The rising military powers of East Asia

Updated On: Jan 13, 2007

As the US continues to get bogged down in Iraq and internally consumed in a debate over a “troop surge” of 20 000 more troops and an additional US$1 billion more to the US$450 billion already spent on a three-year war, East Asia continues to witness the rise of two military powers.

Two significant events happened within days of each other. Japan formally upgraded its Defence Agency to ministry status, the strongest symbol of Tokyo's re-emergence as a world military power after WWII. Amongst the changes, this would legitimize and broaden Japan’s overseas military capability in peacekeeping missions. Defence Agency chief Fumio Kyuma was also promoted to full minister. The new Ministry of Defence would have additional significant powers to request budgets from the Finance Ministry and to propose legislation.

'I am proud to be Prime Minister at the time we were able to establish the Defence Ministry as an organisation that plays the role of national defence that is inalienable from state sovereignty,' Mr Abe said in a speech.' This is a big first step towards building a new nation after emerging from the postwar regime.' Amongst Abe’s agendas, he is keen to promote closer military ties with NATO, and push for a bigger global security role for Tokyo, leaving almost immediately on a European tour to do this.  While Abe is in Europe, his vice-Minister for foreign affairs is in Australia to discuss increase cooperation in various areas including military exercises and defence of shipping lanes.

All these seemingly “hawkish” moves may raise eyebrows in China at a time when bilateral ties are still sensitive.  Abe’s call to EU to keep its embargo on arms sales to China, saying that “the lack of transparency in China’s defence spending is an issue” could further rile China.

China with its newfound confidence from its US$1 trillion reserves and a surging economic machine, is perhaps more ready to be “transparent” and is openly showing off its military capability.   Less than two weeks after releasing its own indigenously-constructed third generation fighter jet – the Jian 10- which is comparable to the US F-16 jet fighter, China openly declared that it now has the capability to build an aircraft carrier. 'China has the ability to build an aircraft carrier, but has not determined a specific time to do so,' said Mr Huang Qiang, secretary-general of the Commission of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence (Costind), a ministerial-level agency tasked with regulating China's defence industry.

Not many countries in East Asia have the luxury of building a carrier. Only Thailand for example has a helicopter carrier but it is rusting in the docks. On the other hand, China and Japan have declared plans to build a modern carrier fleet – fleet capability not just a single carrier. It is quite easy to forget that Japan had some of the most advance carrier technologies in WWII, constructing the world’s largest aircraft carrier, the Shinano. They had 10 carrier groups which were considered the most sophisticated at the start of WWII compared to America’s six. Stunted by a peace constitution, Japan has lagged behind in carrier technology in the postwar period. But Japan already has a carrier-ish naval capability with ships that can carry multiple helicopters. Japan is likely to revive carrier programs in the near future to bolster the world’s third most powerful navy.

China has already acquired an old Soviet carrier for study but has converted it into a floating theme park. It has also tried unsuccessfully to acquire Vertical Take-off and Landing technologies (VTOL) first from the British which was blocked by Washington and then later from the former Soviet Union which was abandoned due to costs. However, given the phenomenon growth of Chinese technological capabilities, China is more than equipped to go for fixed-wing aircraft carriers now. This was a not-so-subtle challenge to the US Pacific power which has aircraft carrier groups at the core of its US Pacific 7th Fleet. To bolster its ambitions of a big power status, President Hu Jintao also called for the construction of a 'powerful' navy. This was Beijing’s way of showing unhappiness in the recent US-Japan plan for a coordinated response to Taiwan.

But perhaps the real nuclear race lies in the civil nuclear technology sector. China is going to have the world’s largest network of nuclear plants and plans to use US technologies called the ‘Pebblehead’ technology. Curiously, what was formerly US technology may now ironically be Japanese, meaning China’s choice of Westinghouse AP-1000 nuclear plant will now be Japanese technology since Japan’s Toshiba has acquired the largest US nuclear firm, Westinghouse, and is moving aggressively into both US and Chinese markets. Starved of money and facing American financial institutions’ unwillingness to fund US nuclear plant projects, US is even using Japanese funding for this purpose.

How such dual-use technology will eventually play out in the nuclear race (both civil and military) between US, China and Japan will need more time for analysis. In the meantime, conventional arms race will continue unabated. The only question is whether it will lead to deterrence or confrontation.


Japan urges EU to keep arms embargo on China (Straits Times Interactive, 11 January 2007)

Japan, Australia to beef up cooperation (Straits Times, 11 January 2007)

First, China unveils this fighter jet... ...now, it says it can build an aircraft carrier (Straits Times, 10 January 2007)

US, Japan agree to develop landmark civil nuclear action plan (AFP, 10 January 2007)

Japan formally upgrades defence agency to ministry (Straits Times, 10 January 2007)

Abe to push for bigger global security role for Tokyo (Straits Times, 8 January 2007)