February 1, 2016 7:00 am JST
James Stavridis

Defense transparency and collaboration will help Asia avoid war

We are at the start of a dangerous arms race in Asia as nations in the region respond to rising and more assertive military power in China and growing instability on the Korea Peninsula. And the American "Pacific pivot" is failing to gain traction in the face of crises in Syria, threats from the Islamic State group, and ongoing tension with Russia over Ukraine.

     China (which has the world's second largest defense budget) is on track to double its military spending by 2020. The Chinese are buying and building large aircraft carriers and are rapidly improving their offensive cyber capability.

     Other Asian nations are responding. Japan has not only increased its defense budget but also passed legislation that will allow for offensive Japanese military action to defend allies under attack. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and virtually every other nation in the region are increasing defense spending. On average, East Asian nations are spending at least 5% a year more on defense. And we should remember that the U.S. and Russia, the first and third largest defense spenders in the world (and the two largest arms exporters), are also Pacific powers.

     At the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, we saw less public strain between Asian leaders than in the past. But two years ago at Davos, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe described the Chinese-Japanese relationship as reminiscent of the antagonism between Great Britain and Imperial Germany on the cusp of World War I -- hardly a reassuring thought. Since then, the two leaders -- Prime Minister Abe and President Xi -- have appeared together at several events and there seems to be less overt tension. But from conversations with senior military and political leaders over the past few months, it is clear that there remains significant competition and indeed the potential for conflict.

     Several nations involved in territorial disputes with China are moving closer to the U.S.. These include Japan, the Philippines, Australia and Vietnam. The completion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which does not include China) will further align the signatories with the U.S..

     On the Chinese side, in addition to a rapidly increasing defense budget, the construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea coupled with continued claims of essentially sovereign control over most of the South China Sea (an area roughly the size of Europe) have other Asian nations rattled. Chinese actions over the contested Senkaku islands, known in China as the Diaoyu, that are in significant dispute between China and Japan are also alarming, as is the political rhetoric out of Beijing on both Taiwan and Hong Kong.

     Then there is the "North Korean problem." The North Koreans are armed with a small arsenal of nuclear weapons; led by an inexperienced, unstable, emotional, and medically challenged dictator; possessing technologically advanced ballistic missiles; and in a virtual state of war with their closest neighbor, South Korea.

     India has historically stood apart from East Asian politics, reasoning that it has enormous internal challenges. But increasingly we are seeing India under dynamic Prime Minister Narendra Modi engaging in increased military and security cooperation with the U.S. and Japan, including the recently completed Malabar exercise.

Serious discrepancy

It appears unlikely that there will be any significant reduction in tensions or in defense spending over the next decade. What should the international community be doing to help create stability?

     First, at the tactical level, the nations in the region should encourage military-to-military direct contact. This can lead to defined protocols to minimize the chances of accidental ship and aircraft collisions, misunderstandings that escalate into shooting incidents, and even prevention of cyber attacks on military command and control systems, which are particularly dangerous. Such military-to-military contact can be done bilaterally between the military staffs or organized in parallel to regional conferences.

     When such regional gatherings do occur -- for example the Association of Southeast Asia Nations annual convocation -- having high level and candid political conversations about security can create a higher level of confidence. Alongside such governmental conferences, so-called "track two" events like the Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore are excellent venues for the exchange of views.

     Third, finding ways for the militaries in the region to collaborate operationally, especially at sea, is important. This can be in simple maritime exercises that focus on noncombat operations -- medical diplomacy, disaster relief, and humanitarian operations. It can also include quasi-military training or operations together for events upon which the nations do agree -- piracy, for example, or humanitarian evacuations from a disaster zone.

     Fourth, the use of international negotiating platforms to resolve territorial disputes. Putting such disagreements before international bodies like the International Court of Justice in the Hague, another mutually agreed United Nations body, a third-party government, or even an agreed upon binding arbitrator should be considered.

     Fifth, a simple but significant improvement would be more transparency in defense spending. Several nations, notably China, have a serious discrepancy between their announced spending and their true aggregate spending as measured by independent observers. Even the U.S. tends to obscure intelligence spending. This creates suspicion. Letting everyone know about the precise level of defense spending can at least create a more realistic and serious conversation.

     Overall, the arms race in East Asia is simply a reflection of the geopolitical tensions that will remain high in the region for the foreseeable future. While there are ways to reduce such tensions, they are unlikely to diminish as this turbulent 21st century unfolds: Buckle up.

Admiral Stavridis served as the 16th supreme allied commander of NATO and is today dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Massachusetts. He sailed and commanded multiple ships in the Pacific throughout his career.

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