China's neighbors on alert after military spending surge

Beijing’s announcement of record defense budget comes at a time of geopolitical tensions in the region. Experts believe China wants to become a naval power.

(DW) At the opening of the annual session of the People’s Assembly (PNA) of China – the Chinese Parliament – Li Keqiang, Prime Minister about to leave office, announced an increase in the country’s military spending, substantiated by what he pointed out as “escalating” security threats from abroad.

The government in Beijing plans to spend about 1.55 trillion yuan ($22 billion) on its armed forces this year. China’s defense spending still pales in comparison to that of the United States, which has planned more than $800 billion in military spending for this year.

However, Western analysts believe that Beijing spends far more on defense than the officially announced sums.

“Since 2000, China has embarked on a comprehensive and long-term process of military expansion and modernization,” recalls Drew Thompson, a China expert at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. “The most recent increase in the military budget is very much in line with what we’ve observed over the past 22 years.”

For Tzu-Yun Su, an analyst at the Institute for National Defense and Security (INDSR, in English) in Taiwan, China’s defense spending plans reflect Beijing’s intention, a land power, to transform itself into a naval power. “The Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea and the East China Sea will be the areas covered in the first phase of Beijing’s military expansion,” he adds.

“Next, China should focus on expanding into the ‘second island chain,’ where it wants to influence a repositioning of power,” it adds. The so-called “second island chain” includes the islands stretching from Japan to Guam and the islands of Micronesia.
Increased threat perception

The announcement about China’s military budget comes at a time of growing geopolitical tensions in the Indo-Pacific region. Several countries, from Japan to South Korea to the Philippines, are concerned about Beijing’s increased presence and influence in the region.

The perception of a growing threat to regional security has caused these governments to focus on their own defense strategies and increase military spending. Japan, for example, announced spending of 6.82 trillion yen ($51.7 billion) for next year, up about 26 percent from the previous year.

The government of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida also unveiled the largest military build-up since World War II, signifying a dramatic turn in the pacifist policy that the country has maintained for the past 70 years.

The military reform plan calls for Tokyo to double defense spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), and to buy missiles capable of hitting ships or land targets from a thousand kilometers away.

Balancing U.S.-China Relations

South Korea is also increasingly apprehensive about China’s military might, but the Seoul government’s most immediate and urgent challenge involves North Korea. The Pyongyang regime has dramatically increased aggressive maneuvers in recent months, with a record number of missile launches in the past year.

“South Korea needs to be more aware of the threat posed by China because of the situation on the Korean Peninsula, where China could intervene on behalf of the North if there is any conflict, but Seoul is also reluctant to get involved in a ‘great power competition’ between Beijing and Washington,” explains Ryo Hinata-Yamaguchi, assistant professor at the Center for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Tokyo.

South Korea has close security relations with the United States, but China is Seoul’s most important trading partner – a situation that forces the government to walk a diplomatic tightrope to ensure good relations with both Washington and Beijing.

While President Yoon Suk-yeol’s government has announced plans to increase military spending, most of the equipment is expected to be employed to counter the threats posed by North Korea.

To confront China, Seoul is looking to strengthen its security alliances. This week, South Korea agreed to end a long-running dispute with Japan over charges linked to Tokyo’s brutal regime in Korea between 1910 and 1945 – a decision widely seen as a trade-off for better ties in the defense sector.

“China’s foreign policy assertiveness and increased military spending are among the drivers of the strategic improvement in Japan-South Korea relations,” notes Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of International Studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

“The Yoon Suk-yeol government’s new understanding with the Japanese government of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida reflects a willingness to advance reconciliation and ensure that history does not hijack the urgency of regional security cooperation,” he assesses.

“Washington supports its allies in Asia in the interest of trilateral efforts, to deal with various challenges stemming from North Korea and China,” the professor adds. “But a key question is whether leaders in Seoul and Tokyo will have the capacity to complete their domestic homework to make international coordination sustainable,” he questions.

Apprehension in Taiwan

Beijing’s increased military capabilities have also been a source of apprehension in Taiwan, which China considers its territory and wants to take control of.

American officials have repeatedly warned that China may invade the autonomous democratic island in the coming years, highlighting the increase in military movements in the Taiwan Strait.

According to analyst Tzu-Yun Su, China’s projected military outlay for 2023 is 11 times Taiwan’s, putting pressure on the territory’s finances. “But since China has five combat zones, defense resources will be more sparse,” he points out.

The analyst also urges Taiwan to fully adopt what he called “asymmetric military equipment,” a tactic that U.S. officials have also urged the government in Taipei. “If Taiwan prioritizes investments in anti-ship missiles and air defense systems, it will have a great chance to neutralize China’s numerical advantage with its munitions and soldiers,” he points out.

Strengthening Alliances with US Security

Tensions between China and the Philippines have also been rising in recent months. The Philippines has filed dozens of complaints against Chinese activities in the South China Sea, including the accusation that a Chinese vessel used a “military-grade laser” against a Philippine patrol boat in the disputed waters.

While China claims almost complete sovereignty of the South China Sea, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei have overlapping claims in those waters.

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has stated that his country “will not lose an inch” of territory. His government has strengthened the military alliance between Manila and Washington, allowing American troops access to four more bases in the country and resuming joint patrols in the South China Sea.

For Su, shared concerns about China’s increased aggressiveness and presence may cause countries in the region to consider creating a body like a “maritime NATO,” or regional military alliance.

“Security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific focuses on the United States, and in recent months we have seen Washington strengthen bilateral military cooperation with countries like Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines,” he notes. “These are important efforts to balance the power dynamics in the region and curb the expansion of China’s maritime power,” he says.

By admin