What these figures indicate is that there is a significant military buildup taking place in Asia, and particularly in East Asia. What does this mean for the future?
Let's start with China:
Janes Defense Weekly looks at China's PLA [Peoples Liberation Army] notes:
An emerging consensus among long-time PLA observers, including within the US intelligence community, is that the Chinese military has successfully achieved a far-reaching qualitative advancement in its war-fighting capabilities since the beginning of this decade. The PLA is quickly becoming an increasingly credible threat against Taiwan and could even begin to pose a challenge to US military preponderance in East Asia in the next decade if the momentum is sustained. [emphasis mine]The buildup includes a professionalized army, new longer-range missiles, nuclear subs, amphibious craft, and a state of the art blue water navy. Clearly China is gearing up for something. [read the Janes report plus other commentary at Defense Tech here.]
Wretchard over at Belmont Club, notes this aspect of the report:
The PLA Navy (PLAN) is rapidly transforming itself from a coastal force into a bluewater naval power with a force modernisation drive that is unprecedented in the post-Cold War era. "The range and number of warships the Chinese navy is acquiring can be compared to the Soviet Union's race to become an ocean-going navy to rival the US in the 1970s," said a China-based foreign naval attaché.
If China's strategic goal is to take Taiwan why should it need a Blue Water navy? Furthermore, why should Taiwan represent any strategic priority at all? The small island nation poses no credible threat to mainland. The answer he finds is this:
The real strategic center of Chinese interests is the South China sea through which the commercial and petroleum lifeblood of China flows. According to the Washington Times, China understands that the principle national security threat facing it is disruption of sea lanes bringing oil and commerce to its shores.
Wretchard argues that oil dependency is China's greatest vulnerability and that recent naval development and diplomacy has aimed at reducing that threat.
Not only is China developing a navy capable of controlling vital supply routes through the South China Sea, it is also building naval stations linking it to the Persian gulf so as to insure its supply of oil.
Wretchard further notes that Taiwan recognizes this vulnerability and is seeking to build a submarine force sufficient to disrupt Chinese oil supply lines in case of a crisis.
India, too, notes the vulnerability and is acquiring new capacities to monitor Chinese naval deployment.
Wretchard concludes that because of the reactions in India and Taiwan, China will not be in a position to seriously treaten Taiwan despite its threatening military buildup. He writes in a followup post "Taiwan is the secondary mission. Keeping China's access to energy is the primary mission."
I hope he's right.
Then there's Japan:
China has been staging an escalating series of anti-Japan demonstrations in recent months [here].
What does this mean? According to Alan Dupont writing in The National Interest the real problem is that Japan has recently built up its military to the point were China sees it as a plausible threat. He writes:
Today, Japan is once again a leading military power, with the world's third-largest defense budget (after the United States and China) and a quarter million men and women under arms. Its Self-Defense Force (SDF) is deployed on peacekeeping operations around the world, for tsunami relief in Southeast Asia and in support of U.S.-led coalitions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
More and more politicians chafe at the self-imposed constitutional restrictions on the military and believe that Japan must be more resolute and assertive in defending its vital interests, including taking pre-emptive military action, when necessary. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has talked up constitutional reform and declared his desire to see Japan become a "normal country." He has even dared to call the SDF what it really is--a modern army, navy and air force.
As with China there are two schools of thought -- those who are alarmed by recent military buildups and fear an attempt to assert hegemony over the region.
Those skeptical of its peaceful disposition and benign intentions contend that Tokyo is incrementally acquiring the military capabilities and strategic reach to complement its economic strength and give effect to long-suppressed regional power aspirations. Skeptics argue that Japan's expanding peacekeeping activities, government pressure to revise the constitution, cooperation with the United States in missile defense, and procurement of military platforms and weapons systems that can be used offensively are all evidence of Tokyo's hegemonic intent.Others consider that the condition of Japan's economy, its demographic decline, and its long term strategic interests make it highly unlikely that Japan will follow an expansionist course at least in the near future.
Thus, there is very little prospect of Japan becoming more assertive globally or contributing much of real strategic value in East Asia, other than in the defense of Japan. A corollary is that Japan will continue to rely on the United States as a military shield while wielding the sword of mercantilism, cultivating a range of partners, including U.S. adversaries such as Iran, to hedge against economic dangers.Dupont is of the latter opinion. He writes:
[T]he country's aging population and the existence of a resilient, mature democracy works against a revival of militarism. Given its geostrategic vulnerabilities, energy dependence and declining birth rate, Japan is hardly in a position to embark on a policy of military adventurism or expansionism in East Asia, not least because it would be vehemently opposed by China, Japan's principal competitor for regional influence, as well as its major ally, the United States.
Those who fear a return of militarism in Japan also fail to appreciate the domestic constraints on defense spending, which is legally capped at 1 percent of GDP, far lower than in most comparable countries. China, for example, spends 4.1 percent of GDP on defense, the United States 3.3 percent, South Korea 2.8 percent, France 2.5 percent, and Australia 1.9 percent. In East Asia, only Laos spends less as a percentage of GDP. Even a comparison by purchasing power parity shows Japan's per capita defense expenditure as around one quarter that of the United States and half that of France.So we are told that the recent arms buildups in Asia are nothing to worry about; that Japan and China have long-term vulnerabilities and interests that militate against aggression. I sure hope so, but note that Washington policy makers cannot responsibly operate on that assumption.
Many actions of the Bush administration -- refilling the oil reserve despite high prices and criticism from Democrats; expanding diplomatic and military ties with India and Japan; pursuing the construction of a North American missile defense system over Canadian objections; the construction of military rapid response bases in Central Asia despite Russian anxieties, and the like can be seen as prudent precautions in case the rising tensions in an increasingly militarized Asia should erupt into open conflicts that threaten our interests.
Recent actions by China such as expanding the chain of naval stations linking its western ports to oil sources; attempts to intimidate Japan; non-cooperation in Korea; normalizing relations with India; and the development of naval power capable of projecting force into crucial trade channels, could all be seen as attempts by China to forestall any effective military or diplomatic response from the US in case of an outbreak of violence in the region.
As I said above, I sure hope that Wretchard and Mr. Dupont are right in their assessments, but I sure am glad that the current administration is informed and wary enough to begin to make preparations in case they are wrong.