Arms Race

China, Japan, and India's Asian Arms Race


Japan's 19,500-ton Izumo helicopter carrier is launched in Yokohama on Aug. 6

Photograph by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

Japan's 19,500-ton Izumo helicopter carrier is launched in Yokohama on Aug. 6

China and Japan managed to get past the Aug. 15 anniversary of the Japanese surrender in World War II without incident. For weeks leading up to the date, the question was, will he or won’t he? Will Shinzo Abe, the conservative prime minister who last year infuriated the Chinese by visiting the Yasukini Shrine in Tokyo, which commemorates Japan’s war dead—including war criminals from World War II—go to the shrine on the anniversary?

Abe has enough on his agenda without provoking another crisis with China, so he decided to stay clear. Three members of his cabinet did go to Yasukini, part of a group of 100 members of Japan’s parliament who prayed at the shrine. While Abe wasn’t one of them, the prime minister did make a gesture to his nationalist supporters, sending a cash offering to the shrine.

Another day, another crisis in the ongoing saga of the dispute between the two Asian powers over uninhabited rocks in the East China Sea. Today, China’s official China Central Television reported the People’s Liberation Army had started 10 days of live-fire military exercises in the waters near the islands, which Japan calls the Senkaku and the Chinese call the Diaoyu. In a highly symbolic move, one ship taking part in the exercises is the Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier.

The Liaoning is part of a three-way arms race involving the naval forces of China, Japan, and the other big Asian power, India. With China embroiled in territorial disputes with both Japan and India, all three countries are coming out with bigger and better warships to make sure they hold their own in the region.

For Japan, the big news is a 19,500-ton helicopter carrier called the Izumo, which the government unveiled on Aug. 6. It’s the third such warship in Japan’s self-defense force and the biggest Japanese-made military vessel since the end of World War II. That’s big for Japan but still small compared with U.S. aircraft carriers, which displace 97,000 tons when fully loaded.

Still, the Chinese are not happy about the Izumo’s launch. The helicopter carrier is a “symbol of Japan’s strong wish to return to its time as a military power,” the Global Times wrote the next day.

India, meanwhile, has launched its first aircraft carrier, unveiled on Monday. That’s a challenge to China, the Global Times editorialized. “China should speed up its construction of domestic aircraft carriers,” it said. “The earlier China establishes its own aircraft carrier capabilities, the earlier it will gain the strategic initiative.”

India has tripled military spending over the past 10 years and in February announced more spending, with a 14 percent increase in defense outlays. The border dispute between India and China isn’t as hot as the one between Japan and China, but it involves much more land: India says China is occupying 38,000 square kilometers of Indian territory in Jummu and Kashmir (the much-disputed region in the north of India that is also claimed by Pakistan). China says India is occupying 90,000 square kilometers of Chinese territory in Arunachal Pradesh (a state in northeastern India near Bhutan and Tibet).

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in July approved the deployment of 50,000 more troops near the Chinese border, according to a report by the Press Trust of India. The new strike force would include C-130J Hercules aircraft made by Lockheed Martin (LMT). One problem: the price tag. Adding that many more troops could cost as much as 650 billion rupees ($10.5 billiion). A few days later, a Defense Ministry official told Bloomberg News of a plan for an additional strike force near the Chinese border in the state of West Bengal.

India’s military buildup suffered a major blow on Aug. 14 when one of its Russian-built, diesel-powered submarines, the INS Sinhurakshak, exploded in Mumbai’s harbor. The 18 sailors on board are all feared dead.

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Einhorn is Asia regional editor in Bloomberg Businessweek’s Hong Kong bureau. Follow him on Twitter @BruceEinhorn.

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