In Shanghai’s sprawling Jiangnan Shipyard, workers are fitting the catapults that will separate China’s latest and most advanced aircraft carrier from its two older sister ships. Once launched, the high-tech vessel will be able to propel planes into the sky at the same speed as its US counterparts, another example of China’s rapid military modernization. It’s a trend that is putting the entire region on edge. In recent months, global attention has been fixed on rising tensions between Taipei and Beijing – but the threat of conflict in Asia stretches far beyond the Taiwan Strait. Across the region, countries are engaged in their own quiet arms race to avoid being left behind. But experts warn that any miscalculation could lead to conflict in a region already riven by border disputes and old rivalries. In East Asia, Japan and South Korea are rapidly modernizing their militaries in response to threats from China and North Korea, whose leadership is particularly sensitive to signs of military progress nearby. Last month, after South Korea tested a new missile, Pyongyang admonished Seoul for its “reckless ambition.” Meanwhile, India’s increased military investment after clashes with China on their disputed Himalayan border risks inflaming tensions with its longtime rival, Pakistan. Similarly, countries with overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea may struggle to maintain a diplomatic status quo as Beijing aggressively stakes its claim to strategically valuable shipping lanes. The region is trapped in a “security dilemma” – a geopolitical spiral where countries repeatedly reinforce their own militaries in response to the growth of their neighbors’ forces, said Malcolm Davis, senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. “The potential for a major power war is increasing,” he said. “We are building up to a potential crisis.” The military rise of China Under President Xi Jinping, China’s military has rapidly expanded. China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) now fields the world’s largest navy, technologically advanced stealth fighter jets and a growing arsenal of nuclear weapons – and the military modernization has only begun. China’s military budget is growing every year, likely above $200 billion in 2021, and while it is still far below the estimated $740 billion 2022 US defense budget, the PLA is closing the technological gap with the American military. Along with the third aircraft carrier being built in Shanghai, the Pentagon claimed China recently tested a hypersonic missile. “What we saw was a very significant event of a test of a hypersonic weapon system. And it is very concerning,” said Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley. China said it wasn’t a missile but a “routine spacecraft experiment.” And it isn’t just China’s military buildup that is unsettling the region, but its attitude as well. Speaking at a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the ruling Chinese Communist Party in July, Xi said China would no longer be “bullied, oppressed or subjugated” and anyone who tried would “find their heads bashed bloody against a great wall of steel.” In a virtual meeting with US President Joe Biden this week, Xi said China would take “resolute measures” if separatist forces in Taiwan crossed a “red line,” according to a Chinese readout of the meeting. “Such moves are extremely dangerous, just like playing with fire. Whoever plays with fire will get burnt,” the statement quoted Xi as saying. Over the past few years, a new breed of combative Chinese diplomats, nicknamed “wolf warriors,” have been pushing back hard in press conferences and on social media against any perceived slights toward China. Arzan Tarapore, South Asia research scholar at Stanford University, said Beijing’s aggressive posturing and diplomacy under Xi was alarming its neighbors. “This is not just the brashness of “wolf warrior” diplomacy but an apparent willingness to press its territorial claims with force,” he said. Since the end of World War II, the US has been a major guarantor of peace and stability in the region, particularly through its close security alliances with Japan, South Korea and the Philippines. But the threat of a US withdrawal from the region under former US President Donald Trump, combined with his “America First” policies that saw the country turn inward, undermined trust in Washington’s engagement in the region. Since being elected, Biden has affirmed his commitment to the Indo-Pacific, but the threat of a second Trump administration in 2024 and the chaos that resulted from the US withdrawal in Afghanistan, has led American security partners in Asia to beef up their own militaries against any eventualities, Tarapore said. “I fear there will always now be a little asterisk when regional countries consider the US – that it is not immune from domestic instability or strategic madness,” Tarapore said. Japan and South Korea build their forces Two of the countries with the most rapid militarization are those geographically closest to China: Japan and South Korea. Ahead of his election win in October, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida promised to double the country’s military budget if he was reelected – raising it to 2% of the GDP for the first time since World War II. There is no timeline for the unprecedented increase, but it would allow the Japanese government to quickly expand its forces at a time when Tokyo feels under growing pressure from neighboring North Korea and China. Japan recently announced plans to deploy more missiles in 2022 to its Okinawa island chain that sits just a few hundred miles from the Chinese mainland. Experts see the deployment as a deterrent to any moves by Beijing against Taiwan. It has also expanded its military in recent years with F-35 fighter jets licensed or purchased from the US, along with repurposed aircraft carriers to transport them. The country’s Self-Defense Forces are also looking to add high-tech submarines, destroyers and stealth fighters to their arsenal. While Japan’s neighbor North Korea is often in the news for its missile program, South Korea is also rapidly expanding its forces. Seoul is looking to build up its military, partly to make it less reliant on its longtime security partner, the United States. In September, Seoul announced it had successfully tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), one of the first major trials since Biden agreed to end a 40-year-old treaty limiting South Korea’s weapons program. The limits were put in place in 1979 to prevent a missile development arms race between the two Koreas. The end of the treaty is another step by South Korea towards military independence, which could provoke a more intense arms race with the North. South Korea is already planning to commission its first aircraft carrier, for potential deployment in 2033. While both Japan and South Korea are longtime US security partners, with uneasy relationships with China and North Korea, their bilateral ties are at times marred by historical grievances and territorial disputes. The two governments regularly clash diplomatically over historic human rights abuses during the early 20th century, when Japan occupied South Korea, and experts said neither government is likely to want the other to pull ahead too far militarily. “Some right-wing leaders in Tokyo will say, ‘look at South Korea, it has an aircraft carrier, a full-fledged aircraft carrier, we need to have one also … as a matter of national pride,’” Lionel Fatton, Indo-Pacific affairs expert at Webster University in Switzerland, said. The slow arms race Not every country allied with the US is seeking more military independence. In a shock announcement in September, Australia tied itself more closely to Washington by forming a new security alliance with the US and UK in the Indo-Pacific. Under the agreement, known as AUKUS, the allies will share information, including US technology that could see Australia acquire its own fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. That would allow Australia to extend its reach into the South China Sea while also solidifying a foothold for London and Washington in the region. The decision made it clear that Australia was choosing the US over China, shifting the balance of the power in the Asia-Pacific. It also unsettled nations across Southeast Asia, which are struggling to maintain a cordial relationship with Beijing while protecting their own interests. Both Malaysia and Indonesia publicly voiced their reservations about the AUKUS deal, with Jakarta saying it was concerned it could lead to a regional arms race. The US ambassador to Indonesia, Sung Kim, said at the time that those concerns were unwarranted. Indonesia itself is in the midst of attempting a major military modernization. President Joko Widodo called for a $125 billion investment in June, and has increased military patrols of the South China Sea, where China claims a huge swathe of territory that overlaps areas claimed by other nations. But other claimants to the South China Sea – including Philippines and Vietnam – are struggling with their own military buildup, ASPI’s Davis said. In July, Vietnam military expert Nguyen The Phuong wrote that Vietnam’s military modernization had effectively ground to a halt, due to budgetary constraints and alleged corruption in the armed forces. And in September, Philippines Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana blamed the US for refusing to provide high-tech weapons to his country, leaving them with “Vietnam War-era” castoffs. Davis said the traditional stance for ASEAN nations, including Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia, has been to avoid conflict in favor of maintaining the status quo and remaining non-aligned. But he warned any further aggression by Beijing in the South China Sea could push countries to adopt a more militaristic stance. “If the Chinese declared an Air Defense Identification Zone in the South China Sea or took additional territories or started creating additional artificial islands … (it) could actually then generate the ASEAN states to actually make that step,” he said. Military threats in South Asia Apart from Taiwan, most experts said the most dangerous military standoff in Asia is the border between China and India. As recently as June 2020, dozens of Chinese and Indian soldiers were killed in clashes in the Galwan Valley, in an area claimed as part of Xinjiang by China and part of Ladakh by India. Since then multiple unconfirmed reports suggest troops are being sent to the border by both Beijing and Delhi. India has the third-largest military budget in the world, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, valued at around $72 billion, and fields an army of more than 3 million people. It has also been engaged in its own program of military modernization, purchasing new equipment, including 83 locally made fighter aircraft and 56 of Airbus’ C295 transport aircraft. India has a homemade aircraft carrier, the INS Vikrant, in sea trials and is undertaking missile tests to improve its ballistic arsenal. But Stanford’s Tarapore said the approach was still piecemeal. “The Air Force as a whole is in dire need of recapitalization, and the Navy is retiring submarines faster than it is replacing them,” he said. But any additional moves by India to beef up its armed forces may be viewed unfavorably by neighboring Pakistan, Tarapore said. The two nuclear powers have had an uneasy peace for decades, with multiple disputes across their land border. Tarapore said it was unlikely India could tailor its military growth in a way which wouldn’t cause concern in Pakistan – and so it may not attempt to appease Islamabad and carry on regardless. “Delhi knows that, short of some unlikely grand political bargain, the specific shape of its military modernization won’t mollify Pakistan in any meaningful way, so it may as well do what’s needed to meet its pressing military threats,” he said. A safer Asia Pacific? China is showing no signs of halting its military growth, and Beijing has partially attributed that to one major factor – the US. In recent years, the American military has been growing its presence in the Asia Pacific region, including undertaking frequent Freedom of Navigation Operations near Chinese-held islands in the South China Sea and sailing vessels through the Taiwan Strait. In July, the US sent more than two dozen advanced F-22 stealth fighters to Guam for exercises, while the USS Carl Vinson, the first US Navy aircraft carrier to be equipped with F-35C fighters, undertook drills with Japan’s Self-Defense Forces in the South China Sea in September. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has regularly accused Washington of being responsible for the militarization in the Asia Pacific. And as China builds up its forces in response, so too do the country’s neighbors. As a result, there is no end in sight for militarization in the region and most experts said it will likely speed up, increasing the chance for miscalculation and conflict. Politicians and experts around the region have compared the arms race and tensions in the Asia Pacific to Europe in the 1930s, shortly before the start of World War II. Peter Layton, visiting fellow at Griffith University’s Asia Institute, said the chance of a war between major powers in the Asia region in the next 10 years is rising, but he hopes economic and trade interdependence between China and its rivals in Asia, as well as the US, could help to deter any military action. “The question is whether the economic system is strong enough to avoid military conflict,” he said. However Layton said while the economic interdependency might prevent war in Asia, it could spark growing economic coercion across the region, such as the trade restrictions China has leveled at Australia over the past year. “They can … use positive or negative sanctions to control most people using the power of money,” he said. ASPI’s Davis said while he expects the arms race in Asia to make the region more dangerous, he doesn’t think nations have “much of a choice.” He believes the Chinese government’s aggressive behavior and military modernization will continue no matter how its neighbors react. “Even if we didn’t respond, they would keep on going,” he said. In fact, Tarapore said it is possible that military weakness in and of itself could provoke aggression, while military power “may also be frightening to erstwhile aggressors and serve to deter rather than provoke war.” The time is coming, Tarapore said, when countries in Asia will have to choose “what form of safety is most important to us” – the safety of a military deterrent or any protection offered by acquiescing to Beijing’s expansion. “Arms races are costly. Losing them can be costlier,” he said.