Beijing’s growing assertiveness and influence in the region is making a number of countries, from Japan and South Korea to the Philippines, increasingly uncomfortable.
During the opening of the National People’s Congress, which is considered China’s rubber-stamp parliament, the government announced an increase of 7.2% in defense spending. The reason given for this increase was to deal with the “complex security challenges” and “escalating security threats” faced by the country. Chinese military expenditure is expected to rise by $225 billion in 2024, according to the report presented by the Ministry of Finance at the start of the NPC in Beijing. Spending on defence has increased by at least 6.6% every year for the past three decades. President Xi Jinping aims to create a “world-class force” by 2027.
The defence figure presented every year by Beijing at the NPC is among the few official statements that throw some light on the progress made by the PLA in its revamp. According to analysts outside China, the R&D expenditure is not included in the statement, and the actual amount far exceeds the official sum.
Tzu-Yun Su, an analyst working at the Institute for National Defence and Security Research in Taiwan, said that these new defence spending plans reflect the country’s intention to transition from being a land power to being a naval power. He added that the first stage of Beijing’s military expansion will cover the areas of the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, and the East China Sea. The second step will focus on the “second island chain”, which consists of islands that belong to Japan all the way to Guam and the islands of Micronesia.
INCREASED THREAT PERCEPTION
The increase in defence spending comes amid heightening geopolitical tensions in the Indo-Pacific.
Beijing’s growing assertiveness and influence in the region is making a number of countries, from Japan and South Korea to the Philippines, increasingly uncomfortable. Their perceptions of an increased threat to regional security have prompted a shift in spending patterns, with a focus on defence preparedness and a hike in military spending.
Japan has announced a record military budget with a 26% increase in spending from last year on defence. Japan has earmarked $51.7 billion, or 6.82 trillion yen, for the coming year. The Japanese government also revealed the nation’s biggest military buildup since World War II, moving away from seventy years of pacifism.
US, CHINA AND SOUTH KOREA
Although South Korea is worried about China’s military strength, North Korea poses the most immediate and pressing security challenge for Seoul. North Korea launched a record number of missiles last year and has exponentially increased its aggressive manoeuvres in recent months.
According to Ryo Hinata-Yamaguchi, a project assistant professor at the University of Tokyo, Beijing could intervene on North Korea’s side in the event of a contingency, therefore Seoul has to be more delicate about the threat posed by China. Seoul is also reluctant to get involved in the “great power competition” between Washington and Beijing. South Korea shares deep security ties with the US, with China being its most important trade partner. This situation has forced it to walk a political tightrope between the two great powers.
The South Korean administration has announced plans to increase its military spending to face the threats posed by Pyongyang. To counter the China problem, South Korea has made plans to strengthen its security alliances in the Indo-Pacific. China’s geopolitical assertiveness in the region is the driver of improving relations between Japan and South Korea. Improved relations between the two are being supported by Washington, which has an interest in a trilateral effort to deal with various challenges posed by North Korea and China.
CHINA AND TAIWAN
Repeated warnings have been issued by top American officials who believe that in the coming years China may invade Taiwan, which China considers its own territory. Beijing is being increasingly assertive in the Taiwan Strait, with multiple incursions into Taiwan’s airspace in the last month alone. China’s military spending is 11 times that of Taiwan, which puts a lot of pressure on the small island country. According to analyst Tzu-Yun Su, Taiwan should adopt asymmetric warfare. If Taiwan invests in anti-ship missiles and air defence, it might have a high chance of offsetting China’s numerical advantage.
TENSIONS BETWEEN CHINA AND PHILLIPPINES
Philippines has filed a lot of complaints against China’s activities in the South China Sea, including the use of a “military-grade laser” against a Philippines patrol boat by a Chinese vessel in the disputed waters. Tensions between the two countries have grown significantly in recent months.
Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia all have overlapping claims to the disputed water body, even though China claims complete sovereignty over it. The Philippine administration, led by President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., has strengthened military ties between Manila and Washington. China’s growing aggressiveness might open countries in the region to the possibility of setting up a “maritime NATO”.
Security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region is based on the US. In the past few months, Washington has strengthened bilateral military ties with various countries like Japan, Australia, India and South Korea. The US is important to balance the power dynamics in the region and yo hold Chinese maritime expansion at bay.