders (which explains why weaker powers sometimes attack stronger powers). It is also difficult to estimate state power and credibility, not least because states always have an incentive to misrepresent their strength.

Arms races are therefore not the cause of the war, but both the arms race and the war are the result of the common prior cause of a political disagreement. If you focus closely enough on either the trigger for a conflict, or its underlying cause, you will find, instead, deterrence failure: Where leaders deliberately sought to use force, either successfully, or unsuccessfully because they under-estimated the strength of their adversary. Arms races heighten the fears of war two ways: First, state leaders become anxious about running out of resources to maintain their defense, and second, they become concerned about foregoing closing windows of opportunity for action, that may never recur.

But the arms race itself is simply the emergent property of the strategic interaction of two states engaged in a military build-up for either defensive or offensive reasons. Here, I examine the alleged effects of arms races by addressing three commonly held beliefs about their link to wars. First, that arms races cause war by triggering unintended accidents. Second, that weapons have an independent influence on policy. Third, that arsenals play a major role in decisions for war.

First, wars resulting from unintended technical accidents, have never occurred in history. The Chinese march into Tibet in 1949, intervention in Korea in 1950, assault on India in the Aksai China in October 1962, attack on the Vietnamese in the Paracel Islands in 1974, punitive operation against Vietnam in 1979, were all surprises, but none were unintended. All of these engagements and campaigns were faithful to Carl von Clausewitz’s dictum of war being an instrument of policy. The 1969 Sino-Soviet border conflict may have been unintended, but this was the result of a fragmented Beijing regime during the Cultural Revolution.

A conceivable accident scenario is of a confused encounter between Chinese and U.S. vessels in restricted waters in the South China Sea, and local flotilla commanders escalate the clash into a major naval exchange of anti-ship missiles. It is certainly a worthwhile concern in the realm of nuclear weapons, since a misfired rocket, a weather event, or 99 balloons, triggering a false radar alert, may  lead a to a missile launch that triggers a retaliatory nuclear strike. A colleague of mine recounted how during a British training exercise in Cold War West Germany during the 1970s, his mobile missile unit fired an Honest John rocket having forgotten to detach the trailer, and watched in horror as the trailer was propelled into the sky over the German countryside.

Rather, war can be caused by accidents interpreted as taking risks: When we drive to the bakery to buy bread before it closes, we don’t intend to have a road accident, but we risk it. Decision-makers may trigger, or take advantage of crises, by threatening to escalate violence in order to compel an adversary to back down. This brinkmanship crisis is what happened between the United States and Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, crises are more psychological than tangible. The United States compelled the Soviet Union to back-down by forcing on Moscow the last best decision to avoid war, specifically to turn their merchant fleet around before hitting the U.S. blockade. The equivalent of this is playing chicken, in which two teenagers each drive a car towards the other to compel the other off a narrow road, and one of them throws the steering wheel out the window, empowering themselves by surrendering the ability to deescalate. Consequently, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev could just as easily have shifted the decision to avoid war onto President John F. Kennedy, by sailing through the blockade, and forcing Washington to face the difficult decision of firing the first shot. Why Khrushchev blinked and folded is still being debated. The arms race, or its absence, did not cause the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Cuban Missile Crisis happened when Washington challenged a Kremlin policy initiative in the Caribbean.

Second, although the influence of weapons on decisions for war is complicated and difficult to trace through the policy process, their effect is typically instrumental to achieving a political objective. Weapons were merely a facilitative influence in World War II: The fascist regimes pursued war once their arms buildup gave them a sufficient superiority over their neighbors. However, the more typical dynamic is that countries become entangled in repeated crises with adversaries that transform their governments’ composition. If the regimes are preponderately non-military, these disputes fall into the arena of international lawyers, because war is recognized to be much costlier than negotiation. However, crises teach fatal lessons to cost-unconscious politicians. Each crisis lost educates leaders to be less compromising, and each crisis won vindicates coercion: In both paths, cabinet decision-making is militarized by the increasing incorporation of military advisers. It was a series of crises in North Africa, the Balkans, and Europe in the decade before World War I thatz systematically militarized the European diplomatic system, and that turned the July 1914 assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, into a costly war.

Third, weapons are rarely a cause of war because, except with regard to nuclear weapons, countries can obtain more power from alliances than they can from their own armaments industry. It is commonly thought that Israel attacked Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in June 1967 because of an overwhelming first strike advantage of its air force. However, repeated votes in the Israeli cabinet denied the military demand for a first strike during the pre-war crisis, despite the high costs to Israel’s air force if it was attacked first. It was only after President Lyndon B. Johnson reversed his threat to sanction Israel if Tel Aviv attacked first, that the civilian members of the Israeli cabinet finally voted for war. The problem was that in 1956, in conjunction with its Anglo-French allies, Israel handily defeated the Egyptian army, but was then humiliatingly compelled by the Eisenhower administration to withdraw from the Sinai.

China’s intervention in Korea in 1950 (with approval and support from Moscow), India’s invasion of East Pakistan in 1971 (following an international diplomatic campaign by Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi), Egypt’s attack on Israel in 1973 (targeting the desire of the United States to exclude Soviet influence in the Middle East), and Iraq’s attack on Iran in 1980 (with Gulf Arab and U.S. approval), were all underpinned by solid diplomatic strategies taking primacy over concerns of relative power. In circumstances where diplomatic strategies were poorly conceived by the war initiator, such as Argentina’s 1982 amphibious landing on the Falklands, and the 2009 Georgian-Russian conflict, decisions were not influenced by anything more than the availability of some minimum sufficient arsenal. Countries do go to war because they perceive their own long-term decline, as Germany and the Ottoman Empire did vis-à-vis Russia in 1914 and 1915, or as Pakistan did in 1965 against India, but these decisions were also not influenced by weapons, as much as by the anticipated underlying power that enabled weapons manufacture.

My Chinese students in the strategic studies classes I teach often argue that Washington is maneuvering to trick Beijing into starting a war that will then leave it diplomatically isolated against the international community. This is  called a justification-of-war crisis. This is commonly but falsely believed to be the strategy used by the United States to attack Spain in 1898 (the Main Affair), Germany in 1917 (the Zimmerman Telegram), Japan in 1941 (that President Franklin Roosevelt anticipated the Pearl Harbor air attack), North Vietnam in 1965 (the Gulf of Tonkin incident), Grenada in 1983 (the vulnerable medical students), Iran in 1988 (the shooting down of an Iranian airliner), Iraq in 1991 (Secretary of State James Baker’s ultimatum to Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz), and Serbia in 1999 (the allegedly Serbian mortar attack on a market).

The Reagan arms build-up of the 1980s may not have directly ended the Cold War or liberated the Warsaw Pact countries from their puppet regimes, but it kept the confrontation with the Soviet Union from turning hot. It also bought precious time for the Russians to resolve the contradictions in their political development, significantly reducing the subsequent level of hostility. The consequences of the faltering attempts to deter Nazi expansionism are a far more vivid reminder of the costs of military unpreparedness than is the stylized and unsupported assertion that World War I was caused by arms race tensions.

China will predictably stoke concerns about arms races, while avoiding any arms control constraints on their own military build-up. If China closes the gap on, for example, the number of ocean-going platforms, or submarines, or total missile tubes, or achieves a sufficient concentration in sea denial systems, such as sea mines or anti-ship ballistic missiles, then Beijing will view war as an attractive option. The likelihood of war will be reduced dramatically, therefore, if the United States and its democratic allies commit to the procurement of a sustainably robust defense.



Julian Spencer-Churchill, Ph.D., is associate professor of international relations at Concordia University, author of Militarization and War (2007), and of Strategic Nuclear Sharing (2014), and former operations officer, 3 Field Engineer Regiment. He has published extensively on Pakistan, where he conducted fieldwork for over 10 years.

Image: U.S. Navy (Photo by Mass Communication Spc. 3rd Class Ethan Jaymes Morrow)