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Definition of Arms Race

Is there an arms race among Asian states or whether it is simply a matter of arms modernization ?

The Asian countries are involved in an intense arms race which includes modernisation of their defence forces. The term arms race can be defined as competitions between countries to produce superior weapons, strengthen their defence forces and military technology. The term apparently is restricted to strengthening of military power but in reality it has its roots in various international factors like globalisation and complex political relationships between nations. The main Asian countries involved in the current arms race are India, China, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and North Korea. The non-Asian nation which is involved in the arm race in Asia actively is the United States because it shares the Pacific Ocean with all these countries except India. However, the arms race involves all the major countries in the world due to the interdependence between countries. The essay would explore the arms race in Asia, its causes and impacts mainly, on the countries involved and the world in general.

The first major cause for the arms race is economic growth in countries experience which allows them to acquire weapons[1]. Countries acquire more weapons to show their growing economic power using weapons as status symbols. Growing military might often acts a powerful tool to increase the trust and support of the residents of countries in the ruling parties. The governments often acquire weapons from countries like France and Israel to build up their political bases to triumph over the opposition parties in the elections. This fact is evident from the growing economic power of China and India and their even fast growing arms race. The GDP trend of India has already showing an upward trend which means the country has more resources to acquire arms (Appendix 1)[2]. The GDP trend of China is also showing an upward trend which means that the country is also in the position of acquiring more arms (Appendix 2)[3]. One can also point out that the GDP of India is also expected to surpass that of China in the coming years. This means that there is going to be a stiff competition between these two countries to steer up their respective gross domestic products.  The governments of both these countries are pushing their diplomatic relationships to boost their GDPs and attract maximum foreign companies and investments. The present Prime Minister of India has visited countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany and Russia, all of whom the PM wanted to support and strengthen India’s economic and political development[4]. India on her part has received delegates from Israel, Russia and several other countries which she considers as allies or rather wants as allies[5]. While the political parties supporting the government view these bilateral visits while the opposition refute these visits as useless expenditures. The oppositions opine that the money used in these visits can instead be channelized towards development of the millions of people living in poverty. Beijing just like New Delhi has elevated its bilateral visits to foreign countries[6]. China receives foreign delegates from other countries to strengthen its diplomatic ties. For example, Mr Donald Trump, the present President of the United States of America visited the country in November 2017[7]. It is worth noting that India and China share many of their foreign allies and are in fact both allies and competitors.

Asian Countries Involved in Arms Race


The second factors which are often held responsible for the India- China cluster arms race are their bilateral trade relations and common border sharing. The two countries share resources and markets. India exports ores, slag, ash, cotton, organic chemicals, mineral fuels and copper and articles. China in return exports electrical items, machinery parts, organic chemicals, plastics, ships and boats[8]. India is dependent on China for cheap goods which millions of people living in the country below poverty use. China on the other hand is dependent on India for the huge consumer market it gets. The Indian market provides Chinese economy the boost it requires to counteract the restrictions which Europe and the United States of America places on its goods. India on the other hand provides the European and American multinational companies to use its market without any preference for China[9]. This strategic economic relationship which India has with the west often creates stress on China. The two countries share borders running for 3380 km which makes dispute over claims of bordering areas inevitable, thus intensifying the Indo-China arms race[10].  India and China locked horns in 1962 in which China defeated India. China refutes that regions like Jammu and Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh belongs to it. The bilateral relationship between the two neighbours and emerging global giants have been tainted with periodical face-offs. These face-offs have necessitated the two countries to beef up their arms and ammunition reserves. A classic example of one such stand-off which advertised the arms race between the two neighbours was the Doklam Stand-off[11].  The Chinese Troops started building an existing road in Doklam, an area in Tibet claimed by both India and China. The Indian troops prevented their Chinese counterparts from further advancing with the road construction. India viewed this action of China as a threat to her own security and sovereignty. The stand-off resulted in the other alliance nations of both the sides expressing their concerns regarding the situation. The United States of America, one of the close alliances of both the nations advised Beijing and New Delhi to solve the dispute through dialogue[12]. Japan openly threw her weight behind India in order to secure more business deals in the country. Tokyo also wanted to put Beijing under pressure to gain advantage in the second arm cluster in Asia namely, Asia-Pacific arms race between the US, China, Korea and itself[13].  Thus, as far as the Indo-Chinese cluster arms race is concerned, one can infer that sharing of borders and bilateral relationships can result in arms race between countries, especially when both of them are economic giants.

Causes of Arms Race in Asia


The second arms race cluster consists of some of biggest economic and military giants in the world consisting of the United States of America, China, Japan and North Korea. There are several factors which have led to the arms race in the region, some of which are related to the Indo-China cluster arms race. The first factor which has come to the forefront of this arms race is the increasing might and feeling of insecurity among these nations. All these countries are situated along the Pacific Ocean and have been involved in historical battles (Appendix 4)[14]. For example, the World War II saw China, Japan, Korea and the US locking horns. These historical wars created a sense of insecurity which persists even today to a certain extent and encourage the governments of these countries to acquire arms. China pours huge resources to strengthen its army and navy which raise concern among the Australia and Japan. These countries in order to defeat the Chinese naval might, acquire submarines, a battle strategy in which China is weak[15]. North Korea on November 29, 2017 test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile which it boasts is powerful enough to hit any part of the United States. This boasting of North Korea did not go down well with the Trump government and it has sought help from Russia at the Security Council meet of the United Nations.  This action of North Korea triggered the US, Japan and South Korea to hold missile tracking drills to counteract the aggressive action of North Korea. The United States government has increased political pressure on North Korea to curb its growing military might[16]. The Trump government has also put political pressure on Beijing and Tokyo to increase pressure on North Korea, which according to experts would lead to more aggression from the latter.


The next factor which is responsible for the Asia-Pacific Arms Race is the competition for resources and the Pacific waterway, particularly the South China Sea. Japan, China and Korea share the eastern coasts of the Pacific Ocean while the United States of America lies on its western coasts[17]. According to the World Bank, the South China Sea holds seven billion barrels of oil and nine hundred trillion cubic feet of natural gas. This resource is of tremendous importance to China’s growing economy. The National Energy Administration of China to take advantage of these resources coined the area as its main offshore energy drilling site.  A Chinese company began drilling the area for oil and gas which drew concern of Vietnam. These tensions between China and Vietnam over the resources drew the attention of China’s contender in its first arms race cluster-India. This is because the leading Indian petroleum company, Oil and Natural Gas Commission had partnered with its Vietnamese counterpart, PetroVietnam to drill oil in the disputed area[18].  The South China Sea is a part of the Pacific Ocean which is connected to the Indian Ocean, an area of tremendous business importance[19]. The Malacca Strait and the other prominent gate ways carry huge freight of oil and chemicals. The route carries half of the annual freights in the world and maritime traffic. Japan, Taiwan and China receives major share of their crude oil imports which makes this route strategically important for these countries. Thus, China’s claim of sole ownership over the  South China Sea has drawn resentment from these countries which in turn has led to the arms race between them to acquire arms to face any battle in future over this controversial area[20]. One can point out that China is also in similar dispute over borders with India which urged Japan to support the later in Doklam Stand-off.  One can point out from the discussion of the arms race among the second cluster have two main reasons, increasing military might and sharing of resources. The third factor is sharing of common territorial borders which is one of the reason of the Indo-China arms race. The fourth reason is sharing of commercially important trade routes and disputes over newly discovered reserves of oil and gas[21]. 

Impact of Arms Race on Countries Involved and the World

The third arms race cluster consists of the South East Asian countries namely, Indonesia, Cambodia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. One can also describe this arms race in Southeast Asia as an extension of the arms race in the second cluster. The first reason for the arms race among these nations is the increasing claim of China over the South China Sea. The second factor is rooted in this claim of China over the water body. The countries of Indonesia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Cambodia also share the South China Sea with China and as a result, they felt that their sovereignty is challenged. Thus, this feeling of feeling of insecurity encouraged them to embark on modernisation and piling of weapons[22]. There are two indirect reasons of for this stock piling of arms and increasing tension in the South East Asian cluster. The first indirect reason for this arms race is that nations making weapons are viewing this as an opportunity to sell their arms and as a result are backing these nations. The second indirect reason for the arms race is interference of nations like India whose trade interests are at stake due to growing power of China in South East Asia[23].

There are two models on which study the arms race stands namely, external causes or models of rational behaviour and internal causes or models of suboptimal behaviour. The arm race models of rational behaviour say that nations build up arms when they feel threatened by the neighbouring nations. The arms build up by Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia and other South East Asian fall under this category. These countries are building up their arms to counteract the growing military might of China and its growing claims over the South China Sea[24]. The arms race among the first cluster, India and China belong to the same category. India is strengthening her military might to protect her territories from China as evident in the Doklam standoff[25]. The model suboptimal behaviour states that nations enter into arms race due to not only external factors but also internal factors. The internal factors which encourage countries to build up their arms consist o political influences, institutionalisation of military and complex relationship between army and ammunition industry[26]. One can point that arms build up by a country to modernise its military may be viewed as a threat by another country encouraging similar arms build up in it. For example, strengthening of modernisation of the Indian army may be viewed as a threat by Pakistan, thus forcing it to seek help from China, India’s contender in the arms race[27]. One can point that India has emerged as the largest buyer of arms besides having a vast reserve of powerful indigenous arsenal. Thus, the reasons arms race is complex and cannot be explained directly. Most of the arm races are outcomes of factors which are often interrelated, making the settlement of the disputes more difficult and complex[28].

Players in the Arms Race


One can conclude that though arms race between nations like India and China or the one between the east Asian countries have complex reasons and are characterised by modernisation of the all the three defence wings namely, army, navy and air force. It is very difficult to differentiate between arms modernisation and arms race. Countries like India and China are experiencing economic boom, thus have more disposable incomes. They modernise their armies, naval forces and air forces to advertise their growing might both economically and technology. They often take up these modernisations to prove their might before the western powers. It helps them to attract these countries to enter into trade relationships and counter-terrorist practices. Modernisation of defence forces help governments to boost of the trust and support of their citizens. This support is strategically significant for the ruling parties to win in elections. Thus, modernisation of arms and ammunitions has both external and internal implications. The countries often enter into defence drills to show their growing might and expertise. These drills are often designed to illustrate growing military might to warn other nations, especially more powerful nations. These modernisations turn into arms race when countries feel threatened by the modernisation of their powerful neighbouring countries. For example, Pakistan and China feel threatened by the modernisation of Indian military. The trigger point that can turn this modernisation into a war is a faulty decision by any country indirectly or directly involves in arms race and modernization attacks any other country. Such a step from any country would have devastating outcome. For example, if China attacks Japan, to get total domination in the South China Sea region, this would attract similar military actions from the countries of South East Asia like Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand. India may also attack China since this would allow the country to put its modern arms and ammunitions to use. This would also allow India to support both Japan and Vietnam with whom she has significant projects. Pakistan which supposedly has healthy relationship with China may attack India. The European nations and the USA which has business interests with India and China may support either side. This shows that a single possible trigger point from any of these nations may turn into a war involving at least three continents. This war may then evolve into the World War III and involve nuclear battle as well. One can conclude that arms race may result into future wars if not checked and settled strategically between governments of the countries involved. It is capable of causing death of millions and misery to trillions of people. The war would give a death blow to the global economy and destroy resources worth trillions. It is always recommended that powerful nations should resort to settling differences through dialogues. They should channelize their resources towards economic development and not only towards their arsenals.

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