The U.S. defense budget amounts to approximately US$700 billion a year, 10 times higher than China's. But the U.S. has decided on drastic cuts to its defense spending, which account for around 20 percent of the national budget. The Obama administration intends to cut defense spending by $400 billion over the next decade, and U.S. media forecast between $550 billion to $900 billion in cuts over the next 10 years.
China, on the other hand, has the biggest foreign currency reserves in the world and has been boosting its annual defense spending by more than 10 percent a year. That means the difference in defense spending between the U.S. and China is narrowing quickly, presaging fundamental changes in the balance of power in Northeast Asia.
◆ China's Growing Heft
China protested against plans by South Korea and the U.S. to conduct joint naval exercises in the West Sea following the sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan in March last year. Beijing chiefly objected to a U.S. aircraft carrier operating in the West Sea, which it considers its backyard. Now it has chosen to station its first aircraft carrier in Dalian harbor, across the West Sea from the Korean Peninsula. The carrier, which has a range of some 1,000 km, will navigate within spitting distance of coastal waters of the Korean Peninsula.
China is allied with North Korea and bound to intervene in times of crisis. It stood steadfastly by the North even though evidence showed it was behind the attack on the Cheonan last year. Park Chang-kwon, head of defense strategy research at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, said, "Military strength is the cornerstone of political and diplomatic power and forms the basis of diplomatic negotiations or political pressure. We will see more conflicts as China flexes its muscle either directly or indirectly to increase political pressure."
◆ Can China Overtake U.S.?
The U.S. said it has no plans so far to reduce its 28,000 troops in South Korea. But experts say the U.S. will have to overhaul its global military strategy due to the budget cuts and modify weapons purchase plans that were part of steps to enhance combat capability. The Pentagon forecast that 6 percent or 47,000 soldiers will have to be cut from the total 772,000 troops on active duty.
Senators Carl Levin (Democrat), chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, John McCain (Republican) and Jim Webb (Democrat) are demanding a review of plans to relocate the main U.S. military base in Seoul to a new location to Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province. "The U.S. could consider lowering the number of its troops in South Korea if Seoul does not agree to shouldering additional costs to maintain American soldiers here," a diplomatic source in Seoul said.
A reversal in the power balance in Northeast Asia means South Korea would have to come up with a new national security strategy.