Three of the major states in East that can be, to differing extents, described to be under the American military umbrella, South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan, are each taking steps increase their defensive preparedness and independence of action. This takes place under wavering American commitment as isolationist rhetoric becomes increasingly mainstream.
One of the sharpest turns has been in South Korea under new president Yuk, which has taken a turn for the hawkish after the softer more accommodationist administration under president Moon. Yuk’s rhetorical sharpness has been matched by his willingness to forcefully respond to North Korean border incursions when they occur, including recent drone incursions that made it near Seoul that were met with the scrambling of jets, which then fired on the drones in an attempt to take them down.
Still, South Korea has been careful to avoid overreacting to much of the provocative missile-related behavior from the Kim regime since the breakdown of talks with the US in 2017, despite the clear nervousness regarding the expansion of Kim’s nuclear program. The administration in the South this week has gone so far as saying that they might need to acquire nuclear weapons, before making clear that they had no immediate plans to do so. This is in the aftermath of apparent discussions between the South and the US regarding increasing the role of the South in the placement and use of defensive nuclear weapons.
Yuk is quoted as saying, “There can be no military that does not think of and prepare for war. For us to achieve peace, we need to prepare for war with overwhelming superiority… As we saw in the war in Ukraine, asymmetric power has become a very important factor in the war… In response to North Korea, which is trying to strengthen its asymmetric force, it is necessary for us to reexamine the reinforcement plan for existing military power.” The administration plans to spend nearly a half billion dollars on drones and anti-drone equipment over the next five years. This signals that South Korea is taking a significantly different than approach than Yuk’s predecessor, but that he also conceives as South Korea’s capacity to resist the North, at least to some extent, as independent from American capacity to intervene. South Korea has retained its 18-21 months of compulsory military service, which while long for democracies is a far cry from the more than decade of expected service for many in North Korea.
Taiwan, for its part, has decided to once again revise the conscription length following ramped up threats from the PRC, lengthening term of service from four months to twelve.
Still, as many experts have noted, Taiwan’s preparedness is not only dependent on the length of its compulsory service, but on the quality of its training provided, as well as the appropriateness of its equipment. Taiwan has a chronic shortage of munitions and is dependent on the US for equipment. Rather than fashion a domestic arms industry and attempt to fill this gap with low cost flexible weapons that could be used in an asymmetric conflict to defend against aerial and marine invasion, Taiwan’s anachronistic military apparatus seems content to have many of its recruits go their entire length of service without firing a single bullet, and instead focus intensely on bayonet training, and hundreds of hours of waiting in silence for the arrival superiors, and mopping floors.
The crusty bureaucratic military apparatus, whether for ideological attachment to the idea of the ROC military as capable of directly fighting the PRC or out of budgetary considerations, would also instead prefer to overspend on American jets which will almost certainly be obliterated by the thousands of PRC missiles pointed at Taiwan’s exposed bases before they ever see a moment of combat, instead of training with low-cost UAV’s or developing flexible AA or anti-marine equipment that could actually prevent landings. Taiwan’s network of thousands of air raid shelters and civil defense preparations have too fallen into utter disrepair as for decades, both parties completely discounted the threat of war. Taiwan’s military bureaucracy, which is sworn to defend the ROC regime til death, is laden with century-old nationalist thinking and misconceptions. It still does not seem to recognize that the primary threat to the people who live on Taiwan comes from force now so well resourced that it has no capability of defeating in direct confrontation, but must instead rely on stealth, secrecy, resourcefulness, and its defensive advantage to afford the survival of not only its forces and the regime, but the people of the island.
Japan has also made significant strides to increase the capacity of its self-defense forces to not only participate in regional action, but to adequately respond to domestic threats. They have increased their military spending by 20% and aim to gradually increase spending to reach 2% of GDP by 2027, putting them only behind the US and China. This includes $1.6 billion USD for spending on Tomahawks and other long-range missiles capable of retaliatory strikes. It also includes over a billion dollars for the purchase of 8 more vertical-takeoff F-35 units.
This builds off of the 2015 interpretive change to the self-defense clause in their constitution allowing Japan to act offensively to defend its ally, the US, in what is conceived as collective self defense.
Taken together, the regional responses signal that East Asia is in the process of a military buildup, although the spending and usefulness of those investments seems to differ considerably, as Korea shifts towards its asymmetric capabilities, Japan becomes a formidable classical military power, and Taiwan makes half-hearted moves to advance but is held back by its military’s complicated relationship with the KMT party and its history with Chinese nationalism, as well as institutional rust that may prevent it from adapting to changing modern modes of warfare.