From the Himalayas to the East Sea: A Defense Firepower Review
The increasing border tensions across the APAC region, alongside the disruptions caused by the pandemic, have triggered a tectonic shift in the geo-political equations in the region. China's increasingly aggressive foreign-policy posture under the Xi Jinping administration, known as the 'wolf warrior' diplomacy, often forces other countries to always keep an eye over their shoulders. While China is consolidating its defense forces, strong economies in the APAC region, like Japan and India, are also augmenting their firepower. Let's decipher the growing defense prowess across major Asian countries.
China: The Wolf Warrior Diplomacy
China currently has the highest market share in the Asia-Pacific defense market. The country is next to the United States in military spending, constantly increasing the budget earmarking. According to the draft budget proposals presented by Premier Li Keqiang to the National People's Congress (NPC) last year, the Chinese government hiked the defense budget for the fiscal year to 1.45 trillion yuan ($230 billion), a 7.1 percent year-on-year increase. This includes the Chinese army's continuing modernization expenses. To put this into perspective, The earmarked expenditure is over three times that of India's defense budget of 5.25 lakh crore (about USD 70 billion) for 2022. In addition to its defense budget, China has a separate internal security budget which often surpasses the defense spending.
It was in 2017, the Xi Jinping administration announced a comprehensive overhaul of its armed forces by 2035. The country has been increasing its defense budgets yearly by close to 10 percent to accommodate this ambitious goal. In addition to international purchases, the Chinese defense force has been continuously expanding its indigenous manufacturing capabilities over the past five years. In the aftermath, Chengdu Aerospace Corporation, a state-owned state-owned enterprise, developed Chengdu J-20, the stealth fifth-generation fighter aircraft, and commissioned it in March 2017. China also launched its first domestically manufactured aircraft carrier in April 2018, and a couple more are in manufacturing. However, while the country leads in drone manufacturing and other tech-powered innovations in the defense department, the ongoing trade war with the US is anticipated to hamper the country's growth in the coming years.
In December 2018, after the Chinese established its aggressive foreign policy, Japan changed its plan and decided to procure approximately 150 F-35 stealth fighter jets. Within a year, the US State Department approved the foreign military sale to Japan for the upgradation of 98 F-15J aircraft to a Japanese Super Interceptor (JSI) configuration for an estimated cost of $4 billion.
Japan: A Storm in the East Sea
Japan's turbulent relationship with China is not news to the international communities. In the recent past, things have only moved toward the South. According to defense sources in Japan, the Chinese troops manifested a "Happy New Year" by performing naval maneuvers and flight operations in the Pacific using the Liaoning aircraft carrier and five warships. A couple of weeks before, the Chinese army also sailed missile destroyers between the main Okinawa island and Miyakojima island into the Western Pacific from the East China Sea. The events forced the Japanese to scramble jet fighters on the first day of the year and dispatch aircraft and warships to keep tabs on China's actions in the Pacific.
It's no wonder that in December, Japan unveiled an unprecedented $320 billion military investment plan over the next five Years. During his speech unveiling the new defense strategy, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida implied the worries that Russia might have set a precedent that will encourage China to attack Taiwan, hinder the peace in nearby Japanese islands, and disrupt the chip supply and sea lanes that supply Middle East oil. The Japanese government also revealed that their sweeping five-year plan to revamp national security strategy includes stockpiling spare parts and other munitions, reinforcing military logistics, and developing modern cyber warfare capabilities.
In truth, the Japanese government has been on a revamp-course for quite a few years now. Before China adopted its wolf warrior diplomacy, Japan had planned to acquire 42 F-35A from the US. Originally manufactured by American Aerospace company Pratt & Whitney, the F-35A is the US Air Force's latest fifth-generation fighter, which with its aerodynamic performance and advanced integrated avionics, was designed to provide next-generation stealth, enhanced situational awareness, and reduced vulnerability for the US and its allies. However, in December 2018, after the Chinese established its aggressive foreign policy, Japan changed its plan and decided to procure approximately 150 F-35 stealth fighter jets. Within a year, the US State Department approved the foreign military sale to Japan for the upgradation of 98 F-15J aircraft to a Japanese Super Interceptor (JSI) configuration for an estimated cost of $4 billion. In addition to increasing its firepower, Japan has also clearly intended to cooperate more closely with the US and other like-minded nations to defend against threats to the established international peace and order.
India: Dark Clouds in the Himalayas
The Indo-China border in the Himalayas also tells a story of constant turbulence. On December the 12th, 2022, a video of what appears to be an unreported violent clash between Indian and Chinese troops on the 9th of the month at their disputed Himalayan border in the Tawang sector of Arunachal Pradesh emerged online. The incident made international news, shedding new light on territorial tensions between the two Asian powers. This is the first reported clash between the two sides since the face-off in Ladakh's Galwan in June, 2020.
India has also revamped its defensive approach by foreseeing the aggressive Chinese foreign policy and the need to provide a sustainable answer to the noisy neighbors in the North-West. One of the first major decisions of the BJP government after ascending to power in 2014 was modernizing its defense forces and building a self-reliant backbone through its Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). It has worked.
It's quite impressive how the new government went about its business. While announcing a long-term revolutionary defense overhaul plan right away, the government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2016 signed the 'Rafale deal,' in which India would pay about ₹58,000 crore or €7.8 billion for 36 off-the-shelf Dassault Rafale twin-engine fighters. Several offset obligations were also a part of the contract, including the need to reinvest 50 percent of the total contract in India each year between September 2019 and September 2022. It aligned well with the country's self-reliance vision. In a historic decision in 2021, PM Modi replaced the country's over 200-year-old Ordnance Factory Board with seven new state-run defense firms. The Modi government soon widened its defense horizons by announcing its plan to become a prominent defense exporter.
In that regard, the year 2022 became a great milestone for the country as it formally inked its first major defense system export deal with the Philippines—a $375 million contract for the BrahMos shore-based anti-ship missile system. Subsequently, India signed new missiles & weapon systems export deals with countries like Armenia (Rs. 2,000 crore) and Bangladesh (Rs. 4100 crore). The result? India's defense exports stood at a record ₹14,000 crore in 2021-22—its highest ever.
Recently, PM Modi has proposed a challenge for the Aerospace industry with his call to achieve an annual defense export target of Rs 40,000 crore. "Under the self-reliant India campaign, the country's goal is to make India the world's biggest military power on its own and development of modern military industry in India," PM Modi clarifies.