The Modernization And Expansion Of East Asian Militaries

East Asian free-market democracies are boosting military capabilities to combat China’s increasingly powerful presence. This military transformation has the United States (U.S.) support and it is occurring alongside similar military modernizations throughout the world.

Despite taking place in different military sectors and contrasting national and cultural contexts, the modernizations share a common theme of aging military hardware being replaced. Similarly, another pattern is the pursuit of national survival against potentially existential threats, particularly for Taiwan and South Korea. In this critical context, discussions must occur regarding the conflicting pursuit of peace and security. The concept of peace-building through reunification is applicable in both South Korea and Taiwan. However, this prospect faces significant challenges amidst a lack of trust and contradictory governance values.

On 26 June 2021, Taiwan’s Coast Guard was delivered the second of 12 new missile corvettes capable of firing Hsiung Feng III and Hsiung Feng II anti-ship missiles. Taiwan (also known as the Republic of China) is increasingly arming itself with the help of the U.S. amidst rising tensions with China (the People’s Republic of China).  Eight submarines are also being built. In 2019, Taiwan agreed to purchase 108 Abrams tanks, 250 Stinger missiles, and over 2 billion dollars worth of equipment.

Taiwan’s Foreign Minister, Joseph Wu, recently told CNN that “we have to engage in asymmetric warfare, so that China understands that there is a certain cost that it has to pay if they want to initiate a war against Taiwan.” He had earlier stated Taiwan would “fight to the very last day” if attacked by China. On 15 June 2021, China sent 28 fighter planes and nuclear-capable bombers into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone.

In South Korea, the military buildup is primarily catered to defence against North Korea. Modernization of its military is underway but plans involve a reduction in troop numbers. This is countered by expanded equipment such as the new CVX light aircraft carrier being developed. Additionally, 20 F-35 fighter jets will be purchased for the carrier. South Korea differs from Taiwan by having a far larger military and mandatory conscription. It also exceeds 2% of GDP on military spending. It had the tenth-largest military expenditure in the world in 2018, which is particularly noteworthy with a population of 51 million people.

Meanwhile, Japan is increasing its military strength and cautiously questioning whether constitutional limits on military deployments remain appropriate in the 21st Century. Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reinterpreted Article 9 of the Constitution to cooperate with other militaries in Japan’s protection. Military expenditure has increased for the ninth year in a row, but at low total levels relative to other states. As in Taiwan and South Korea, Japan has acquired 104 F-35 fighter jets. It has also removed the 1% cap on military spending as a share of GDP. Furthermore, the Japanese navy is getting $902 million for two compact warships, while two other advanced warships are being planned.

Consequently, the East Asian democracies are moving in a similar pattern, each state targetting its military for significant modernization. As military expansion continues, the question remains fixed on how this will impact China’s military presence and the composition of the global order.