28 August 2015

FOI examines developments in the Western Pacific region

A strong military build-up is taking place in the Western Pacific region. At the same time, the volume of trade is growing between countries such as China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and India. Are we heading for armed conflict or closer integration in the region? An FOI research team has been asked by the Swedish Armed Forces to try to answer this question

The research team has set up two scenarios in a ten year perspective:

  • That the growth in defence expenditure in the region – China, for example, is increasing its defence spending by more than 10 per cent year on year – leads the militarily stronger countries to challenge the international system and assert their rights regarding their key territorial interests. Examples of this are China’s claim to Taiwan and the territorial disputes in Tibet and the South China Sea. This could create a situation similar to that in Europe in the 1910s with strong currents of nationalism and protectionism.
  • That the levels of trade and integration increase. In this situation a multilateral organisation such as ASEAN could be a guarantor for a course of development similar to that seen in the EU today.

The prime indicator suggesting an antagonistic course of development is the rapidly changing threat pattern created as a result of China’s newfound great power status. Those countries under more severe threat are being pushed towards closer military cooperation. Japan, South Korea, Australia and India are not only bolstering their relations with the United States, already a formal alliance partner with all except India, but they are also moving towards closer mutual cooperation.

“We also see a danger that states which have rapidly expanded their military capabilities may at the same time lack maturity in the area of military diplomacy. This can give rise to misunderstanding and the consequent risk of escalation to actual conflict,” says John Rydqvist, project leader in FOI’s Asia programme, who has prepared the report together with Erika Holmquist, Karlis Neretnieks and Bengt-Göran Bergstrand at FOI.

Indicators for the scenario of increased trade and integration include the need for China’s leadership to deliver growth in answer to criticism of the country’s lack of democracy. There is also the factor that countries in the region are economically interdependent. Countries such as South Korea and Japan, for example, need China as an export market while China is dependent on the high technology skills of its neighbours. There is also the fact that countries in the region have actually chosen trade rather than conflict ever since the 1970s. On the other hand, however, John Rydqvist points out that there is little to suggest that any rapid democratisation can be expected in China. Nor does the prospect of a united Korea in the foreseeable future appear likely.

“Our appreciation of the situation is that a North Korean collapse is more remote than many have predicted. The regime has proved to be too extreme and most countries, including South Korea, would prefer to see stability.

From a Swedish point of view, an antagonistic course of development would entail the weakening of important export markets. It would also damage an innovation policy in which China is an important partner and it would mean stiffer competition for Swedish defence equipment exports. In addition there is the probability that Swedish military personnel would become involved in any eventual peace support operations in the region. The report also advocates a more coordinated national strategy vis-à-vis China.

“At present, those who advocate an expansion of trade tend to do so without wider consideration, while those whose focus is more on security issues talk primarily about threats and risks. What we would like to see is a national strategy that more clearly weighs possible opportunities against risks,” says John Rydqvist.