Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

East Asia: A New Wave of Militarization?

By Eric LeePublished May 13, 2020

Although obscured by the sudden emergence of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the military arms buildup in East Asian countries rages on with no end in sight.

Seven percent. That is the aim or, at least, the officially stated aim of China’s People’s Liberation Army’s year to year military spending increases. From a sizeable yet moderate budget of around 85 billion dollars around a decade ago in 2008, the Chinese military has more than tripled its spending as of 2020 with the most recent 2019 report from government sources estimating total annual military expenditure at 261 billion dollars. Not only is the middle kingdom undertaking a grandiose effort to modernize and expand its forces, but it goes without saying that the Chinese arms buildup merely represents the tip of the iceberg in a region that is experiencing the biggest push towards militarization in recent memory.

Such a phenomenon is emblematic of the wider geopolitical changes that the region has been subject to. The Asia-Pacific and specifically East Asia is proving to be the center of state-driven militarization in today’s global geopolitical arena with the rise of China and the concomitant reaction by neighboring countries of revamping their own armies.

Already, China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy has launched a second aircraft carrier, the Type 001A, that, unlike its predecessor, was built and designed entirely in China. With plans to commission two more next-generation Type 002 carriers by 2030 and add more than a dozen submarines, cruisers, destroyers, and support vessels in the years to come, China’s ambitions to possess a blue water navy capable of overseas intervention is slowly becoming a reality. Last but not least, with numerous arms development projects that have in direct object the projection of offensive military capabilities as far as Gwadar and Djibouti, the aggressiveness with which China is advancing hard power claims to dominance is alarming both for the United States and China’s neighbors in North and Southeast Asia.

Beijing’s drastic efforts to modernize and expand its military evidently represent a large share of the overall arms buildup that has taken place in the Asia-Pacific thus far. Yet, its contribution to the militarization of the region is only a fraction of the picture. The United States, the other major power in the region, has also moved forward with plans to concentrate its forces in the Asia Pacific theatre. The Trump administration’s defense budget request for 2021 which currently stands at over 740 billion dollars not only calls for large modernization projects to replace Cold War and Gulf War-era hardware but is in support of a wider strategy to win a potential great power military conflict against Beijing and Moscow. China being the larger player between the two, the US military will focus its assets heavily on the Asia-Pacific. The Pentagon is consistently deploying the most advanced in its lineup of carrier battle groups, missile defense systems, and aircraft to bases in countries such as Japan, South Korea, and Singapore.

States such as these are close partners of the United States. In fact, as Cold War allies, Japan and South Korea not only have permanent American military installations on their territory but are a part of Washington’s nuclear umbrella in case of attack. Many might assume that such a military buildup is simply the product of the most recent Republican administration in the White House under Trump. However, they would be rather disappointed to find out that American officials have lobbied allies in the region to strengthen their own conventional military forces to counter Beijing’s growing power since the early years of the Obama administration under its signature “Pivot to Asia” strategy.

American allies in the region have thus far taken notice, and the Asia-Pacific is experiencing the largest increase in military spending since the conclusion of the Cold War. Japan has recently commissioned its second Izumo-class carrier (a class of ships that its navy has so furtively labeled “Multi-Purpose Operation destroyers” despite having displacement capabilities well superior to those of the recently decommissioned Invincible class aircraft carriers of the British Royal Navy). In its own right, Taiwan has concluded an eight billion-dollar deal to purchase 66 F-16 fighters. And South Korea is no different with a similar deal struck to upgrade 194 million dollars worth of existing F-16s and another to acquire dozens of F-35s to be deployed starting this year. East Asia is, indeed, experiencing the largest increase in military spending since the conclusion of the Second World War. What is more, this “arms bonanza” is coinciding with the largest economic expansion that the wider region has ever known.

Although the current coronavirus pandemic has grabbed the bulk of the world’s attention, the continuity of international realpolitik remains unchanged. Granted, the upcoming decade of the 2020s will be one marked by unprecedented prosperity and development for the Asia-Pacific as a whole. This will make many inclined to say power in the 21st century will be won through means outside the traditional hard power conventionalism of military might. However, let us all be reminded of two quotes by two rather diametrically opposed but similarly praised geopolitical thinkers, Theodore Roosevelt and Mao Zedong. As leaders and statesmen all throughout Asia will know, one must “speak softly, but carry a big stick.” Having cultural influence, a healthy economy and technological edge are crucial; however, beyond the rosy tone and lofty language of the idealistic, let us remember that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”