Northeast Asia Is Turning into a Powder Keg

Locked in a fresh arms race, Northeast Asia is turning into a powder keg. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said during the National People's Congress in Beijing on Wednesday that China's defense spending for this year increased 12.2 percent to 808.2 billion yuan.

China has increased its defense spending more than 10 percent annually since 1989, except in 2010 when it only grew 7.5 percent in the wake of the global financial crisis. At this rate, China is expected to outpace the U.S. to rank No. 1 in defense spending by 2032.

The U.S. Defense Department, meanwhile, announced its Quadrennial Defense Review on Tuesday with plans to bolster naval assets in the Asia Pacific region from the present 50 percent to 60 percent by 2020. Japan has also boosted its annual defense spending for the past two years. It increased the defense budget in 2013 for the first time in 11 years after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office, and the 2014 budget has risen 2.8 percent.

The spending pattern reaffirms the intensifying rivalry between China and the U.S.-Japan alliance.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the annual defense spending of countries around the world actually shrank in 2012 for the first time in 14 years as the U.S., U.K., France, Germany and Italy drastically cut down. But Asian nations, particularly in Northeast Asia, remain engaged in an arms race. This trend is threatening regional peace.

"We will comprehensively enhance the revolutionary nature of the Chinese armed forces, further modernize them and upgrade their performance, and continue to raise their deterrence and combat capabilities in the information age," Li said. He also warned that China would not condone acts that "seek to turn back" the lessons of history.

He was apparently referring to Japan. For the past year, China and Japan have narrowly averted clashing over the Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. Any mistake by either side could trigger a military confrontation.

South Korea's annual defense spending is only one-fifth of China's and just 50 percent of what Japan spends each year. It has grown only 3.5 percent for this year, as there are more pressing demands to boost welfare spending and strengthen the social safety net. Also, simply following in Japan and China's footsteps is not a good idea.

South Korea needs to focus more on countering North Korean threats than on competing with China and Japan in defense spending. It will have to find a solution to stronger security through diplomacy by strengthening alliance with Washington as well as ties with neighboring countries. Seoul needs to come up with a national strategy that can deal with North Korean threats and increasing military presence by regional neighbors.

englishnews@chosun.com / Mar. 06, 2014 13:30 KST