A Panel Discussion: The Coming Asian Arms Race?

This morning, the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center of International Security hosted a discussion on the increased military budgets of Asian states and how the United States must react in this ever-more connected world. Barry Pavel, the Director of the Center, moderated the panel, which included Ely Ratner, Randall Schriver and Kurt Amend. Ratner, the Deputy Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, opened the discussion by warning about the limitations of looking exclusively at the defense budgets of Asian countries.

“Defense spending on its own tells us little about the regional security direction in Asia,” he said. “Diplomatic and political context is absolutely vital.” He added that it’s important to take into account the increasing connectivity of security issues in Asian states.

Schriver, the President of the Project 2049 Institute and a long-time promoter of US-Taiwan relations, stressed the importance of continued U.S. support to Taiwan, whose defense spending has decreased since 2007, in the face of continued military buildup by China. He called proposals to reduce arms sales with Taiwan “naive,” arguing that the sales act as a necessary deterrent to China and also have facilitated breakthroughs in the China-Taiwan relationship in the past. Like Ratner, Schriver emphasized that the context of China’s buildup in the face of Taiwanese disarmament is a vital consideration in planning U.S. policy in the region.

Yet, Schriver expressed skepticism that the Obama Administration is showing the same enthusiasm and committment for the rebalance of resources to the Asia-Pacific as it did in Obama’s first term.

“I’m hard-pressed to know who is the go-to position in Asia right now,” he said. It’s the first time in 20 years that Schriver said he couldn’t name a director or deputy in the U.S. government focused on Asia.

Ratner shared Schriver’s concerns.

The USS Freedom departed for the Asia-Pacific in the spring.

The USS Freedom departed for the Asia-Pacific in the spring.

“Going forward, it needs to be clear that high level officials in the State and Defense Departments are interested in the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) region,” he said. He agreed with Schriver that there was no need or potential for forming a multilateral alliance in the area, noting that it would be unfair and harmful to Asian nations to force them to choose between a regional security alliance with the United States and their economic dependence with China.

One concern that many officials have is that U.S. committment to supporting their allies in the ASEAN region will lead those countries to become more provocative towards China. Ratner said those worries were overblown and that the U.S.’s increased presence in the region has not led to increased hostility with China. For those reasons, it’s vital that the U.S. continue to show similar levels of support to its Asian allies.

“The more secure that countries in the region feel standing up to China, the more stable the region will be,” he said. “Weakness, not strength, invites instability.”

Instead, Schriver stressed the need for the United States to develop security mechanisms that the U.S. has confidence in.

“We need to have an infrastructure of confidence building measures that actually work in the case of a crisis or an accident,” he said.

The potential for a miscalculation that causes an international incident was a theme throughout the discussion. All three panelists agreed that such an accident was one of the biggest threats to regional stability. In particular, Ratner feared the potential of a maritime accident while Schriver lamented the risk of increased corruption within the Chinese military.

Nevertheless, the panelists agreed that the increased interconnectedness between Asian nations had just as much potential to end in diplomatic agreement as it does in military conflict. Ratner stressed this fact repeatedly, emphasizing that military cooperation on defense issues and space weaponization could increase stability in the region. In either case, the U.S. must stay committed to its allies and not let other international hot spots distract it from the region, Schriver said. “The variable that is mot important and where there is the most uncertainty is the United States.”

President Obama shouldn’t forget that.


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