China’s Military Modernization: U.S. Allies and Partners in Northeast Asia

China's Military Modernization
U.S. Allies and Partners in Northeast Asia

by Christopher W. Hughes
September 13, 2012

This chapter examines the impact of China’s military modernization on the strategic and defense postures of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan—the principal U.S. security partners in Northeast Asia.


This chapter examines the impact of China’s military modernization on the strategic and defense postures of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan—the principal U.S. security partners in Northeast Asia.


China’s military modernization and probing behavior pose serious challenges for the territorial and maritime interests of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. Their particular concerns revolve around symmetric threats from China’s buildup of its air defense and blue water naval power and asymmetric threats stemming from its A2/AD strategy. These countries seek engagement with China but are increasingly hedging militarily. In terms of internal balancing, they are augmenting their own air defense and naval power to counter China symmetrically, but also looking to respond to asymmetric threats. Japan is pursuing a new dynamic defense force doctrine, South Korea is adopting a more comprehensive defense policy that looks beyond immediate security issues on the Korean Peninsula, and Taiwan is moving toward a posture reliant on asymmetric capabilities. At the same time, enabled by reduced fears of abandonment and entrapment, all three countries have swung back firmly into the U.S. security fold to redouble external balancing against China.

  • Greater friction between U.S. partners and China heightens the risk that the U.S. will become entrapped in potential conflicts. The fact that Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are now aligned in seeking U.S. security engagement enhances Washington’s options to shape the regional environment.
  • In order to inject substance into its rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific, the U.S. needs to (1) reassure these countries of its future forward-deployed presence, (2) maintain sufficient supplementary and unique military capabilities in the region, and (3) increase the political credibility of its security guarantees.

Japan, the Republic of Korea (ROK), and the Republic of China (ROC) all harbor significant national security concerns vis-à-vis China’s rise and its military modernization. For Taiwan, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is the prime security concern. For Japan, China likewise increasingly looms as the greatest medium- to long-term threat to national security. Although South Korea is immediately preoccupied with North Korea, China represents a threat standing behind Pyongyang on the Korean Peninsula, and in its own right the PRC constitutes a longer-term threat to the ROK’s wider security interests. Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan’s individual diplomatic and military responses, along with the subsequent Chinese counter-reactions, will strongly test China’s grand strategy and deployment of military capabilities in the Asia-Pacific region. Moreover, given the combination of the relative size of the military forces of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan and the core national security issues involved on all sides, the fundamental mismanagement of bilateral relations with China contains real potential for interstate conflict and the destabilization of the entire region.

Due to Japan’s, South Korea’s, and Taiwan’s status as a U.S. ally or partner, respectively, their responses to the modernization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) carry implications not just for their own national security and China’s stance in the region, but also for the United States and the overall regional security order. In responding to challenges from China, these allies and partners will inevitably look to the United States for diplomatic and military cooperation. Washington thus is confronted with its own set of tests regarding its future strategic intent and maintenance of capabilities in the region. The United States’ capacity to support these particular allies and partners in responding to China’s rising power may speak volumes about the credibility of its continued military commitment to the region and the likely sustainability of the entire U.S.-led infrastructure of security in the Asia-Pacific.

This chapter will address the following interconnected policy issues. First, it will analyze the impact of China’s military modernization on Japan’s, South Korea’s, and Taiwan’s military capabilities; on each country’s strategic relations with China; and more widely on regional stability. Second, the chapter will examine the impact of trends in Japanese, South Korean, and Taiwanese military modernization on the United States’ maintenance both of its own military capabilities and of its alliances and partnerships in the region, and consequently the continuation of its role as the principal guarantor of regional security in Northeast Asia.

In examining these issues, this chapter makes four major arguments about Japan’s, South Korea’s, and Taiwan’s common challenges and responses, and consequently about the United States’ efforts to manage its military ties with regional allies and partners. The first is that these three countries often share concerns about the development of specific Chinese military capabilities. These concerns then serve as common drivers for these states’ own military modernization programs.

The second argument is that all three countries are simultaneously seeking engagement with China to dampen security dilemmas and hedging against its rise through varying degrees of internal military balancing. Yet just as they share common modernization ambitions, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan also confront common domestic obstacles, such as political and budgetary constraints, that limit their capacity for internal balancing against China.

The third argument is that Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan display convergent trends in external balancing efforts and in rethinking their individual military ties with the United States. All three have oscillated in their degree of attachment to the United States, influenced both by concerns over maintaining engagement and growing economic interdependence with China and by fears of abandonment and entrapment stemming from the United States’ reformulation of its regional and global military postures. More recently, however, these fears have diminished. Consequently Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have moved more firmly back into the U.S. security fold.

The fourth major argument, which follows from the third, is that despite the recent discussion of the United States having “lost Asia” in the face of…

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