One doesn't need Superman's X-ray vision or have to look far to see various tensions building in the Asia-Pacific region, aside from those long-standing ones between North and South Korea, or China and Taiwan.
Recent rhetoric over a chain of uninhabited islands in a potentially energy-rich area of the East China Sea, which the Japanese call the Senkaku Islands, and which the Chinese call the Diaoyu Islands, makes it appear that the Japanese government is taking a tougher approach on foreign policy and military affairs.
Its decision to purchase the disputed islands in September has only served to increase irritation among the Chinese. Ironically, the Japanese government was trying to keep things from getting worse, since the decision was a response to the hawkish plans of Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, who sought to purchase the islands by collecting public donations. Given Ishihara's nationalistic views, such a purchase would have certainly have further escalated the dispute.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda vowed that he would "never compromise" on the territorial dispute with China. And even his rival, Shinzo Abe, former prime minister and leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), has similarly pledged to defend Japan's territorial assets.
Those hoping the United States can mediate this are likely hoping in vain. The United States maintains that it has no position on the dispute, while acknowledging that the islands nonetheless fall under a United States-Japan defense treaty.
Meanwhile, China continues its military and political standoff with the Philippines over control of parts of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
And the United States has conceptualized a new concept of American overseas military operations known as "Air-Sea Battle," which some in Asia — as well as back home — see as a way for the United States to challenge a rising China.
Aside from its longstanding military presence in Japan and South Korea, the U.S. military, as part of the Obama Administration's "pivot to Asia," is building up its relationships with other Asian nations, especially those in and around Southeast Asia.
Last November, President Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced plans for enhanced U.S.-Australian military cooperation, sending up to 2,500 U.S. Marines to Australia for joint training and exercises, increasing visits by U.S. aircraft to northern Australian airfields, and conducting more calls by U.S. ships to various Australian ports.
On Tuesday, Lieut. General Francis J. Wiercinski, commanding general of U.S. Army Pacific (USARPAC), said at a panel at the Association of the U.S. Army's annual conference that "seven of the 10 largest armies in the world are in the Pacific."
Usually when there are geopolitical tensions there are also rising military expenditures. Such seems to be the case, as least in East Asia, although the start of the rise predates the incident described above. A study released this month by the independent Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington examines defense spending in Asia for the five countries with the largest defense budgets in Asia—China, India, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan—for the years 2000 to 2011.
Among its findings was that defense spending increased in all five countries between 2000 and 2011. They spent a combined $224 billion last year. In constant 2011 U.S. dollars, this is almost twice the amount they spent in 2000.
But there have been changes among those countries, according to the CSIS study. Until 2005, Japan had the largest defense budget in Asia. Since 2005, China has been the biggest spender on defense, having previously replaced India as the second-biggest spender in 2001. China's share of the group's combined defense spending, more than doubled from 19.9% in 2000 to 40.2% in 2011.
Accounting for inflation, from 2000 to 2011 China's defense spending increased the fastest, with an 11-year compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 13.4%. South Korea was second, with a 4.8% CAGR. India and Japan were on a very similar growth trajectory, with 3.6 and 3.5% CAGRs, respectively. Taiwan experienced the lowest increase in defense spending among the group with a CAGR of 1.8%.
Bur military spending is only an indication — not a prediction — of what might happen in the future.
The study concludes, among other things:
Overall, continued or increasing tensions in the Asia-Pacific region could drive further increases in defense spending by Asian countries. Should the economic climate of the Asia-Pacific region concurrently show positive growth, many countries will also have increased means to respond to security concerns. On the other hand, if the financial situation in the coming years proves to be more austere, pressure on defense spending may also mount.