By Michael O’Hanlon
Asia’s arms race is at its most explosive point in a decade.
Our military budgets in 2017, at $757 billion, were 2.5 times the GDP of Russia and China, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. That Chinese military spending, however, is still about a third of America’s.
Does all this sound alarmist? It should.
Chinese and Russian defense spending continues to rise. The Trump administration’s proposed 2019 budget, for example, would nearly double the defense budget of the previous six years combined.
China’s defense budget has gone up an annual rate of about 12 percent over the past five years, and the biggest markets for China’s arms are not just states like India but regional organizations like the Pacific Asia group of nations that includes, among others, Australia, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines.
Meanwhile, Russia’s military modernization program continues, in part reflecting the dissatisfaction of Russia’s neighbors.
That Putin intends to end the Soviet-era nuclear weapons, ensure his allies remain secure, and become a dominant geopolitical power is not in doubt.
What is unclear is how the situation will unfold. On one hand, Putin can ease back the pressure on his neighbors by backing away from new weapons, such as the ICBM, which will violate both the INF treaty and a 2008 bilateral treaty. Or he can use the Cold War weapon of blackmail and threaten to withdraw from the INF treaty in response to violations.
As early as next month, American officials are due to make public a top-secret assessment about Russian nuclear-missile development that describes the current number of American strategic nuclear-missile defenses and Russian nuclear forces. That report, kept under seal for at least 15 years, is understood to be highly critical of Russia.
Russia has also applied the threat of nuclear superiority to any promises of diplomacy. Moscow has warned that it is willing to tear up treaties and allow a greater role for the military in any negotiations on Ukraine, Syria, North Korea or other pressing regional matters. If it followed through, it would dramatically increase the risks of war in Europe.
Some expect a repeat of recent Gulf War scenarios. When Egypt and Syria participated in the 1991 “Pledge of Allegiance” agreement to reduce nuclear weapons, their weapons were retrieved quickly, resulting in an immediate cessation of nuclear tests.
This time, however, the targeted countries have greater political and military ties to the U.S. and its allies.
In many ways, the tensions in Asia are more extreme than those of 1991.
That agreement was unthinkable before the Gulf War and Russia’s nuclear ambitions after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The alliance in Asia today should be less credible but will also be difficult to achieve.
Most national-security analysts assume that President Trump will do whatever it takes to maintain strong ties with Japan and South Korea, and probably Taiwan as well. However, it is fair to say that these allies are currently the most vulnerable of Trump’s major geopolitical partners. Japan and South Korea have old and resentful friends and foes — who is willing to protect them? — and no truly reliable guarantor of military muscle. Taiwan has been resistant to unification. Even if it were to accept unification — as opposed to Chinese provocations, which include efforts to supply missile and other lethal technologies to anti-Japanese nationalist groups — would it want to do so with the United States?
Whether President Trump may ever persuade Beijing and Moscow to back down from their aggressive security and grandiose economic policies may depend to a large extent on how well China copes with its economic downturn.
The uncertainty caused by these strategic confrontations in Asia carries far-reaching risks. Trump’s hawkish response may increase nuclear risks by building new powers (like the nuclear bomber) that Russia and China fear. It also could spawn cyber and conventional attacks on each other’s military infrastructure. In the face of nuclear and conventional threats, the Obama administration committed more resources to protecting and strengthening U.S. alliances in Asia. Trump’s team will have a hard time keeping up that commitment without stiffening U.S. alliances.
It is hard to believe that any U.S. president could resist taking the view that being friends with China and Russia, but not taking them seriously, is a fool’s errand.
Michael O’Hanlon, an analyst at the Brookings Institution, wrote this column for The Washington Post.