[OVERSEAS VIEW]Defense buildups and wary neighbors

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[OVERSEAS VIEW]Defense buildups and wary neighbors

Japan and China are upgrading their defense postures in ways that will change the contour, if not the shape, of East Asia’s security landscape. The change involves uncertainty and concerns about conflict. As observers try to distinguish benign intentions from potentially aggressive ones, a key question is whether the military improvements will be based on legitimate security concerns.
On Jan. 9, Japan upgraded its Defense Agency to a full ministry, an important step toward “normalization” of its foreign and security policies. Japan also plans to establish a National Security Council to coordinate policy among its agencies and with other countries. An upcoming meeting of Japanese and U.S. foreign and defense ministers will likely welcome expanded roles and missions for Japan within the alliance. Most significantly, Japan’s prime minister has stated his intention to push for revision of the “peace constitution” to resolve legal issues regarding Japan’s contributions to international security.
Given the history of war that remains fresh in the minds of Japan’s neighbors, these developments might seem reason for pause. However, a normal military is Japan’s sovereign right and seems particularly legitimate as the need to deter North Korea rises.
Neighbors would have more reason to doubt Japan’s intentions if it were aggressively pursuing offensive capabilities and moving away from its alliance with the United States. But Japan’s military capabilities remain defense-oriented. Japan’s military spending is actually decreasing overall, while programs such as missile defense receive more funding. Rather than go it alone, Japan is further integrating its military with the United States and devoting more resources to multinational peacekeeping. These are hardly signs of a “re-militarizing” Japan.
Changes of a much greater scale are underway by the Chinese military. China has sustained double-digit spending increases for 17 years, focused on improving the technology and power projection of the largest military in the world. China’s status as a nuclear power already deters external aggression and its permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council protects Chinese diplomatic interests. China’s diplomatic clout only grows with rapid economic growth. Meanwhile, China’s relations with countries on its borders and with the United States are better than at any time in recent memory. The only exception is North Korea, a country greatly dependent on China and a supposed ally. So why does China need such significant increases in military capabilities?
Beijing released its most recent defense white paper last month, claiming the driver for China’s military modernization is deterring Taiwan’s independence. This white paper describes China’s security concerns in greater detail than earlier versions, a positive step toward military transparency. But the white paper is far from candid about Chinese weapons procurement. Nor is it convincing about why China needs additional military capabilities vis-a-vis Taiwan. Capabilities that are sufficient to deter Taiwan from declaring independence, avoiding armed conflict in lieu of a negotiated settlement, may be legitimate. China likely has such capabilities today.
Acquiring greater military capabilities, to a level against which Taiwan could not credibly deter invasion, would be of very questionable legitimacy. Such buildup would not only threaten Taiwan, but also destabilize the entire region. China’s growing importance on the international stage cannot be denied and Beijing should be engaged as an honest partner for dealing with myriad international challenges. However, China’s peaceful rise is not predetermined. Beijing would make great contributions to regional trust and stability if it made clear that its military modernizations were based on legitimate security concerns.
Ironically, the governments in Northeast Asia with the most legitimate and pressing security concerns ― South Korea and Taiwan ― are experiencing the most difficulty upgrading their defenses. This is not because of their military establishments, but political considerations.
In December, South Korea’s Defense Ministry published a white paper explaining why “North Korea’s conventional military strength, nuclear test, WMD and deployment of armaments along the front line” are grave and increasing threats to South Korea’s security. South Korean security specialists recommend strong countermeasures and closer cooperation with the United States. But the South Korean administration downplays the threat from the North and denies the need for tougher policies that might upset Pyongyang.
Taiwan’s military sees an urgent need to upgrade defensive capacity vis-a-vis Beijing’s growing missile, naval and air forces. In response to Taiwan requests, the United States approved a landmark arms package to help Taipei maintain a stable balance across the Taiwan Strait. But Taiwan’s legislature has resisted funding the package, instead allowing Beijing’s united front tactics to divide Taiwan’s democracy.
By putting short-term politics ahead of security strategy, Seoul and Taipei are losing the ability to credibly engage North Korea and China, and have unnecessarily frustrated their security guarantor, Washington. In contrast, Tokyo and Beijing are pushing ahead with military upgrades without adequate trust-building efforts to reassure neighbors that these developments are for legitimate security concerns, not aggressive intentions.
Perhaps East Asia needs a bit more exchanging of ideas. Seoul and Taipei might benefit from adapting some assertive strategic thinking from Beijing and Tokyo. In turn, China and Japan might benefit from a dose of South Korea’s and Taiwan’s preoccupation with relations with their neighbors.

*The writer is a Ph.D. candidate in government and international relations at Harvard University and a member of the Pacific Forum CSIS Young Leaders Program.

BY Leif-Eric Easley
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