Defusing Asia’s Arms Race

BANGKOK – The ruling against China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague will be met with relief in the region’s capitals. But it is unlikely to reverse one of Asia’s most worrying trends: an alarming regional arms build-up.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Asia now accounts for almost half of the world’s arms expenditure, which is more than twice the total expenditure of countries in the Middle East and four times greater than that of Europe.

Vietnam, which restored diplomatic relations with the United States only in 1995, is now considering allowing the US Navy to use its Cam Ranh Naval Base – which was built and used by the US Air Force during the Vietnam War (and then by the Soviet and Russian navies). It has also purchased a clutch of Russian-made submarines, and it spent eight times more in arms procurement between 2011 and 2015 than it did in the previous five years. Thailand, too, wants submarines for its navy, despite having only shallow waters in the Gulf of Thailand and no territorial claims in the South China Sea.

The Philippines, which brought the case against China in The Hague, is beefing up its military as well, with the procurement of fighter jets from South Korea and new investments in its navy, supported not only by the US, but also by Japan. The Philippines has also rehabilitated its defense alliance with the US, marking a U-turn from its decision to expel the US Navy from its base at Subic Bay in 1991. In the same spirit, the American Seventh Fleet has stepped up its Freedom of Navigation Operational Patrols (FONOPs) in the South China Sea.