Contrasting defence mindsets

Contrasting defence mindsets

Statehood is often a fraught notion in South-East Asia, its geography populated by absolutist regimes and a sprinkling of democracies. The dangers of such a skewed regional balance are voiced in a recent Newsweek article by Joshua Kurlantzick, which suggests that an arms race is playing out in the region as democracies weaponize themselves in response to perceived threats from less legitimate states.

The article uses data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which show that weapons purchases by South-East Asian nations doubled between 2005 and 2009. It then argues that growing militarization in countries such as China, Pakistan and North Korea is forcing other nations to do the same, potentially threatening their own political stability.

How viable are these concerns? China’s defence budget, for example, has been growing at double digits every year, and it has explicitly voiced its ambitions in the region, including the South China Sea. Pakistan is perpetually hungry for weapons, either from the US or China, and continues to use terrorism, at least covertly, as foreign policy. And North Korea’s military regime has stormed the news lately with its attack on a South Korean island, a move that analysts think could have been intended to project the power of its young heir apparent, Kim Jong-un. On the other hand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, South Korea, even Taiwan have stepped up defence spending.

India, in comparison, has been strangely placid in such troubled waters. To be sure, its military-civilian balance has at no point been at risk. But its defence spending, though more than China’s as a percentage of gross domestic product, has lagged in terms of actual capital expenditure. As a result, Indian Armed Forces usually have to make do with outdated equipment, as air force chief P.V. Naik hinted in October. A languorous ministerial and bureaucratic establishment that refuses to aggressively build up weaponries compounds the problem.

This is troubling, because arms race or no, the fact remains that South-East Asian nations are fast upgrading their military prowess. India risks becoming irrelevant in the region’s power hierarchy unless it pays more attention to its defence infrastructure.

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