Donald Trump Xi Jinping
(Image: AP/Susan Walsh)

Suddenly everyone from Scott Morrison to Kevin Rudd is talking up the arms race in the Indo-Pacific and a potential “hot war” between China and either the US or some of its allies with Taiwan looming large.

It’s sudden, but it’s not surprising. This is a (somewhat) logical place to be after the US, and then other Western countries, rounded on China for being the source of COVID-19 and covering up its origins.

This has also occurred within the context of China’s fast-rising military might. China has added aircraft carriers and stealth fighter jets to its hardware arsenal, along with a newfound diplomatic “wolf warrior” aggression.

Last Wednesday, five French-made fighter jets also arrived in India. It’s the first batch of a total 36 jets that Narendra Modi’s government has ordered to upgrade its air force. Earlier this year the country struck a US$3.5 billion arms deal with the US and even more in deals with Russia.

Together with Australia’s July 1 recasting of its defence plans, this all represents just the tip of the iceberg in a regional arms race triggered by fast-rising China that will leave none of us safer. After all, the region is already home to six nuclear-armed states in the US, China, Russia, North Korea, India and Pakistan.

Australia’s Defence Strategic Update, about a year in the making according to defence department insiders, has seen the Morrison government pull focus on more immediate firepower — headlined by new missile purchases and advanced weapons systems — instead of the usual endless long-term projects.

“Australia already spends more on our defence than most of the United States’ alliance partners,” Morrison said in a video address to the Aspen Security Forum on August 5. “Two percent of our GSP [gross state product] is no longer a target, it is a floor for us and we will spend even more — a commitment of $270 billion over the next decade.”

It’s not just Australia and India publicly embracing new weapons, aircraft and sea-power — it’s pretty much every nation in the region. Japan, however, is the leader: the nation’s military budget will rise this year for the eighth straight year to US$48 billion.

Already equipped as a “helicopter carrier”, the Izumo (the Japanese navy’s main destroyer) is now being transformed to carry planes, likely stealth F-35s. Tokyo, always aware of its proximity to China, Russia and North Korea, is very much focused on upgrading its airforce.

“America has long been a major stabilising factor in the Indo-Pacific region, and its continued focus here and engagement is absolutely vital to the world. So the Australian way is clear,” Morrison said.

“We will play our part in maintaining the strategic balance so necessary in the Indo-Pacific. We will invest in regional relationships because we all have a stake in the future.”

While the Australian strategic refresh did not involve any more money over 10 years than had already been committed, other countries are lifting their defence spending.

Indeed, China and India were ranked two and three — after perennial leader the US — for the first time in the 2019 Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) military expenditure database. China spent an estimated US$261 billion last year, and India an estimated US$71.1 billion. They were followed by Japan and South Korea.

All up, Asian countries spent a collective 2.2% of their gross domestic product (GDP) on defence-related spending. Feeling evermore threatened by China, south-east Asian nations collectively increased their spending by 4.2% for a total of $40.5 billion in 2019.

Singapore, Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar — whose military is engaged with two significant civil wars — spend more than 2% of their GDP on the military.

“The question now being asked, quietly but nervously, in capitals around the world is, where will this end?” Kevin Rudd wrote in a lengthy, cautionary analysis for Foreign Affairs last week.

“The once unthinkable outcome — actual armed conflict between the United States and China — now appears possible for the first time since the end of the Korean War. In other words, we are confronting the prospect of not just a new Cold War, but a hot one as well.”

The aim of defence spending since World War II has ostensibly been to keep people safe from hot wars. But, of course, we have seen these subsequently take place in South Korea, Vietnam and most recently in the Middle East. As military spending in the region escalates amid growing panic about China, it’s unlikely anyone feels any safer — in fact, it’s quite the opposite.

Rudd notes that “the next three months could all too easily torpedo the prospects of international peace and stability for the next 30 years. Wars between great powers, including inadvertent ones, rarely end well — for anyone”.

Peter Fray

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