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Wave of Militarization in Wake of Ukraine

Wave of Militarization in Wake of Ukraine

With the war in Ukraine entering its eleventh month on January 24th, it’s clear the conflict is ushering in a new era of international politics. Countries are reassessing their security challenges in a world shaped by great power competition. U.S. security assurances are no longer remedying its ally’s security concerns, with some countries reevaluating their alliances with the U.S. or their military structure as a whole. To spectators watching the ongoing Russian invasion, it’s apparent the relative stability enjoyed by Asia and Europe since WWII ended is at a close. Whether it’s renewed Russian aggression in Europe or threats posed by an increasingly bold China in the Pacific, countries feel less secure than they did before the war. Several nations, most notably Japan, have already begun upending their normative defense postures, leading to a greater emphasis on defense spending and reduced reliance on U.S. military support.

Japan pledged to double its military expenditure over the next five years after the government updated its National Security Strategy for the first time since 2013. This roughly $320 billion increase would render the Japanese military budget the third largest in the world, after China and the U.S., and reflects heightened geopolitical tensions in East Asia. Furthermore, this move marks the abandonment of the pacifist military doctrine imposed on Japan after WWII, which capped defense spending at 1% of GDP and forbade the possession of any offensive capabilities. Russia’s brutal invasion seemingly reminded Japanese citizens and policymakers alike that large-scale conventional conflict remains existential even today and that the next one could arise in their own backyard. If China invaded Taiwan, there would be a great incentive to strike U.S. military assets in Japan because they are strategically necessary for a successful American intervention, as President Biden pledged there would be if an attack on the island occurred. The increasingly provocative behavior from North Korea, which conducted over 90 missile launches in 2022, further solidifies Japanese policymakers’ thinking that their country must acquire the ability to deter and retaliate.

Bolstering domestic defense expenditure will be complemented by an effort to deepen military ties with Washington and other Western powers. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida met with President Biden on January 13th in his first visit to the U.S., with the focal point of discussions centering around defense. Kishida’s government seeks preemptive counterstrike capabilities that could target launch sites in North Korea and China if conflict erupted, with plans to acquire up to 500 Tomahawk cruise missiles from Washington. Additionally, the U.S. is restructuring its military presence on Okinawa to allow for greater mobility and quicker deployment across the islands south of the Japanese mainland. Before he visited Washington, Kishida was busy meeting with European allies, signing a new defense accord with the U.K. on January 11th. The agreement permits troop deployments on each other’s soil in what Rishi Sunak, Prime Minister of the U.K., labels the “the most significant defense agreement between the two countries in more than a century.”

Kishida’s meetings in Washington and London were part of a larger tour to G7 nations where the Prime Minister also discussed security and economic cooperation with France, Italy, and Canada. Japan is taking its new military strategy seriously, announcing reforms deemed unthinkable a year ago. Of course, China criticized the news calling it a “very dangerous development;” however, as mentioned earlier, Japan is far from the only nation boosting its defense spending in light of recent developments.

Also struggling with an ever-hostile Kim regime, South Korea is targeting an annual increase of 6.8%  in defense spending over the next five years, equivalent to $261 billion. In a remarkable break from international norms, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said if the nuclear threat from the north continues to grow, they can and will develop a nuclear arsenal. Some may interpret this statement as an attempt to persuade the U.S. to redeploy nuclear weapons in South Korea, which Washington removed in 1991. However, if one thing is made clear, the U.S. nuclear umbrella no longer provides allies the same comfort it once did.

As for Europe, the invasion of Ukraine provided a wake-up call to a continent that paid little attention to defense expenditure in previous decades, leading to disputes with the U.S. over meeting the NATO requirement of reserving a minimum of 2% of GDP for military spending. With NATO reinvigorated, nations have reawakened to the reality that conflict can never be ruled out, even in present-day Europe. Though the U.K. has often complied with this threshold, defense secretary Ben Wallace recently announced his country would raise its budget by £100 billion before 2030, equivalent to 3% of total GDP. Lithuania, which has taken an especially hawkish tone against Russia, is devoting 2.52% of its GDP to defense in 2023 and is prepared to spend more in years to come. Germany faced criticism well before the invasion for ignoring its defense industry and NATO commitments. Like Japan, Germany forsook its military capabilities after WWII per the Allies’ demands and is understandably hesitant towards militarization today. However, times have changed, and many on the continent are pushing Germany to accept military leadership once again in Europe, considering its economic primacy. In the days following the invasion, Chancellor Olaf Scholz pledged to put his country back on track militarily and meet the NATO threshold, but progress will be slow at best after decades of neglect. Just last month, German defense officials noted the military only has enough ammunition for two days of intense combat if that gives one a sense of the state of the German armed forces.

If one positive can be drawn from the tragedy unfolding in Ukraine, it’s that the West and its respective allies are more united than ever. The war reminded many, including many politicians in the U.S., of the acute threat an expansionist China poses to future international stability. Considering Chinese President Xi Jinping announced his “no-limits” partnership with Russia this year, the U.S. and its allies must take this threat seriously and avoid the failure of deterrence that occurred in Ukraine. Of course, this wave of military expansion is not without pitfalls, and there are real concerns about whether countries can fund these ambitious ventures. Kishida may have to raise taxes to fund the buildup, which polls indicate the public rejects, not to mention the nation has the highest public debt relative to GDP in the G7. And despite declaring a Zeitenwende, or “turning point,” in Germany’s defense strategy, Chancellor Scholz’s government missed its NATO obligations in 2022 and is set to miss it again next year. Still, these developments indeed represent a turning point and should be welcomed as a win for future peace and global stability.