Newtonian physics tells us that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.  The world of international relations is more complex than that, but the same general rules apply.  In the lead up to the Second World War the militarisation of Germany and Japan had lead to adversaries starting to prepare for conflict – too little, too late, as it turned out – and now the signs are there that parts of Asia are pushing back against China’s force expansion programs.

Soldiers assigned to a regiment under the PLA Xinjiang Military Command fire towed howitzers to destroy mock enemy during a field live-fire test in northwest desert area after a long-distance maneuver in late July, 2020. (eng.chinamil.com.cn/Photo by Chen Ming, Tai Hao, Liu Xiaoyun and Huang Feihao)

While regional defence budgets have remained relatively stable – and might even decline in the short term because of COVID-19 – there have been some developments in the last 6 months that are probably motivated by concerns about China.  Running through the list of major U.S. arms sales to allies since January includes the following:

PACIFIC OCEAN (July 22, 2020) An F-35B Lightning II, attached to the “Wake” of Marine Fighter Attack squadron (VMFA) 211, takes off from the flight deck of the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Wesley Richardson)
  • Japan to acquire an additional 105 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters for US $23 billion. This will take their total fleet to 145 – making Japan the world’s second largest user of these 5th generation aircraft after the U.S. itself.  Both conventional A and STOVL B variants will be bought, potentially placing the latter on Izumo class helicopter carriers, greatly increasing their military potential.
  • Taiwan to receive $630 million of upgrades to their PAC-3 air defence missiles. The country will also receive 18 Mk 48 heavyweight torpedoes – presumably for their two Dutch-built diesel-electric submarines.
  • Potential sale of 8 MV-22 Block 3 Osprey aircraft to Indonesia for $2 billion.
  • India will receive an advanced integrated air defence system for $1.867 billion. The country is also acquiring AGM-84L Harpoon air-launched guided missiles and Mk 54 lightweight torpedoes.
  • Follow on support for South Korea’s F-35 fleet costing $675 million, with 42 aircraft on order. Another program is to modernise/upgrade that country’s Peace Krypton surveillance/intelligence aircraft for $250 million.  Modernisation of the F-16 Block 32 IFF systems will be another $194 million.
  • Singapore will buy an initial 12 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters for $2.75 billion
A Chinese H-6 strategic bomber attached to a bomber regiment of the naval aviation force under the PLA Southern Theater Command takes off for a recent realistic flight training exercise. (eng.chinamil.com.cn/Photo by Gao Hongwei)

These are only major sales from the U.S. and do not include things such an announcement from Boeing on July 26 concerning a huge program to upgrade Japan’s F-15 fleet:

“Boeing and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) recently signed a Direct Commercial Sale agreement to support upgrades to Japan’s F-15J fleet.

“The contract is part of a larger $4.5 billion modernization program, announced by the U.S. Government in October 2019. The upgrades will introduce state-of-the-art electronic warfare and weapons.  An all-new advanced cockpit system, running on the world’s most advanced mission computer, will deliver pilots enhanced situational awareness.

“Under the agreement, Boeing will provide MHI with retrofit drawings, ground support equipment and technical publications for the upgrade of the first two F-15J aircraft to the Japan Super Interceptor configuration.

Artist’s rendering of upgraded JASDF F-15JSI (Boeing rendering)

“Boeing has partnered with MHI in the defense arena since the 1950s. MHI produced under license the current Japan F-15J fleet of over 200 aircraft between 1980 and 2000, and will serve as prime contractor for the upgrade. Sojitz Corporation, a trading company that works with Boeing’s team in Japan, will support this effort.”

There are a number of other major regional indigenous programs underway, most prominently:

  • Japan has announced it will develop a 6th generation combat aircraft.
  • South Korea is making good progress on the development of its KFX 4++ generation aircraft, for which Indonesia is a partner.
  • South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore and India are all expanding their submarine fleets.

It is impossible to tell precisely how much of this is driven by China, because most militaries have to prepare for a number of other contingencies – with the possible exception of Taiwan.  Even South Korea, which faces the immediate threat of an invasion from the north, has traditional enemies in the form of both China and more particularly Japan.  However, taken collectively it looks like the aggressive policies of Beijing are starting to provoke countermoves throughout Asia.

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