Militarization in Asia: Role of Smaller Nations

28 July 2021
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Militarization in Asia is not a new concept, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been gradually increasing its defense budget to safeguard its key strategic interests. The risk of Military Confrontations in the South China Sea has risen significantly in recent years as relations between the two biggest economies, USA and China, continue to deteriorate. Japan is worried about the rising tensions and has spent significant amounts on its military. Although the Japanese constitution forbids having an offensive military, the defense budget for the fiscal year 2021 is around $51 Billion, following the growth pattern of the last 9 years. Japan is also purchasing 104 F-35 fighter jets from the USA, whether it is modernization or militarization is up for debate. Focusing on South Asia, India became the world largest arms importer for the period 2013-17, while trying to enhance military preparedness and countering threats from Pakistan as well as China. The comparatively smaller nations are increasingly finding it difficult to remain neutral and not choose any sides.  Centre for Governance Studies organized a webinar on “Militarization in Asia: Role of Smaller Nations” on 28th July, 2021. The webinar focused on the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, and its implications for Bangladesh. The webinar was moderated by the former Chairman of BISS and former Bangladesh Ambassador to China, Ambassador Munshi Faiz Ahmed.

The distinguished participants of the Webinar were Major General Muniruzzaman (Retd.), President, Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies (BIPSS); Dr. Sreeradha Datta, Centre Head & Senior Fellow, Neighborhood Studies, Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF), India; Mr. Larry Jagan, Former BBC World Service News Editor; Professor Shahab Enam Khan, Department of International Relations, Jahangirnagar University; and Dr. Maria Sultan, Director General, South Asian Strategic Stability Institute University.

Ambassador Munshi Faiz Ahmad started off the discussion by raising several questions to the panelists about what we understand by militarization, who is militarizing, the magnitude and nature of militarization in Asia. Other interrogatives included whether to understand Asia as one unit or is it divided into different regions? And if there are efforts to decrease conflicts and tensions? The trajectory of the discussion was set to cover the different alliances in the region and how the smaller nations such as Bangladesh can maintain their strategic autonomy. The key question asked by the moderator was whether tensions could escalate to another cold war, or are there ways to avoid conflict?

Major General Muniruzzaman (Retd) pointed out Korean Peninsula, Taiwan Strait, Kashmir, South China Sea, Indo China Sea as the conflict flashpoints in greater Asia and highlighted how the strategic tension between US and China might have an adverse effect on the stability of the region. He noted that such significant change in the security landscape of the Asia-pacific is due to the rise of new world powers, the rise of tensions when there is a rise of power is not new, the Indian ocean is facing the same situation the Atlantic Ocean faced post World War 2. He highlighted that the nature of competition between the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is currently more economical than militaristic. QUAD and BRI are no longer just looking at cooperation among nations with shared principles, both domains are trying to weave nations into their fold. Regarding the role of smaller independent nations in the region such as Bangladesh, he emphasized the need to avoid any kind of partisan and military entanglements to ensure strategic autonomy and not enter into Cold War 2.0.

Dr. Sreeradha Datta termed the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue as a loosely knit network of like-minded people. Stating the initial purpose of QUAD was the containment of China in the Indian Ocean, she also pointed out that all the four nations in Quad have strong bilateral trade relations with China and a prospect of open conflict is currently not on anyone’s mind. The recent Malabar exercise of QUAD gave it a military dimension which will strengthen the Indo-Pacific Strategy of the members. She also talked about India’s strategy of not aligning itself with one specific partner. She emphasized that in a post covid world, issues such as vaccination and healthcare are more important than military spending.

Larry Jagan pointed out that Asia is not cohesive, it is a Jigsaw puzzle with its regions divided. That Southeast Asia has tried to resolve issues internally using trade. He talked in detail about the rising militarization in Myanmar after the February 2021 coup and stated that it is a more prominent security risk in Asia than the US-China rivalry over the Indian Ocean. He noted that China is not looking for allies in the BRI project, they are looking for partners. He also discussed that China is carrying out the BRI project to increase interconnectivity in Asia, which might in turn reduce the risk of conflict among nations, but it is still important to note that the BRI is not strictly an economic venture and there are several military implications to the project, such as BRI docks in other countries having possible submarine docking capabilities. Despite this, he argued that it is difficult to see increasing militarization in South East Asia, rather it is modernization of Asian militaries to catch up to contemporary capabilities.

Professor Shahab Enam Khan expressed his disagreements with terming Bangladesh as a small state any longer, he highlighted that it is the second largest economy in Southeast Asia, 8th largest population in the world and the largest contributor to the UN peacekeeping force. He indicated that Bangladesh has no direct conflict with any of its neighbors and increase in militarization is purely defensive in nature. He expressed concerns about the increasing number of external forces (Nuclear Submarines, Warships and Warplanes) in the region, that it could raise tensions. He focused on strengthening regional institutions such as SAARC and ASEAN to resolve disputes and conflicts. He also stated that militarization is dictated by economic realities of the nation, and the covid pandemic has put Bangladesh in a dichotomy of deciding expenditure between healthcare or defense, where will expenditure go in the next 5 years, health sector or military? And how much stake will Bangladesh have in the conflict between the USA and China?

Dr. Maria Sultan stated that the mere existence of QUAD is evident of the deteriorating military power of the USA and that Quad signifies a far deeper level of military cooperation than initially realized. She stated that the goals of Quad will be determined by the commonality of threat perception among its member countries, and the threats might be both military and not military. She indicated that Quad might have the potential to interfere with freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean as its goals are not inclusive of the majority of Asian countries. She also noted the possibilities of counter military response to QUAD by China, which will invariably escalate the rivalry between the superpowers. She advocates that littoral nations such as Bangladesh and Pakistan band together to counteract the ensure economic sovereignty and deescalate the rising tensions in the Indian Ocean. She also raised questions on the future of other regional organizations such as ASEAN and how QUAD+ will transpire and most importantly how military and economic cooperation will materialize once threats are signified and develop around concepts such as Covid-19, cybersecurity and most importantly maintaining cybersecurity.

In conclusion, the speakers focused on the security of the region and how bilateral and multilateral agreements effect militarization of states. They called for stabilizing mechanisms for dispute and conflict resolution and for smaller nations to maintain strategic autonomy and not engage in strong military entanglements.