Countering China risks adding fuel to the Indo-Pacific arms race

ANALYSIS: An accelerated arms race in the Indo-Pacific is almost guaranteed now that China finds itself the target of new security deals, Aukus and the Quad, aimed at containing its power and influence.

This has the makings of a big new game in the region where rival powers are no longer pretending that things can go on as they are.

US President Joe Biden heads to the Quad Summit with, from left to right, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, in the East Room of the White House.

Evan Vucci / AP

US President Joe Biden heads to the Quad Summit with, from left to right, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, in the East Room of the White House.

The Aukus deal, involving Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom to counter China’s rise to power, means that a balance of military power in the Indo-Pacific will become sharper.

The region has rearmed at a faster rate than other parts of the world, thanks in large part to China’s efforts to modernize its defense capabilities.

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In their latest surveys, the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) report no decline in military spending in the Indo-Pacific. This despite the pandemic.

SIPRI notes a 47% increase in defense spending in the Indo-Pacific over the past decade, led by China and India.

In this September 21 photo, US President Joe Biden meets Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the Intercontinental Barclay Hotel during the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

Evan Vucci / AP

In this September 21 photo, US President Joe Biden meets Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the Intercontinental Barclay Hotel during the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

China can be expected to respond to threats posed by the new security agreements by further accelerating its military program.

He will see Aukus’ training as yet another attempt to contain his ambitions – and therefore a challenge to his military capabilities.

The Quad shows its ambitions

Unambiguously, Aukus involves a policy of containment.

Likewise, the further elevation of the Quad Security Group in a Chinese containment front will play into an atmosphere of heightened security anxiety in the Indo-Pacific.

The four Quad participants, the United States, Japan, India and Australia, have their own reasons and agendas for wanting to push back against China.

After their summit last week in Washington, Quad leaders used words in their joint statement that in isolation could be viewed as non-exceptional.

With other developments such as Aukus, however, the language has been pointed out, to say the least:

Together, we recommit ourselves to promoting a free, open and rules-based order, anchored in international law and fearless through coercion, to strengthen security in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.

The “beyond” part of the statement was not developed, but could be read as a commitment to expand the Quad collaboration globally.

The Quad Summit with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

Evan Vucci / AP

The Quad Summit with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

All of this came to fruition at the dawn of a new US administration whose members include several prominent Chinese hawks, and at a time when China has shown itself to be ever ready to pull its weight.

Beijing’s crass campaign against Australian exports in an effort to bend Australia’s policy to its will is a prime example. It is unlikely that an invigorated Aukus or Quad would have emerged without this development.

The Obama administration has talked about pivoting to Asia-Pacific without putting a lot of meat on the bones.

Under President Joe Biden, this change will be driven by a hardening of American thinking which now recognizes that time is running out, and perhaps already expired, in the ability of the United States to curb China’s rise to power.

These are deep geopolitical moments whose trajectory is impossible to predict.

Australia fully commits to China containment

Canberra is now a full member of a Chinese containment front, whether she wants to admit it or not.

In the process, it ceded its sovereignty to the United States by engaging in an interlocking web of military procurement decisions that includes the acquisition of a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines.

Whether these submarines are supplied by the United States or Great Britain is a little immaterial since the technology involved originates from America.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks at the Quad Summit.

Evan Vucci / AP

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks at the Quad Summit.

The submarines will not be available for nearly two decades according to the most optimistic forecasts. However, in the meantime, Australia could base American or British submarines in its ports or hire American submarines.

Meanwhile, Australia is engaging in a range of US-supplied equipment aimed at improving its military’s interoperability with the United States.

This is the reality of the fateful decisions taken by the Morrison government in recent months. Such a commitment implies a certain level of confidence that America remains a predictable and unwavering superpower, and not torn by internal strife.

Australian defense spending set to increase

What is absolutely certain in all of this is that an Indo-Pacific security environment will now become more, not less, controversial.

SIPRI notes that in 2020, military spending in Asia totaled $ 528 billion, of which 62% was attributable to China and India.

The IISS has identified Japan and Australia, in particular, as countries that are increasing their defense spending to accommodate China. Tokyo, for example, is forecasting record spending of $ 50 billion for 2022-2023.

Australia’s defense spending exceeds 2% of GDP in 2021-2022 at A $ 44.6 billion, with plans for further increases in forecast estimates.

However, these projections will now have to be reworked in view of the commitments that have been made in the framework of Aukus.

The likely cost of Australia’s new defense spending as part of a “China containment policy” has been overlooked in the wave of enthusiasm that accompanied Aukus’ announcement. It is difficult to see these commitments materialize without a significant increase in defense allocations to 3-4 percent of GDP.

This comes at a time when budgets will already be stretched due to relief spending due to the pandemic.

In addition to existing weapon acquisitions, Canberra has indicated that it will increase its purchases of longer-range weapons. This includes Tomahawk cruise missiles for its warships and anti-ship missiles for its fighter jets.

At the same time, it will work with the United States under the Aukus deal to develop hypersonic missiles that would test even the most sophisticated defense systems.

What other Indo-Pacific countries are doing

Many other Indo-Pacific states can now be expected to revisit their military procurement programs with the likelihood of a more combative security environment.

Taiwan, for example, proposes to spend $ 8.69 billion (AU $ 11.9 billion) over the next five years on long-range missiles and to increase its cruise missile inventory. It is also expanding its arsenal of heavy artillery.

South Korea is actively strengthening its missile capabilities. This includes testing a ballistic missile launched by a submarine.

Seoul has also hinted that it might consider building its own nuclear-powered submarines (this was part of President Moon Jae-in’s election promises in 2017). Signs that North Korea may have developed a submarine capable of firing ballistic missiles will focus attention in Seoul.

All of this indicates how quickly the Indo-Pacific’s strategic environment is changing.

Australia, perhaps more than others, is a prime example of a regional actor who has set aside a conventional view of a changing region. He now sees such a threatening environment that a policy of strategic ambiguity between his guardian partner (the United States) and the most important trading relationship (China) has been abandoned.

The price tag for this in terms of equipment and the likely economic benefits for Australian exporters will not be cheap.

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