Chris Rahman is a Senior Research Fellow in Maritime Strategy and Security at the University of Wollongong.
The hoary question of whether Asia is experiencing a naval arms race has been a persistent topic of strategic debate for the best part of two decades. This is perhaps understandable given the high profile of certain force structure improvements taking place throughout the Indo-Pacific. Most notably, these include significant submarine, aircraft carrier and amphibious ship, surface combatant, combat aircraft, ballistic and cruise missile programs.
Submarine proliferation has long been a focus of arms race theory advocates, but most recently, speculation on China's nascent domestic aircraft carrier construction program, the launch of India's first domestically constructed aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant (see above), and the launch of the first ship of Japan's newest class of helicopter carrier, JS Izumo, has further stoked the cause of arms race theorists.
However, the arms race question can be misleading and, more often than not, obfuscatory rather than enlightening. Knowledge of major weapon system procurement and force structure development patterns can be important for strategic analysis if it can better inform us about military purpose and, ultimately, political intent. Such knowledge is indeed essential for defence planners. Unfortunately, much of the extant commentary is excessively materialistic, not to mention journalistic in nature.
The basic fact that China is entering the aircraft carrier business, or that Beijing and New Delhi are both constructing their own classes of carrier, is not in and of itself particularly revealing. Weapons are just machines. They are not inherently offensive or defensive in nature, save potentially in the strictly tactical sense. Machines do not set policy in the real world, nor do they generate crises or start wars, other than in the realms of science fiction or Hollywood. In genuinely strategic terms, what really matters is the political purpose for which particular military capabilities are employed. Thus, the focus of analysis needs to be aimed at the strategic and political levels rather than at the tactical, technical, technological or otherwise material ones.
There is also a difference between possession of certain weapon systems and actual capability. The fact that China, for example, has commissioned one carrier and is building others does not yet equate to a fully-fledged naval power projection capability able to conduct carrier-based fixed wing combat aircraft operations. It will take many years of training and exercising as well as tactical, operational and doctrinal development before an effective capability will evolve. (That doesn't mean the platforms cannot be employed effectively in other ways, including in amphibious operations or as a tool of gunboat diplomacy against small or weak adversaries.)
There are many reasons why states procure particular military machines. They may address specific strategic problems or provide generic capabilities to be employed when necessary. But they also can serve other objectives, including replacement of old or obsolete force structure, bolstering national prestige, industry and technology policies, national development, accommodating the military or other defence constituencies, and so on.
The arms race idea itself is also misleading in the sense that states do not literally engage in a 'race'. The idea is merely a metaphor for strategically competitive relationships. In the international system, national interests often clash; that is just politics at work. Military power is but one of a number of instruments states possess with which to pursue and defend their interests. For example, quite fundamental clashes of interests with many of its neighbours and their strategic partners have led China to develop the vanguard of the modern People's Liberation Army (PLA) into a much vaunted anti-access, area denial (A2/AD) force for operations throughout the East Asian littoral, and increasingly, the ocean beyond the littoral.
Whilst particular PLA A2/AD developments such as quiet conventional submarines or the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile may pose tactical and operational challenges to potential adversaries, ultimately Chinese weapon systems are not the underlying problem. Rather, the problem lies with Chinese regional political objectives, which combine acquisitiveness over contested territories and marine resources, and an undoubted ambition to return to the top of the regional political and strategic pecking order, with a growing contempt for international rules and norms.
Although China is hardly the sole strategic problem facing maritime East Asia today, assuredly it is the main one. It is Beijing's objectives, and its increasingly impatient and aggressive prosecution of them, that have generated instability at sea, not the process of procuring particular military instruments to pursue those objectives, nor the military solutions under development by China's adversaries to counter such threats.
It is the underlying drivers of China’s military modernisation and, consequentially, the prospective employment of force by the PLA that threatens peace, not the process of strategically competitive arms acquisition. Let us abjure from the distraction of a putative 'arms race' and focus on the problems at hand.