Defense Industries in Asia and the Technonationalist Impulse

CSP_Blog_15_03_BitzingerNation-states around the world have many reasons to produce armaments. Traditionally, the strongest motivation has been classically realist and security-oriented: the need to provide for a secure source of military materiel necessary to deter threats and to defend one’s national territory. Possessing or attempting to possess strong domestic arms industries, capable of designing, developing, and manufacturing advanced weapons systems, is viewed by many countries as an essential element of this strategy.

Consequently, autarky, or self-sufficiency in arms acquisition, can be a critical national security objective. At the same time, however, such autarky traditionally had quite limited military motivations, i.e., national defense. Increasingly, however, many nations – and particularly those in Asia – have come to view indigenous arms production from a much broader perspective. The idea that autarky in armaments serves larger, more ambitious national interest: it is about securing and advancing a nation’s geopolitical status in a regional or global system.

This so-called technonationalist approach to armaments production has become endemic to Asia. It is critical to understand why and how this trait has so strongly influenced regional defense industrialization and arms manufacturing. It is also important to always keep the “technonationalist impulse” in mind when addressing how Asian nations deal with problems and failures when it comes to indigenous armaments production. And why, despite whatever setbacks they may encounter, maintaining and expanding their national defense industrial bases remains a high priority.

Technonationalism (a word first coined by Robert Reich in the 1980s) is more than just a “security of supply” issue or a fancier word to describe protectionist economic and developmental policies. Technonationalism in armaments production is particularly apropos for states aspiring to great power status. As Richard Samuels has noted, a nation-state cannot expect to be taken seriously unless it possesses a modern military, i.e. “rich nation/strong army.”

At the same time, an aspiring great power’s armed forces may not be credible if it relies on other nations for the bulk of its weaponry. To extend Samuels’ “rich nation/strong army” analogy further, therefore, great nations have great arms industries. This line of reasoning has been particularly ubiquitous when it comes to Asian armaments production. Most large countries in the region – China, India, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia – have all attempted to create indigenous defense industries and to engage in ambitious arms-manufacturing programs in order to buttress their regional great-power ambitions.

Military technonationalism may have its roots in national security and economics, but it goes beyond that. It is about status. About a nation’s place in the international hierarchy of great powers. This is the appeal and power of military technonationalism, at least as it applies to indigenous armaments production. When the national security and economic arguments buttressing domestic weapons manufacturing fail, many nations still persist in pursuing autarky (and sometimes even “double down” in their commitments).

But technonationalism is more than an objective or a set of goals. It is also a plan of action. The technonationalist model contains its own strategy for achieving autarky in armaments production, one that, paradoxically, involves the exploitation of imported technologies in order to eventually realize self-sufficiency. This process usually entails the course of moving from learning to innovating, of going from imitating technology to owning and advancing technology.

At the same time, technonationalism in armaments production is not easy, and for most countries it has been a hard row to hoe. The challenge to Asian arms industries is meeting the growing demand for self-sufficiency in arms acquisition, i.e., autarky in production, as well as the rapidly increasing technological requirements of next-generation weapons systems. In other words, can Asian defense factories develop and produce the types of advanced weaponry that their militaries increasingly clamor for? And do so under domestic political and economic conditions that demand increasing self-reliance in production, from initial design all the way to final manufacturing?

It is important to understand, therefore, how this “technonationalist impulse” has not only driven defense industrialization in Asia, but also how technonationalism has also provided a model for development (i.e., with the ultimate objective of autarky).

My journal article explores at greater length the paradoxically symbiotic relationship between technonationalism and “technoglobalism,” and the critical role that foreign technologies have played in process of defense-industrial indigenization. It discusses whether the technonationalist model is a viable or sustainable approach, in terms of economics and (especially) military innovation. It concludes that, despite the disincentives surrounding indigenous armaments production – in terms of the high cost of autarky and the dubious military gains that tend to accrue – most Asian states will not abandon their defense industries or the goal of achieving autarky. That is due mainly (and increasingly) to the driving force of military technonationalism.

Richard A. Bitzinger is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Military Transformations Program at the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore. He is the author of “Defense Industries in Asia and the Technonationalist Impulse”, Contemporary Security Policy, Vol.36, No.3, 2015, pp.453–472. Access here.