Friday, June 5, 2009

Asian Military Strategies: A Comparison

Asia is widely expected to be at the center of global politics in the 21st century. All the major powers today are Asian powers, either because they are on the continent, or, as in the case of the United States, they have vital interests and direct impact on the politics of this region. Whether they will cooperate with each other or compete will at least partly be determined by the kind of military postures and strategies that they adopt.

While some of the major powers have adopted inclusive and accommodative approaches, certain other powers have tended to assume exclusive approaches that are not congenial to a stable Asian security order. In this regard, states have tried to do internal -- strengthening of its security forces, increasing offensive and defensive capabilities -- and external balancing – forging alliances and partnerships, forming coalition of the willing to act against common threats -- so as to achieve a state of security.

This paper will compare and contrast the military strategies, military capabilities and major military responses of the four major Asian powers -- China, US, Russia and Japan. The last section of the paper will look at the implications of these on the Asian stability and Indian security.

The growth of China as a major military and economic power along with its global aspirations for a superpower status has remained a subject for major debates not only in the US and Japan, but also in Russia and India. China has been making systematic progress in its military modernisation, evolving from concepts like “Local Wars under Modern Hightech Conditions” in 2002 to “Local Wars under Modern Informationalized Conditions” in 2004 to “Local Wars under the Conditions of Informationalization” in 2006. The 2006 defence White Paper titled “China’s National Defence 2006” states that “to build a powerful and fortified national defence is a strategic task of China’s modernization drive”[1] and that “China pursues a three-step development strategy in modernizing its national defence and armed forces in accordance with the state’s overall plan to realize modernization.”[2] However, the worry is that China’s military modernisation is more ambitious than what is dictated by its immediate security concerns and is an indication of its larger global objectives. The Chinese test of an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon in January 2007 appeared to demonstrate these larger ambitions too.

On the other hand, the United States which is not geographically an Asian power, but remains a critical factor in the Asian and global security order, views China as a potential adversary. Joint Vision 2020, a Pentagon planning document, concluded that Asia will replace Europe as the key focus of US military strategy in the early 21st century and pointed to China as a potential adversary. The Quadrennial Defence Review Report of 2006 talked about the rising powers such as India and China and the implications of their rise for US policies. Hence, the US, while adjusting its military posturing in Asia, has to consider not only the capabilities that China is developing, but also the specific manner in which it intends to use those capabilities against the US and other powers in the region. The fact remains that as “Chinese military power grows, its leaders’ options increase with respect to the use of coercion to press diplomatic advantage, advance interests, or resolve disputes.”[3] Whether the US will remain an active player in Asian military contests or whether it will remain as an off-shore balancer will be another key question. These choices have implications for both Asian stability and Indian security.

While Russia’s return towards a great power status is uncertain, it still remains a potent force to reckon with in international security affairs, especially in Asia. In fact, Russia’s military modernization coupled with its assertiveness based on its energy and other resources make for a dynamic Russia in the Asian security order. Russia today exhibits a peculiar mix of weakness and strength, which is illustrated in the 2003 Russian defence White Paper that stated that Russia may consider preventive strikes in case of dire threats to its national security.[4] It illustrated both the weakness of its conventional military might, and the continuing potency of its strategic forces. Russia today appears to perceive many threats, including the expansion of US influence in the region, ethnic and other domestic conflicts in its neighbourhood and terrorism. How Russia will react to these threats as it grows stronger is unclear but it will have significant impact on the region. There is ambivalence also with regard to whether Russia in the coming decades will see itself as an Asian or European power. However, given the acknowledgment that this century is an Asian century, Russia will like to be part of the Asian matrix.

Lastly, although an economic superpower, Japan never managed to become a major geopolitical factor due to its pacifist military posturing. This posturing is undergoing change, with Japan assuming larger security responsibilities, as was evident through deployment of troops to Iraq and its naval vessels in the Arabian Sea in support of US military operations in Afghanistan. The rise of a more independent Japan in the coming years is a reality that China, Russia and the US have to deal with: the change in the name from Japanese Defense ‘Agency’ to ‘Ministry’ appears to indicate this new reality. Hence, it would be important for Asian and global policy makers to see not only that the rise of China is peaceful, but also that Japan’s more complex geopolitical rise, is also stabilising.

However, if one is to analyse the trends in Asian militaries, it is pertinent to analyse a number of indicators including the defence spending, military capabilities acquired and the broad strategies adopted by each of these powers individually as also through alliances and partnerships.
[1] “China’s National Defence in 2006,” Chapter II, National Defence Policy, available at
[2] Ibid.
[3] US Government, Department of Defense, “Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2006,” Annual Report to Congress, available at
[4] “Putin: Russia Preserves Its Right to preventive Strikes.”, October 9, 2003, as cited in Dr. Andrei Shoumikhin, “The Russian Military’s New “Open Doctrine”,” National Institute for Public Policy, available at

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