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Most Powerful Military Forces In Southern And Eastern Asia

Asia’s no stranger to warfare. But with China’s ever-growing might, both economically and militarily, it’s not at all surprising that East and Southeast Asian countries have had to step up their military “game” in order to preempt potential threats.

Thanks to technological advancements, even small countries, without an obscene land army, can guarantee mutually assured destruction whenever there’s an attack from a larger country. Taking their increased defense spending, land, air and sea capabilities into consideration, here’s how East Asia’s most militarized nations are doing.

China

As the most populous country in the world, it only stands to reason that the people’s liberation army would be the largest army in the world – with about 2,183,000 active military personnel, and some 510,000 in reserve. Of course, land might’s not limited to army alone, which is why China’s focus over the past few years has been on increased modernization.

Now with more than 13,000 combat tanks, 40,000 armored fighting vehicles, 4,000 self-propelled artillery, and 2,000 rocket projectors, it’s no wonder China’s the big shark giving its small-fish neighbors a run for their money. All of these is excluding one of the world’s most lethal special forces – the Snow Leopard Commando Unit.


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Moving onto the sea, China’s had more dispute with its surrounding neighbors – Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philipines, (as well as some close calls with the US) over claims to the South China Sea in the past decade than at any other time in history. Hence Beijing’s constant display of superiority, via military drills, and aggressive naval ambitions isn’t unexpected. With 94 submarine chasers, 33 destroyers, 1 aircraft carrier, and 255,000 naval personnel, China’s considered the second largest naval force in the world.

While China’s not exactly transparent about its military budget, official records show a steady increase in military spending, from $148 billion in 2014 culminating at $175 billion in 2018. Unofficial figures differ but are usually estimated to be much higher. This places China as the second highest military budget in the world and the only confirmed nuclear power in Eastern and Southeast Asia. Here’s how its neighbors react to this display of military superiority.

Japan

While Japan’s post world war two constitution explicitly prohibits the establishment of an offensive military, thereby tripling its ability to start a war, it doesn’t completely prohibit it from defending itself – ergo the Japan Self Defense Force.

Despite this lack of an offensive military, Japan maintains 247,157 active personnel and 63,300 in reserve, which isn’t much in the grand scheme of land army, but with a budget of $47.3 billion, Japan holds the eighth spot for highest military budget in the world, and second highest amongst East Asian countries.

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What does it do with all this cash? In 2018, Shinzo Abe held a parade where it displayed its rather impressive collection of anti-submarines, 37 27,000-ton helicopter destroyers, F-35 stealth fighters, rocket projectors, combat tanks and troops that place it at a respectable 6th position worldwide in the power index ranking. This toothless tiger also has a ground, counter-terrorism special forces unit known as the special forces Group and is known to occasionally send its troops on peacekeeping missions (with Iraq being the most recent).

Why does it spend so much on its military if it has no plans to start world war 3? Two syllables. China. Sino-Japanese relations have always been uneasy, from imperialism way back when to being opponents during the second world war. Recent tensions between the two countries over the Senkaku islands and Japan’s increased cooperation with the US have further mired their relationship, necessitating better defense efforts on the part of Japan, if it’s to curb China’s attempt at dominance in the region.

South Korea

When you’re sharing a boundary with “Rocketman” to the north and have a not-so-subtle Chinese aggressor close by, no one needs to tell you to up your military game. South Korea did this by hiking up its 2019 military budget to the highest (8.2% increase, from $39 billion to $42 billion) since 2008 – when it had made steady increments of 5.7%.

While this budget increase comes on the heels of waning diplomatic efforts between Trump and Kim Jong-un, both North and South Korea have always had their fair share of disputes, seeing as they hold the most demilitarized zone in the world.


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To keep its citizens safe, South Korea has 21-month mandatory military service, with 625,000 active personnel and 5,202,250 in reserve. It also has a special forces unit called the special warfare command. A ton of South Korea’s budget goes into its airpower, with about 1614 aircraft (ranked 5th in the world), and its naval assets – made up of 166 destroyers, aircraft carriers, submarines, and other naval assets.

As a nuclear-free country with a very nuclear ambitious neighbor, South Korea has the largest overseas US base (Camp Humphrey) where joint “provocative” military exercises are conducted twice yearly – to keep Rocketman on his toes.

Indonesia

Indonesia’s not necessarily the first country anyone thinks of when foreign conflicts are brought up in Asia, or the world for that matter. Mostly because it has been a deliberate effort by the government not to engage any major power.

However, Indonesia’s been plagued by several internal conflicts, beginning with the secession of East Timor, followed by the efforts of Aceh to gain independence and, as of 2017, ISIS. Of course, Indonesia’s sudden interest in building a military base close to the heavily contested South China sea means it might get into some bit of trouble in the not so distant future, although currently, most of its landing docks are used for distribution of relief materials rather than war preparations.


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As a whole, Indonesia’s ranked 15th in terms of military might worldwide (out of 137 countries). It has about 400,000 active personnel and 400,000 reserves, 451 aircraft strength (ranked 30th in the world), more than 2000 battle tanks and rocket projectors, as well as approximately 221 naval assets.


It’s probably an added advantage that Indonesia’s special forces command (Kopassus) can walk on fire, roll in glass and drink snake blood. As of 2018, Indonesia had its highest military budget till date, at $10 billion, which is projected to increase now that they have a brand-new base in the South China Sea.

Pakistan

The Pakistan Armed Forces are also one of the largest militaries in the world when it comes to active personnel, with about 654,000 as of today, which makes them the sixth largest military in the world. They consist of the usual branches that include the Army, Navy and Air Force, as well as a paramilitary force and a Strategic Plans division.

The Pakistani Military has close relations with China, and they are working together to develop both the JF-17 and the K-8 highly advanced combat aircraft, among other joint operations, which includes nuclear and space technology programs. Pakistan also has relations with the United States, which the Pakistanis consider allies.


credit: Wikipedia
The Pakistan Armed Forces strength include a powerful array of aircraft, with 348 fighters, 438 attack jets, and 55 attack helicopters. In the land department, they boast 2,200 combat tanks, 3,665 armored fighting vehicles, 1,226 towed artillery, and 150 rocket projectors.

China remains the largest foreign supplier of military equipment to Pakistan, but the majority of their equipment is acquired from local domestic suppliers, and they also receive a bulk from the United States. Since 2006, Pakistan had increased its military equipment exports by a considerable margin.

North Korea

While North Korea’s not exactly forthcoming with the details of its military might, choosing instead to exaggerate its prowess, experts have been able to estimate (thanks to satellite imagery and spy work) this hermit kingdom’s military might – just in case it decides to spontaneously start a war. The Democratic Republic of North Korea’s ranked 18th world wide in terms of military power. It has about 1,280,000 active personnel and more than 6 million in reserve, making it the second largest standing army in East Asia.

Its aircraft strength is 956 fighter and attack crafts, 967 naval assets (none of which are aircraft carriers or destroyers). It shines more on land, where it has an estimated 5000 rocket projectors (the most in the world, and hence Trump’s Rocketman nickname), 10,000 armored tanks and 6,000 combat tanks.


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In terms of military spending, North Korea devotes more of its GDP (between one-fifth and one-quarter) to the military than perhaps any other country in the world. The total budget’s estimated to be $10 billion, most of it slated to go into their nuclear program.

North Korea’s unsurprisingly quiet on the South China Sea dispute since it relies on China to smuggle oil from the sea. It, however, focuses its more than 200,000 special operation force to bug its neighbor to the south. They may be starving, but they’re still powerful enough to inflict serious damages if attacked

Taiwan

China has always considered Taiwan an errant part of its territory, and with a major power like this breathing down their necks, they’ve had to armor up very fast, and of course, seek powerful allies in the United States.

What they lack in numbers, they’ve more than made up for in advanced technology, although with China’s recent modernization efforts, this may no longer be enough.


credit: Wikipedia
They currently have about 286 fighter jets, 3905 combat and armored tanks, 115 rocket projectors on land, 4 destroyers and 83 other naval assets capable of detecting enemy aggression and inflicting damage on them. Their active personnel stands at 215,000, with 1,675,000 in reserve and an active special operation forces unit.

Aside from the constant looming threat of a Chinese annexation, Taiwan still goes head to head with its chief nemesis by claiming some of the islands on the South China sea – Formosa in particular – as its own. For all these, Taiwan budgets about $10.7 billion for its military – which isn’t up to 10% of a nuclear China’s budget but should serve as a deterrence enough until the US can join in.

Vietnam

Vietnam’s had its own share of conflict, especially with the US and China. But as the single strongest voice contesting the South China Sea with China, they’ve had to become unlikely allies with the US – the one major power with enough interests to keep China from claiming the south China islands.

In 2016, the US lifted a ban it had previously placed on Vietnam’s ability to acquire made in the US lethal weapons, allowing them to purchase submarines that deter Chinese aggression. So far, they’ve acquired 108 fighter jets, 2,575 combat tanks, 150 rocket projectors, 6 submarines, and 59 other naval assets.


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Their active personnel stands at 482,000, with 5 million more in reserve, and they have a special forces unit that’s been active since the Viet Cong, which was the name given to the National Liberation Front of Vietnam during the Vietnam War.


Vietnam budgets $3.365 billion for its military, most of which is geared towards technological advancement of their current military power. Russia remains the largest supplier of equipment for the Vietnamese military, but in recent years there has been a surge of arm deals with various countries, including India, Turkey, Israel, Japan, South Korea and France. In 2016, US President Barrack Obama lifted the embargo on lethal weapons sales to Vietnam.

Thailand

Known as the “Royal Thai Armed Forces”, Thailand’s military force consists of several branches, army, navy and air force. While Thailand’s had the occasional conflict with its neighbors – particularly its border crisis with Cambodia – most of its conflicts are internal and in the form of uprisings in the south.


They also have the occasional military coup every few decades, with 2014 being the most recent. Thailand’s a relatively neutral party in the south China sea dispute, hence most of their firepower is aimed at suppressing dissent within.


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In terms of military might, Thailand has 75 fighter crafts (ranked 29th in the world), 2359 combat tanks and armored vehicles, 30 rocket projectors, 1 aircraft carrier (zero destroyers), and 80 other naval assets. They also have 360,000 active personnel, 245,000 others in reserve and a special operations warfare command.


As one of the largest economies in Asia (8th highest GDP), Thailand spends just $5 billion or 1.09% on military defense, most of which goes into modernization of what it currently has, rather than acquiring new artilleries. Thailand military spending has increased dramatically since 2006 by over $1 billion.

India

The Indian Armed Forces are the second largest military force in the world in terms of active personnel, surpassed only by the Chinese. The Indian Armed forces are also the largest volunteer military in the world, with about 1,362,500 active personnel and over 2,100,000 reserve personnel.

When put up against the rest of the world, India is ranked 4th, just under the USA, Russia, and China. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, as India is the second most populous country in the world and a busy history of peacemaking missions and other significant military operations such as the Indo-Pakistani wars, the Indo-Pakistani wars and the 1987 Sino-Indian skirmish among others.


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The Indian Armed Forces have a collective budget of $55.2 billion, which is the 5th highest military budget in the world and is a total of 2.5% of the country’s GDP. In terms of airpower, the military holds to a total of 2,082, and in the land strength department, they maintain about 7,000 armored vehicles (including tanks).


The Department of Defence Production is responsible for all of the military equipment and consists of 41 Indian Ordnance Factories. Up until 2014, India was one of the world’s largest importer of military equipment, so the Indian government launched the “Make in India” initiative and dramatically reduced imports in favor of manufacturing most of the stuff on their own.


The Department of Defence Production is responsible for all of the military equipment and consists of 41 Indian Ordnance Factories. Up until 2014, India was one of the world’s largest importer of military equipment, so the Indian government launched the “Make in India” initiative and dramatically reduced imports in favor of manufacturing most of the stuff on their own.

Myanmar

Till date, Myanmar has had the longest internal conflict, which began since its independence in 1948, culminating in the Rohingya “genocide” of 2016. Myanmar does experience some interference from China, which it shares a border with to the north.

But while violence may occasionally spill into their border with China, Myanmar doesn’t outrightly challenge China. As such, most of its military is geared towards suppression of dissent within, and not confrontation with external parties.


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With 406,000 active personnel (and none in reserve), 59 fighter jets, 1734 combat tanks, and armored vehicles, 114 rocket projectors, 155 naval assets (no submarines, destroyers or aircraft carriers) and no special forces, Myanmar is ranked 37th in the world in terms of military might.

Myanmar sets aside $2.4 billion for its military, or about one-quarter of its GDP, rivaling only North Korea in its prioritization of the military

Malaysia

While Malaysia’s disputes have mostly been about territorial conflicts, with Philippines, Indonesia, and of recent, air and maritime dispute with Singapore, they’ve historically always been in sync with China – usually the most problematic power in the region.

Although the current government’s striving for a more active role in protecting its interest in the south China sea. To protect its interests, Malaysia has 61 naval assets (of which 2 are submarines and 41 are patrol vessels), 54 rocket projectors, just 74 combat tanks, and 39 fighter jets.


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It has 110,000 active military personnel, the least in this article, 300,000 reserves, and a counter-terrorism elite force. As a whole, Malaysia’s ranked 41st in the world in terms of military might. Malaysia allocates $4.7 billion for its military budget, most of which goes into its new maritime base along the disputed islands with Singapore.

As one of the most non-confrontational, but relatively larger economies in Southeast Asia, they seem to be projecting just enough strength to protect their interests.

Bangladesh

Ranked 18th out of all of Asia, the Bangladesh Armed Forces are the military force under the command of Bangladesh’s Defence Ministry, with the President of Bangladesh serving as Commander-in-chief of the military. Bangladesh military has an estimated active personnel of 160,000 and reserve personnel of 964,000.

In terms of expenditures, their total budget is $3.45 billion (not including the Paramilitary Forces) which accounts for a mere 1.2% of the country’s total GDP. The Bangladesh Army, the land forces of the military, is the largest branch of the three.


credit: Wikipedia
The Bangladesh Armed Forces total aircraft strength is ranked 53rd in the world and consists of 45 fighters, 45 attacks, and an undisclosed number of attack helicopters. In terms of land strength, they have about 340 tanks, 521 armored fighting vehicles, 340 towed artillery, and 36 rocket projectors.

The military has launched a long-term modernization program called “Forces Goal 2030”, with the plan of modernizing and expanding all of the military’s equipment and infrastructures. From acquiring modern war-machines to upgrading the training technics for all of the future personnel. The plan mostly relies on the local defense industries initiated at Bangladesh.

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