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New drives to counter China risk escalating Indo-Pacific arms race

By Tony Walker, La Trobe University
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New drives to counter China risk escalating Indo-Pacific arms race
U.S. President Joe Biden hosts a Quad leaders summit with India Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L), Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the White House on Friday. Pool Photo by Sarahbeth Maney/UPI | License Photo

Sept. 28 (UPI) -- An accelerating arms race in the Indo-Pacific is all but guaranteed now that China finds itself a target of new security arrangements -- AUKUS and the Quad -- aimed at containing its power and influence.

This has the makings of a new great game in the region in which rival powers are no longer in the business of pretending things can continue as they are.

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The AUKUS agreement, involving Australia, the United States and United Kingdom to counter China's rise means a military power balance in the Indo-Pacific will come more sharply into focus.

The region has been re-arming at rates faster than other parts of the world due largely to China's push to modernize its defense capabilities.

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In their latest surveys, the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute report no let-up in military spending in the Indo-Pacific. This is despite the pandemic.

SIPRI notes a 47% increase in defense spending in the Indo-Pacific in the past decade, led by China and India.

China can be expected to respond to threats posed by the new security arrangements by further expediting its military program.

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It will see the formation of AUKUS as yet another attempt to contain its ambitions -- and therefore a challenge to its military capabilities.

Quad ambitions

Unambiguously, AUKUS implies a containment policy.

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Likewise, the further elevation of the Quad security grouping into a China containment front will play into an atmosphere of heightened security anxiety in the Indo-Pacific.

The four Quad participants -- the United States, Japan, India and Australia -- have their own reasons and agendas for wanting to push back against China.

After their summit last week in Washington, the Quad leaders used words in their joint statement that might be regarded as unexceptional in isolation.

Together with other developments such as AUKUS, however, the language was pointed, to say the least:

"Together, we recommit to promoting the free, open, rules-based order, rooted in international law and undaunted by coercion, to bolster security in the Indo-Pacific and beyond."

The "beyond" part of the statement was not expanded on, but might be read as a commitment to extend the Quad collaboration globally.

All this has come together at the dawn of a new U.S. administration whose members include several conspicuous China hawks, and at a moment when China has shown itself to be ever willing to throw its weight around.

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Beijing's crude campaign against Australian exports in an effort to bend Australia's policy to its will is a prime example. It is doubtful an AUKUS or an invigorated Quad would have emerged without this development.

The Obama administration talked about pivoting to the Asia-Pacific without putting much meat on the bones.

Under President Joe Biden, this shift will be driven by a hardening in American thinking that now recognizes time is running out, and may have expired, in the U.S. ability to constrain China's rise.

These are profound geopolitical moments whose trajectory is impossible to predict.

China containment

Canberra is a fully paid-up member of a China containment front, whether it wants to admit it, or not. In the process, it has yielded sovereignty to the United States by committing itself to an interlocking web of military procurement decisions that includes the acquisition of a nuclear-propelled submarine fleet.

Whether these submarines are supplied by the United States or Britain is a bit immaterial since the technology involved originates in America.

The submarines will not be available for the better part of two decades under the most optimistic forecasts. However, in the meantime, Australia could base U.S. or British submarines in its ports or lease American submarines.

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Meanwhile, Australia is committing itself to a range of U.S.-supplied hardware aimed at enhancing the interoperability of its military with the United States.

This is the reality of fateful decisions taken by the Scott Morrison government in recent months. Such a commitment involves a certain level of confidence in America remaining a predictable and steadfast superpower, and not one riven by internal disputes.

Australian defense spending

What is absolutely certain in all of this is that an Indo-Pacific security environment will now become more, not less, contentious.

SIPRI notes that in 2020, military spending in Asia totaled $528 billion, 62% of which was attributable to China and India.

IISS singled out Japan and Australia, in particular, as countries that were increasing defense spending to take account of China. Tokyo, for example, is budgeting for record spending of $50 billion for 2022-23.

Australia's defense spending stands a tick over 2% of GDP in 2021-22 at A$44.6 billion, with plans for further increases in the forward estimates.

However, those projections will now have to be reworked given the commitments that have been made under AUKUS.

Neglected in the flush of enthusiasm that accompanied the AUKUS announcement is the likely cost of Australia's new defense spending under a "China containment policy." It is hard to see these commitments being realized without significant increases in defense allocations to 3-4% of GDP.

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This comes at a time when budgets will be stretched due to relief spending as a consequence of the pandemic.

In addition to existing weapons acquisitions, Canberra has indicated it will ramp up its purchases of longer-range weapons. This includes Tomahawk cruise missiles for its warships and anti-ship missiles for its fighter aircraft.

At the same time, it will work with the United States under the AUKUS arrangement to develop hypersonic missiles that would test even the most sophisticated defense systems.

Indo-Pacific action

Many other Indo-Pacific states can be expected to review their military acquisition programs with the likelihood of a more combative security environment.

Taiwan, for example, is proposing to spend $8.69 billion over the next five years on long-range missiles, and increase its inventory of cruise missiles. It is also adding to its arsenal of heavy artillery.

South Korea is actively adding to its missile capabilities. This includes the testing of a submarine-launched ballistic missile.

Seoul has also hinted it might be considering building its own nuclear-propelled submarines (this was among President Moon Jae-in's election pledges in 2017). Signs that North Korea may have developed a submarine capable of firing ballistic missiles will be concentrating minds in Seoul.

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All this indicates how quickly the strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific is shifting.

Australia - perhaps more so than others - is the prime example of a regional player that has put aside a conventional view of a region in flux. It now sees an environment so threatening that a policy of strategic ambiguity between its custodial partner (the United States) and most important trade relationship (China) has been abandoned.

The pricetag for this in terms of equipment and likely continuing economic fallout for Australian exporters will not come cheap.The Conversation

Tony Walker is the vice chancellor's fellow at La Trobe University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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