War in the Asia-Pacific region remains a real possibility and it will occur when we least expect it.
There has not been a large-scale war in Asia since 1945. Interstate conflicts in the region over the past decades included the 1962 Sino-Indian War, the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War, the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese Border War, and the 1999 Kargil War. With the exception of the 1971 clash between India and Pakistan (along with the Bangladesh Liberation War), these wars were low in casualties and involved limited military resources.
Nevertheless, the Asia-Pacific region is the most militarized region in the world. According to the International Institute of Strategic Studies’ Military Balance 2017, the three largest defense budgets in the world (the United States, China, and Russia) are by countries with significant military assets in the region. Six Asia-Pacific powers were under the top ten global military spenders in 2016. The world’s seven largest militaries including China, the United States, India, North Korea, Russia, Pakistan, and South Korea are all (at least partly) found in Asia. Furthermore, out of the seven six are nuclear powers.
While these statistics are nothing new to Diplomat readers, they are worth restating to illustrate the profound and often neglected dangers that lurk behind the increasing militarization of the region with its numerous territorial disputes on both land and sea and frozen conflicts, and which at the same time lacks a regional security structure and political community akin to, for example, NATO and the European Union in Europe. The old maxim that if you only have a hammer, sooner or later most problems will look like nails is in particular pertinent in that respect: Given the growing military arsenals, Asia-Pacific policymakers may be more willing to use military force to achieve political objectives and settle disputes.
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This is further accentuated by the fact that while all Asia-Pacific powers are expanding their militaries, no military force save the United States’ has had any extensive combat experience, nor any nation firsthand knowledge of what it means to fight an interstate conflict in the 21st century. Based on historical evidence (e.g. European militaries prior to the First World War), this lack of understanding of what it means to go to war, combined with a regional arms race, and various territorial disputes, can create a fertile habitat for strategic miscalculations over the use of military power.
In his book The End of the Asian Century, Michael R. Auslin outlines a risk cycle that he thinks governs interstate relations in Asia, which consists of three components: uncertainty, insecurity, and instability. Auslin argues that Asian nations have gone through numerous iterations of this cycle (which begins with uncertainty, followed by insecurity, and ends in instability) over the last decades without, however, ever succeeding in reversing it. As a result, the Asia-Pacific region remains stuck in instability, the last stage of the cycle that can cause large-scale military conflict. “War is not preordained, but once the risk cycle reaches this last stage, instability, the immediate question is how bad it will become and whether minor flare-ups will turn into serious clashes.”
The question whether a small military clash can lead to large-scale war has indeed plagued decision-makers throughout history. We have become so used to this perpetual cycle of instability and constant confrontations, whether on the Korean Peninsula, in the East China Sea, or along the Indo-Pakistan border that we have lost sight of the inherent danger that each of these confrontations pose to the general peace in the Asia-Pacific region. As a result, despite our best efforts, the next big war in the Asia-Pacific, like most military conflicts, may come as an apparent surprise when we least expect it. For what is clear is that the current instability in the Asia-Pacific cannot endure indefinitely.
This commentary was adopted from a longer analysis in the February 2017 issue of The Diplomat Magazine.