A recent report by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies showed that the gap between Asian and Western military spending continued to narrow as Asia’s defense spending rose, while most Western countries cut their defense budgets.
The IISS report said that real defense spending is not only on the rise in the Asia-Pacific, but its growth rate has accelerated in recent years. Specifically, it noted that China’s defense spending far outpaced that of its neighbors.
As if to verify the report, China announced last week an 808.23 billion yuan ($132 billion) defense budget for 2014, which represents a 12.2 percent increase from last year. It marks the fourth consecutive year that China’s military spending has grown by double digits. This year’s figure comes after increases of 10.7 percent in 2013, 11.2 percent in 2012 and 12.7 percent in 2011.
But it seems likely that the Chinese military is actually spending a lot more than what it says it is. Analysts believe that the stated Chinese military expenditures do not include, for instance, money for research and development and purchasing arms from overseas.
In one such calculation, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency estimated last month that China’s actual defense budget in 2013 stood at $240 billion, about double the stated figure.
The huge sum of money going into the People’s Liberation Army ― and more importantly, the rapid rise in Chinese military spending ― should cause concerns in the region as it comes at a time when Beijing is increasingly assertive in its diplomatic and military policies.
The first and foremost concern is that China’s military buildup will spark an arms race in the region, which already has the military presence of five of the world’s top 10 countries in terms of the size of military spending ― the U.S., China, Russia, Japan and South Korea. In addition, each military move by China unnerves countries like Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam, let alone the U.S., Japan and South Korea.
It is clear that China’s expansion of military power provides Japan’s nationalist leader Shinzo Abe with a good excuse to accelerate his push to strengthen the role of its Self-Defense Forces.
In fact, Chinese leaders do not hesitate to say that Japan is one of their major potential enemies. Premier Li Keqiang made an apparent reference to Japan when he announced the 2014 military budget: “China will safeguard its victory of World War II and the postwar international order, and will not allow anyone to reverse the course of history.“
For its part, Japan increased its defense budget by 3 percent to $46 billion this year. It was part of the Abe government’s plan to spend 24.7 trillion yen ($240 billion) between 2014 and 2019 ― a 5 percent boost to the defense budget over five years.
On top of tensions with Japan, China’s military assertiveness is certain to provoke the U.S., which has already been taking steps to rein in China’s power in the region. Despite a reduction in its overall defense spending, Washington has decided to deploy 60 percent of its naval power in the Asia-Pacific region, up from the current 50 percent.
A U.S. document that updates the U.S. military’s global strategy, the Quadrennial Defense Review, said recently that U.S. forces would keep up “a robust footprint in Northeast Asia while enhancing their presence in Oceania and Southeast Asia.”
These latest developments show us that we may have to brace for military confrontations involving the U.S., China and Japan.
This prospect comes on top of the immediate threat from North Korea’s nuclear bombs and missiles. South Korea clearly needs a comprehensive national security strategy that goes beyond mere reliance on its alliance with the U.S.