Thursday 14 Oct 2021 | 00:25 | SYDNEY
Thursday 14 Oct 2021 | 00:25 | SYDNEY

When I read the words 'arms race', I reach for my pen


Rory Medcalf


22 May 2008 16:05

For a start, what does it mean? Everyone seems to have a preferred definition: in my view, the term accurately describes very specific circumstances in which countries are willing to devote ever-increasing proportions of their resources to armaments in repeated cycles of reaction to one another’s acquisitions, potentially to a point where they squander wealth upon weapons far in excess of any conceivable security need. The absurd and obscene expansion of US and Soviet nuclear arsenals in the Cold War took this to an extreme.

Yet we are being constantly warned of current or looming arms races. One of the most recent such warnings comes from Josh Kurlantzick,  better known as the author of Charm Offensive, a bestseller about Chinese soft power. He argues in a recent opinion piece that the ‘the world is entering a new arms race’ which creates ‘a growing possibility for real state-to-state conflict’. (Discomfort over terminological precision is not my only problem with his analysis – the author also makes the sweeping assertion that global defence spending is ‘driven mainly by anxiety over oil and natural resources’; his argument that arms races are a primary cause of war is also highly debatable – but one thing at a time.)

Kurtlantzick and others suggest the world is facing a web of inter-state arms races involving, variously, Russia and the US, the US and China, China and Japan, Japan and South Korea, India and Pakistan, India and China, the Southeast Asian countries, and of course Iran, Israel and the Arab states.

Much of which should matter to Canberra, as it embarks on its new Defence White Paper and associated Force Structure Review, determining the nation’s military needs for the decades ahead. If there is indeed a veritable Olympics of global and regional arms racing taking place, then Australia can hardly afford to be left behind, can it?

I certainly do not deny that many countries, including in Australia’s region, are raising their defence spending – some, notably China, on a dramatic scale. Quite a few are building or buying increasingly advanced weapons systems and platforms. But their reasons are many, and their patterns of spending and capability development quite varied according to national circumstances. Is it really helpful to generalise all of this automatically as an arms race? 

To support his case, Kurlantzick cites figures from the authoritative Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), noting that ‘between 1997 and 2006 global military expenditures jumped by nearly 40 percent’ (presumably in real terms).' This sounds bad. But a much more telling statistic would factor in growth in the world economy over the same period, and identify where and whether military spending had risen substantially as a proportion of GDP.  Instead, SIPRI ambiguously notes the following (though it would be nice if they supplied a post-2003 update):

Over the 5-year period 1999-2003, the share of military expenditure in GDP has been kept at a constant level in the high- and middle-income country-samples, while it has decreased somewhat in the low-income sample. At the same time social spending as a share of GDP has increased in high- and low-income groups but remained relatively stable in middle-income countries.

It is utterly prudent for strategic analysts to be on the lookout for signs of a looming arms race. Broad-brush assertions that one is already well underway, however, should not be allowed to pass without very close scrutiny. Timely warning of an arms race may help the wise avoid getting trapped in one. But perceiving an arms race is also the first step towards joining in, and turning perception into reality.