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Sunday 20 Aug 2017 | 19:55 | SYDNEY
Sunday 20 Aug 2017 | 19:55 | SYDNEY

Let's have an Asian Peace Research Institute



12 December 2008 13:02

Sam Bateman is a Senior Fellow with the Maritime Security Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd caused a stir when he suggested an arms race was emerging in Asia. Some commentators and regional leaders were quick to deny the existence of any arms race, arguing that increased defence spending was about military modernisation and lacked a competitive element.

But regional defence budgets are growing in line with fast rates of economic growth. The implications of this trend beg for more attention. This is where an Asian Peace Research Institute (APRI), based broadly on the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), would help. SIPRI is a highly regarded and independent international institute for research into problems of peace and conflict. An APRI would help develop regional views on key issues, including preventive diplomacy in potential areas of conflict and confidence and security and building measures.

Regional Defence Spending

According to the Defence Economic Trends in the Asia-Pacific report issued by Australia’s Defence Intelligence Organisation (relied upon by Kevin Rudd in his Asian 'arms race' claim), over the five years from 2002 to 2007, China’s defence budget grew by a massive 14.3% in real terms per annum; South Korea’s by 7.9 per cent; India’s by 6.7 per cent; and ASEAN’s by 4.6 per cent. In contrast, Japan’s defence spending showed little growth.

In ASEAN, the Philippines’ defence budget fell during the period and Myanmar’s remained roughly steady. If those two countries are removed from the equation, then the annual growth rate in ASEAN defence spending during the five years was 6.9%, with Indonesia leading the way with an annual growth rate of 12.5% in real terms.

In arguing against an arms race in Asia, some commentators point out that in many countries, the defence budget as a percentage of GDP or government spending is showing little change – or in some cases, even a decrease. However, this is just a manifestation of what might be called the first law of defence spending – defence budgets grow at roughly the same rate as the national economy. China enjoyed a high rate of economic growth over the five years from 2002 until 2007 – as did its defence budget, albeit at a faster rate. China’s defence spending during the period increased from 1.2% of GDP in 2002 (7.5% of government spending) to 1.5% of GDP in 2007 (11.4% of government spending).

Problems of Increased Defence Spending

Increased regional defence spending should be of serious concern. Defence spending diverts resources from important programmes for economic development, social improvement and poverty alleviation. It also creates an environment of increased military activity that is potentially destabilising, with greater numbers of aircraft, warships, submarines and armoured vehicles. The maritime environment is of particular concern, with more ships, submarines and maritime aircraft operating in relatively confined regional waters, some areas of which include sovereignty disputes and unresolved maritime boundaries. Increased military activity at sea increase the risks of an unfortunate incident between naval forces.

Increased defence spending is also a possible manifestation of the classical 'security dilemma'. Country A increases its defence spending and acquires particular capabilities in response to Country B’s new defence acquisitions, but then Country B feels it has to respond to what Country A has done, and so defence budgets spiral upwards. For instance, despite India’s domestic difficulties, India’s justification for increased defence spending, certainly for its naval spending, is mainly based on assessments of China’s larger defence budget and alleged intentions in the Indian Ocean.

The Need for Research

During the first wave of widespread regional economic growth and defence budget increases in the 1990s, considerable research was conducted into the implications of larger regional defence spending. The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) deliberated on these issues and explored measures for preventive diplomacy and confidence-building, including greater transparency with defence budgets and policies. However, after the economic downturn of the late 1990s and the return to higher rates of economic growth and defence spending in the early 2000s, we have not seen the same level of interest in the potential implications of increased defence spending.

To some extent, this is explained by the way in which some research institutes have 'sold out' to defence industry. An institute that receives sponsorship from an arms-producing company is unlikely to conduct research that could lead to lower defence budgets. The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and its Shangri-la Dialogue, conducted annually in Singapore, is an example. The Dialogue is billed as the pre-eminent forum that addresses regional defence and security issues. However, it is heavily sponsored by US and European arms manufacturers, and while the 2008 Dialogue included a break-out session on whether there was an arms race in the region, predictably it concluded there was no arms race, and there was no consideration of the downsides of increased defence spending.

Establishing APRI

How would APRI be funded and where would it be established? As private sector funding may not be forthcoming, the institute might be funded by contributions from international foundations or regional governments, perhaps under the auspices of the ARF. It would be important to demonstrate the independence of the institution. It may best be established in a smaller regional country that has most to gain from APRI outcomes because it is unable to compete in defence terms with larger regional powers. Brunei Darussalam would be a possibility.

All regional countries seek a more stable and secure region. This will not be achieved by spiralling increases in defence budgets across the region. The aim should be to build an environment in which the security dilemma is not a driving force, and countries lack the strategic justification to expand their military forces. An APRI would be an important step towards this outcome.

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