How do China's neighbors view Beijing's military plans?

Much of China’s military budget has gone towards improving China’s navy, and the country has built sophisticated naval and aviation bases on islands in the South China Sea that are the subject of territorial disputes. Because of these two considerations, China’s neighbors are on edge over the prospect of a military showdown over territorial claims.

Various countries, from Japan and South Korea to the Philippines, are increasingly wary of Beijing’s growing aggressiveness and influence in the region.

At the opening of the Chinese Parliament on Sunday, outgoing Premier Li Keqiang announced an increase in the country’s military spending, signaling the “escalation” of security threats from abroad. Beijing plans to spend some 1.55 trillion yuan ($225 billion) on its military this year, an increase of 7.2% and the fastest increase since 2019.

The military should “devote more energy to combat training and strengthen military work in all directions and domains,” Li said.

While China has increased its defense budget this year, it still pales compared to the U.S., which has allocated over $800 billion to its military. Western experts, however, estimate that China spends substantially more on defense than publicly reported.

“China has embarked on a broad, long-term military modernization and expansion program since 2000,” said Drew Thompson, a China expert at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. “I think the most recent budget increase for the PLA is very consistent with what we’ve seen in the last 22 years.”

According to Taiwanese defense researcher Tzu-Yun Su, China is planning to shift its focus from land to maritime power, which is reflected in the country’s defense budget.

“The Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea, and the East China Sea will be the areas covered by the first stage of Beijing’s military expansion,” he said. “Next, China will set its sights on expanding into the ‘second island chain,’ where it wants to influence the rebalancing of power,” he added. The second island chain is made up of the islands of Japan, extending to Guam and the islands of Micronesia.

Increased threat perception

The increase in defense spending comes against rising geopolitical tensions in the Indo-Pacific. Various countries, from Japan and South Korea to the Philippines, are growing increasingly wary of Beijing’s growing aggressiveness and influence in the region.

Their perception of a greater threat to regional security has led them to focus on their own defensive preparation and increase military spending.

Japan, for example, announced a military record spending of 6.82 trillion yen ($51.7 billion) for the next year, an increase of about 26% over the previous year. After seven decades of pacifism, the government of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida also disclosed the greatest military deployment since World War II.

Under the new military strategy, Tokyo will increase its defense budget to 2% of GDP and purchase missiles with a range of 1,000 kilometers, making it possible to strike ships or land targets.

US-China balance

South Korea is also increasingly concerned about China’s military might, but Seoul’s most immediate and pressing security challenge revolves around North Korea. Pyongyang has dramatically stepped up its aggressive maneuvers recently, with a record number of missile launches last year.

“South Korea has to be more sensitive to the threat posed by China because of the situation on the Korean Peninsula, where China could intervene on the North’s side in case of contingency, but Seoul is also reluctant to get involved in the ‘big competition’ powers” ​​​​between Beijing and Washington,” said Ryo Hinata-Yamaguchi, an associate professor of projects at the University of Tokyo Advanced Science and Technology Research Center.

South Korea must maintain excellent relations with both the United States and China because of the importance of both countries to the peninsula’s security and economy.

The government of President Yoon Suk-yeol has announced an increase in military spending, with the majority of the funds going towards countering North Korean threats.

To counter China, Seoul is trying to bolster its security alliances. This week, South Korea agreed to end a longstanding dispute with Japan over grievances related to Tokyo’s brutal rule of Korea between 1910 and 1945, a decision widely seen as a tradeoff to improved defense ties.

“China’s firmness in foreign policy and increased military spending are some of the factors that have driven the strategic improvement of relations between South Korea and Japan,” said Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of International Studies at the University Ewha Womans from Seoul.

“The Yoon administration’s new understanding with the Japanese government of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida reflects a willingness to advance reconciliation and ensure that urgent regional security cooperation is not held hostage to history.”

“Washington stands with its allies in Asia for the sake of trilateral efforts to address the challenges posed by North Korea and China,” he added. “But a key question is whether the leaders of Seoul and Tokyo will be able to complete domestic political duties to make their international coordination sustainable.”

A source of anxiety in Taiwan

Taiwan, which China claims as its own and has pledged to rule over one day, is similarly worried about Beijing’s expanding military might.

U.S. officials have expressed concern for the self-governed, democratic island for some time, citing Beijing’s more aggressive military movements across the Taiwan Strait as a possible trigger for a future invasion.

According to analyst Tzu-Yun Su, China’s military spending in 2023 is more than 11 times that of Taiwan, putting great pressure on the territory’s finances. “But since China has five combat zones, its defense resources will be more spread out,” he noted. He called on Taiwan to fully embrace “asymmetric warfare,” something even U.S. officials have urged Taipei to do.

“If Taiwan prioritizes investment in anti-ship missiles and air defense missiles, it will have a good chance of countering China’s numerical advantage in its ammunition and military personnel,” Su stressed.

The level of tension between China and the Philippines has also been increasing recently. The Philippines have lodged numerous complaints over Chinese actions in the South China Sea, including allegations that a Chinese ship used a “military-grade laser” against a Philippine patrol vessel in territorial waters.

While China claims near-total sovereignty over the sea, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei have overlapping claims to parts of the water body.

Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said his country “would not lose an inch” of territory in an interview. His government has increased the number of American military bases in the Southeast Asian country and resumed joint patrols in the South China Sea, further solidifying the military relationship between Manila and Washington.

Su, an INDSR expert, said shared concern about China’s growing aggressiveness and assertiveness could lead countries in the region to consider establishing something like a “maritime NATO.”

“Security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region revolves around the United States, and in recent months we have seen Washington strengthen bilateral military cooperation with countries such as Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines,” he noted. “These are important efforts to balance power dynamics in the region and curb the expansion of China’s sea power.”