Why I Don't Study Arms Races

By Steve Saideman

Time to unpack a tweet just a bit:

The article focuses on the efforts of countries in the Indo-Pacific region pursuing submarines. My immediate reaction was to invoke the security dilemma. This basic IR concept goes as follows:

Because there is no higher authority to protect/secure countries, each country must look out for itself (allies make promises that may not be kept). So, when one country adds some kind of military capability to improve its ability to secure itself, others (especially neighbors) will worry about how that new capability might be used, so they react by developing their own new capabilities. This reaction may leave the initiator less secure, as it now faces neighbors with greater military capabilities. The dilemma is that the effort to create more security ultimately leads to less security.

In this particular case, the Chinese are building up their navy to thwart the US, and much of this effort aims to deny the Americans the ability to sail about the seas near China via submarines and missiles. China’s neighbors see this larger navy and invest in submarines. This might leave China more threatened as its strategic picture becomes complicated by many more countries with diverse capabilities.

When I applied to grad school, my essay for the applications focused on my curiosity about arms races, yet I have never published anything on arms races. Why not? Because once I got to grad school and learned about the security dilemma, my curiosity was largely satisfied. Sure, there are other dynamics at work (military-industrial complex type stuff), but I found that the security dilemma made sense of much of what I had been curious about. So, I moved on.

Of course, the big question is why do countries not arms race. How does one improve security without upsetting the neighbors? Fun stuff to think about. To be clear, there is plenty of room for scholars to study arms races. I just found that my intellectual curiosity was satisfied, but I am sure there are puzzles that still keep folks engaged on this issue just as many folks probably did not have much curiosity about NATO and Afghanistan.

A version of this post first appeared at the author’s blog.

  1. An arms race might not always be to one’s disadvantage. Let us suppose China builds up its forces, and its neighbors keep pace. Now the strength of its chief competitor, the U.S., has been reduced in comparison, not only with China, but with all the other states in the region that participate in the race. In the case of Asia, these are not small, inconsequential states; the accumulated reduction of advantage will be significant, and as the article notes, allies are unreliable. Probably only Australia can be counted on, for racial reasons. So the U.S. will have to compete not only with China but simultaneously with Japan, the Koreas, Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia…. An expensive undertaking, much more for the U.S., still trying to dominate the world, than for China, still mostly concerned about its front yard.

    1. Not really. Most of the nations you mention have no ideological or security issues with the U.S. and in fact rely pretty heavily on it to supplement their own security*. If any nation has any problems with their buildup, it will be China.

      And “only Australia can be counted on, for racial reasons”? What is that supposed to mean? Does China regularly show itself inherently predisposed to side with Malaysia in disputes because Malaysia has a large Chinese population? Does North Korea show any concern for the nation whose ships it sinks simply because both are populated by Koreans? Ironically enough, Australia has actually been less verbally aggressive concerning China than the Philippines or Japan.

      *And I think you need to reconsider your argument concerning the Korea’s. Both states are officially at war and North Korea has launched multiple attacks on South Korea for the past fifty years. Even setting every other nation aside, it is incredibly hard to think of any situation where a South Korean arms buildup would be a problem for the U.S. instead of North Korea, unless you think that South Korea is going to attack the nation that has tens of thousands of soldiers on the border to help guarantee South Korean security.

  2. Here’s the thing. There’s nothing here that suggests a pacific naval arms insecurity spiral. “Keeping up with the Joneses” is not the same thing; that’s about status. The genius of the security dilemma is that it shows how an arms race can result even in a world where everyone simply wants to provide for their own defense and has no aggressive intent toward others. This probably isn’t that world. Every arms race isn’t due to the SD and not every unintended consequence will spark a spiral. Are China’s neighbors wrong about it’s intentions? Is China likely to misinterpret Vietnam’s subs? Uncertainty of intentions seems most characteristic of the US-China dynamic. Maybe there’s a dilemma there.

  3. One interesting aspect of the southeast Asia submarine arms race that the linked piece doesn’t really get into is how suited the South China Sea is to diesel-electric submarines. It’s mostly shallow continental shelf, has lots of coastline, and comparatively short distance, all traits that are advantageous to slow but quiet diesel electric subs (as opposed to fast SSNs).

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