The recent military budget increases in East Asia are motivated by various factors-flash point-driven, hedging strategy-driven, or governance-driven-but they do necessarily trigger an arms race in the region. Domestic politics within Japan, South Korea, China, and the United States have had a complicated impact on regional security. Furthermore, the potential crisis points on the Korean peninsula and in the Taiwan Strait are also driving factors that test the stability of the region. Despite competing interests and challenges, the U.S.-led system seems to be enduring and a great-power rivalry stemming from the increases in military spending between the United States and China appears unlikely.
Key words: East Asian security, China, Japan, South Korea, United States, military spending, arms race
East Asia has recently witnessed a new wave of military budget increases as ASEAN countries-the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations-have shrugged off the negative impact of the global financial crisis and struggled to update their military procurement plans. Vietnam will become a large purchaser of Russian-made submarines and Malaysia has acquired advanced jet fighters.1 Singapore has declared its intention to buy F-35 fighter jets. Seoul is developing its cruise missiles, planning a high-speed military communications network, building bigger warships, and boosting its space exploration program.2 Australia vows to spend more than $70 billion over the next twenty years to renew its military, according to its Defense White Paper of March 2009.3 Japan's military expenditures have stayed stable in the past three years and will drop by 0.8 percent in fiscal year 2009. However, if Tokyo fulfills its desire to acquire the F-22 Raptor, its defense budget will rise steeply in the future.4
New Delhi, meanwhile, is hungry for the U.S.-made F-18 and F-35 jet fighters and other offensive strike capabilities. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's India tour in July 2009 laid the groundwork for sizable military cooperation between the two countries. New Delhi is expected to spend $14 billion to acquire advanced American weaponry.5 In addition, "the region has seen considerable growth in arms manufacturing in terms of value, types of systems, sophistication and, particularly, national ambitions for such manufacturing."6
These trends suggest that the region is sliding into an arms race. Actually, this is not a new fear. Fears of a revival of an arms race in East Asia emerged shortly after the demise of the Soviet Union. They have returned, sporadically, during the post- September 11 era and with North Korea's nuclear brinksmanship policy. The surge of military expenditures in the region, by its very nature, reflects the vulnerability of regional security in East Asia. It does not, however, necessarily lead to the conclusion that a new arms race is underway.
A variety of factors explains the new wave of heated military budget increases in East Asia. The motivations vary from country to country. Several countries have raised their military spending to back up sovereign claims. For other countries, however, the increase is flash point-driven and reflects a desire to proactively, rather than passively, deal with growing tensions and potential military conflicts that arise from longstanding insecurity in East Asia.
Some ASEAN countries, such as Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines, obviously want to strengthen their naval combat and patrol capabilities in defiance of China's claims over disputed territory in the South China Sea and in response to any potential military contingency around the Spratly and Paracel Islands. Updating their outmoded military forces, these countries hope to reinforce their long-held claims to these islands. The islands are believed to hold significant oil and natural gas reserves, making them prized territories. …