The South China Sea Arms Race

The Financial Times last week carried a story discussing the increasing level of arms purchases by several Southeast Asian states. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Singapore recently placed an order for two new submarines and twelve fighter jets to supplement previous deliveries which included six frigates and 32 fighter aircraft. All told, between 2005 and 2009, Singapore’s spending on arms imports increased 146 percent. Not to be outdone, Indonesia increased its spending by 84 percent, and Malaysia increased its spending by 722 percent (and no, that’s not a typo).Vietnam and Thailand have also announced intensions to increase military spending.

Though many have not publically stated the reason for the increases, most observers point to growing tensions over disputed territories in the South China Sea and dramatic increases in Chinese military spending as the primary causes.

The current South China Sea arms race provides a classic example of the security dilemma [glossary], in international relations. From the perspective of each individual actor, the rational course of action is to increase defense spending in order to facilitate greater security. However, the increase in the armament level of one state leads neighboring states to feel less secure. They therefore increase their own defense spending, leading to a regional arms race. The end result is that, while pursuing rational actions intended to increase their own security individually, all states wind up feeling less secure than they would have felt absent the increase in total military spending.

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