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strategic asia 2005–06



in an Era of Uncertainty

Edited by

Ashley J. Tellis and Michael Wills


Military Modernization in Asia

Ashley J. Tellis

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Seattle, Washington 98105 USA 206-632-7370 © the national bureau of asian research Executive Summary This chapter overviews the strategic environment in Asia as it affects the military modernization efforts being undertaken by states in the region.

main argument:

Asian militaries are transforming their capabilities in order to cope with various kinds of strategic uncertainty. The defense transformation strategies followed by different Asian states reflect their specific threat environments, economic performance, security dilemmas, and national regime and state structures. This change has the potential to alter the region’s strategic balance, and poses significant opportunities and challenges for both the U.S. and Asia.

policy implications:

• Although a broad consensus exists across Asian states regarding the necessity of peace and political stability for the achievement of economic prosperity, a number of structural drivers, reinforced by internal considerations, are pushing states to invest in military modernization.

• China, India, Russia, Japan, and the U.S. are each qualitatively improving the force structure, warfighting capabilities, and deployed inventory of their armed forces. Most states are also increasing defense outlays and incorporating RMA components into their military modernization programs, with significant consequences for the regional balance of power.

• The U.S. will be called upon to maintain or even increase its role as regional security guarantor for a number of Asian states. This will require the U.S. to preserve its current military dominance, protect its existing alliances, and develop new ties to major states that are not allied or opposed to Washington. Not doing so would likely lead to military build-ups, increased tension, and even nuclear weapons proliferation.

• China will increasingly be the most important actor in Asia, both for other Asian countries as well as for the U.S. Many Asian powers are responding, at least in part, by developing military capabilities and outlaying defense expenditures as a safeguard against China’s rise.

Overview Military Modernization in Asia Ashley J. Tellis There is now abroad consensus that the Asian continent is poised to become the new center of gravity in global politics. From a historical perspective, this transformation is momentous in that—if present trends hold—for the first time since the beginning of modernity (circa 1500) the single largest concentration of global economic power will be found not in Europe or the Americas but rather in Asia. As the pioneering work of Angus Maddison has demonstrated, the Asian continent accounted for approximately 65% of the global product in 1500, in contrast to the 20% and.03% respective shares of Europe and the Americas. The era that followed saw the rise of colonialism, the emergence of revolutionary technical change, new patterns of global trade, and the phenomenon of major inter-state war. Asia’s share of the global product declined precipitously during this new era, largely thanks to the fluctuating fortunes of key states such as China, Japan, and India. By 1950 Europe’s share of the global product had risen to 29%, the Americas had claimed a hefty 38%, while the Asian portion of the total had fallen to only 18%.1 The end of World War II and the concomitant restructuring of the global system that followed ushered in new conditions that served to engender the recrudescence of Asia. The demise of the colonial order, the imperial (though contested) peace that was created and sustained by U.S. power, and the presence of purposive national elites in many Asian countries all combined to create the appropriate conditions for the success of specific national Ashley J. Tellis is Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is Research Director of the Strategic Asia Program at NBR and co-editor of Strategic Asia 2004–05: Confronting Terrorism in the Pursuit of Power. He can be reached at atellis@carnegieendowment.org.

Calculated from data in Angus Maddison, The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective (Paris:

Development Centre of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2001),

261. Russia’s contribution to the global output was excluded in these figures.

 • Strategic Asia 2005–06 economic strategies that would produce sustained growth over time.2 These economic strategies—which consisted of directed capitalism first witnessed in Japan and then in North and Southeast Asia, China, and India—paved the way for an explosion of national economic growth and an expansion of Asia’s share in the global product. By 1998 Asia’s share of global GNP had risen to about 37%, and most projections indicate that this proportion is likely to increase even further over the next decade and beyond. Lower growth in the labor force, reduced export performance, diminishing returns to capital, changes in demographic structure, and the maturation of the economy all suggest that national growth rates in several Asian states—in particular Japan, South Korea, and possibly China—are likely to decline in comparison to the latter half of the Cold War period. Asia’s share of the global economy is, however, nevertheless likely to reach about 43% by 2025—and thus will constitute the largest locus of economic power worldwide.3 The current and prospective growth of the Asian economy will likely lead to larger military expenditures and different forms of military modernization. This expectation is based on the realist hypothesis that, since economic growth creates expanding national assets, all states embedded in a competitive system of international politics inevitably seek to protect these resources by increasing their military capabilities.4 This crude causal relationship is qualified by a variety of factors, however, including a country’s size, its geographical location, historical burdens, the salience of its immediate threats, regime character and state structure, and the structure of the larger regional or international system.5 Size is important because large states—whether in physical or economic terms—usually have immediate command over more resources than small states. Geographical location is likewise crucial, as strategically placed states must often allocate a relatively greater amount of military resources in order to protect their privileged position. Historical burdens become important when a state’s experience of past threats, warfare, or defeat might motivate military investments. The salience of immediate threats is important for obvious reasons: the greater the security competition facing a state, the Ashley J. Tellis, “Smoke, Fire, and What to Do in Asia,” Policy Review, no. 100 (April and May 2000), http://www.policyreview.org/apr00/tellis.html; and Ashley J. Tellis, et al., “Sources of Conflict in Asia,” in Sources of Conflict in the 21st Century: Regional Futures and U.S. Strategy, ed. Zalmay Khalilzad and Ian O. Lesser (Santa Monica: RAND, 1998), 43–170.

Norihisa Sakurai, “Growth Potential of Asian Economy,” Central Research Institute of Electric Power Industry, annual research report, 2001, http://criepi.denken.or.jp/en/e_publication/a2001/ 01seika45.pdf.

See the historical evidence as reviewed in Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers:

Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 (New York: Random House, 1987).

Jasen Castillo, et al., Military Expenditures and Economic Growth (Santa Monica: RAND, 2001).

Tellis – Overview • 5 larger the incentives are to neutralize threats through military preparation, whether via internal balancing or external alliances. Regime character and state structure are critical because they determine how able a country is in accurately processing information concerning its external environment.

These two variables also shape resource allocation for internal versus external defense, as well as condition outside perceptions of a country’s fears, ambitions, and ideology. Finally, the structure of the larger regional or international system is important because it defines, in a Parsonian sense, the “system of action” within which a country must operate: the international structure describes the distribution of power, particularly the potential for alliances insofar as they either exacerbate or mitigate the security dilemmas facing any particular state.

Asia as a Cynosure for Military Modernization All of the above factors are examined, explicitly or implicitly, in the various country and regional studies gathered in this volume on military modernization in Asia. Taken together, the chapters show that military modernization, as a response to uncertainty, remains alive and well throughout “Strategic Asia.” The forms such modernization takes, the challenges it is oriented to address, and the urgency with which it is undertaken, however, reflect both the diversity of the region itself and the challenges peculiar to each of the “security complexes” of which Asia is composed.6 If military expenditures are any indication, then defense spending by key actors in Strategic Asia’s prism of focus suggests an upward trend positively correlated with each country’s pattern of economic growth in the post-1990 period.

This phenomenon is not surprising when viewed against the backdrop of their grand strategies: the military capabilities of the various Asian states in general and their modernization efforts in particular reveal that the Asian continent remains an arena of active high politics.

The sheer productivity of the continent ensures this outcome in the first instance. Apart from the United States, which is an Asian power by virtue of both its global preeminence and its security presence on the continent, the region hosts a concentration of major economic centers: Japan, China, South Korea, India, Australia, and important though lesser Southeast Asian states. The continuing growth of these centers, which is in large part due to foreign trade, strengthens their connectivity both with the United States and increasingly with one another. This dynamic of economic growth has resultFor more on the term “security complexes,” see Barry Buzan, People, States and Fear: An Agenda for International Security Studies in the Post-Cold War Era (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1991), 190 ff.

6 • Strategic Asia 2005–06 ed ineluctably in rising energy requirements, most of which cannot be satisfied domestically. As a result, almost every major Asian economic power has begun to look outward for dependable sources of energy; this in turn has led to a mix of competitive acquisition strategies that may require military components to assure their effectiveness.7 The chapters on China, Japan, and India conclude that the protection of energy access constitutes one of the key drivers of military modernization among the large Asian states.

While the demands of sustaining economic growth may thus by themselves assure the continuing relevance of military instruments in Asia—at least for all the major powers and for many of the lesser states as well, the vitality of traditional inter-state politics in Asia further guarantees their prominence well into the foreseeable future.

First and foremost, the Asian continent remains the arena wherein the interests of three great powers—the United States, Russia, and China—actively intersect. Japan and India have also leveled claims for similar recognition through their expressed desire for permanent United Nations Security Council membership. At the moment, peaceful relations exist between all five of these states. Whether such a state of tranquility can last in perpetuity, however, is unclear. China and India are rising powers both haunted by historical humiliations and intent on securing their rightful place in the emerging international order. As a result, the two countries are extraordinarily sensitive to issues of sovereignty and status, and both face secessionist (or potential secessionist) movements. Not surprisingly, then, Beijing and New Delhi have also embarked on major programs of military modernization in a bid to consolidate existing capabilities while simultaneously developing new competencies. In this volume, David Shambaugh’s chapter on China and John Gill’s chapter on India document the multiple dimensions of this phenomenon.

While both China and India constitute conspicuous examples of rising Asian powers, the challenge of integrating the former into the international system is, for multiple reasons, likely to be far more difficult than integrating the latter. First, Chinese efforts to resolve the “secessionist threat” posed by Taiwan (which Beijing—despite having no physical control over the island— regards as an inalienable part of China) puts China into potential conflict with the United States. As “long cycle” theorists of international politics have persuasively pointed out, systemic wars often arise not so much because rising states mount direct attacks on a hegemon, but rather because such states happen to attack either key allies of the existing hegemon or important neuThomas P.M. Barnett, “Asia’s Energy Future: The Military-Market Link,” in Globalization and Maritime Power, ed. Sam J. Tangredi (Washington D.C.: National Defense University Press, 2003), 189–200.

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