China boasts East Asia’s strongest armed forces. It ranks below only the United States and Russia worldwide. No wonder Taiwan’s defense ministry scrambled two F-16 fighters and two reconnaissance aircraft to track a Chinese aircraft carrier as it worked the perimeter of the nearby island’s territorial waters this week, watching the fleet ease back toward a port in China.
But Taiwan’s military ranks 10th in Asia on the GlobalFirePower.com scale that puts China in third place. Also in Asia, Japan ranks No. 4 and South Korea No. 6. Indonesia comes in eighth and Vietnam ninth for the region. All of these armed forces rank in the database’s top 20 of 126 countries analyzed worldwide, coming in before much of Europe and the Middle East. The survey evaluates countries based on weapons stocks, numbers of troops (including reserves) and potentially available troops if a country were to require military service. Geographic position can also help increase a country’s rank.
Why the East Asian countries have bulked up their armed forces goes back to the Chinese aircraft carrier – called the Liaoning and apparently China’s only one. The strongest armed forces in the region outside China have bulked up largely to resist China. “China is the biggest single factor accounting for military modernization and build-ups in the region,” says Denny Roy, senior fellow at the East-West Center, a U.S. think tank.
Taken in order of strength, here’s what East Asia’s most militarized countries, ex-China, are doing:
1. Japan: Although Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed this week at a World War II memorial in Hawaii that Japan would never hatch another war, its self-described self-defense forces have three aircraft carriers and 287 fighter planes. The country is patrolling a tract of sea reaching thousands of kilometers from its southern coasts for flyovers and ship movement from China. The two countries contest the Senkaku, or Diaoyudao, islands and China has used military moves to show displeasure over Japan’s effective control of the eight uninhabited land forms.
2. South Korea: The military headquartered from Seoul with 406 fighters and 214 multiple-launch rocket systems worries mostly about North Korea, which itself ranks as world No. 25 and has demonstrated nuclear capabilities. But China backs North Korea, so the south is effectively building up a resistance against Beijing.
3. Indonesia: The Indonesian military also isn’t primarily hyped up about China. The Southeast Asian country of more than 13,000 islands has 66 coastal defense vessels and 12 naval mine warfare units frets about shipping piracy and illegal fishing. But since last year it has gotten tougher against Chinese vessels passing through waters it claims near the 272 Natuna islets. Beijing considers that tract of water its own as part of its claims to about 95% of the entire South China Sea, which stretches from Taiwan to Singapore.