Resurgent Chinese military power will dominate the strategic decision-making of nations in the region, and consequently their defense acquisitions. Most experts and sources agree on that, but as far as details go, they tend to agree on nothing else.

China's rise affects at least two sets of relationships: those between Asian nations and the U.S., currently the region's dominant power, and those among Asian nations themselves. “The U.S. will have to work harder,” according to one former senior U.S. defense official. “The waning of the 'unipolar moment'—the period of unchallenged U.S. leadership that followed the end of the Cold War—allows smaller states to be more agile. Some critical states do not view a strong partnership with the U.S. as being completely necessary.”

For many in the region, including Japan, South Korea, India and Australia, China is their largest trading partner. According to a report in June from the Center for a New American Security—a rising think tank whose CEO, Robert Work, has been tapped as a candidate for the next U.S. deputy defense secretary—“many Asian countries are beginning to question the sustainability and wisdom of pursuing close economic relations with China while relying on the U.S. to deter aggressive Chinese behavior.”

Across the region and within nations, views on China differ. Japanese hawks see a revival of the nation's Cold War posture—where the role of Association of Southeast Asian Nations forces was “to take hold of the Soviets' left arm and left leg,” as former Japanese Maritime Self Defense Forces (JMSDF) Commander Vice Adm. Yoji Koda said at a January conference organized by CNAS. That is a view not shared in Washington: “There is no comparison of Soviet containment and Chinese treatment,” Adm. Samuel Locklear, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, said at the Surface Navy Association symposium in Washington last month.

But Koda's hawkish view was echoed at the CNAS forum by Narushige Michishita, director of the security and international studies program at Japan's National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies. China's aim, in his view, is to impose a “sea control” line within the “first island chain” that defines the East and South China seas, within which it enjoys full freedom of movement and can control the movement of any other shipping. As one expert points out, “a 200-nautical-mile zone around all the land features that China claims covers a remarkably large percentage of the South China Sea.”

Hawks look at China's development of nuclear submarines, bombers and anti-ship ballistic missile systems, and suggest that China's navy and air force intend to establish a “sea denial” line, up to 2,700 km (1,680 mi.) from its coasts, within which other naval forces are at risk of attack. The South China Sea, in this view, is being eyed as a bastion for ballistic missile submarines—reflecting Soviet activities in the Sea of Okhotsk in the Cold War.

Even the hawks do not expect this development overnight or necessarily believe that China is going about its strategy in the right direction. “The more carriers that China builds, the better off we are,” Koda says. In his view, China's deployment of the modernized ex-Soviet carrier Liaoning will be an expensive diversion from more productive investments and the carriers will be vulnerable to submarines.

A very different South Korean view was presented at the CNAS conference by Kyongsoo Lho, professor in Seoul National University's school of public administration. South Korea sees the Chinese navy as having a limited capability that it can handle “with submarines, not pretty-looking surface ships.” (The last comment is a none-too-subtle dig at Japan.) While the U.S. Navy can now call at Vietnamese ports, Lho said, China's navy has no such arrangements and no ports outside its mainland. Of the carrier group he asked: “Where does it go? Where does it refuel? Where does its crew rest? China relies critically on seaborne trade,” Lho continued. “Why should they destroy all their maritime relationships?” One U.S. expert, Bernard Cole of the U.S. National War College, describes Liaoning as “more of a political statement than a viable weapons platform.”

Nevertheless, Cole characterizes Chinese actions as “salami-slicing” —pressuring regional neighbors one by one to accept its influence over the seas. The effort, he says, is not to establish wholesale dominance but to enforce the principle that “China does not want things happening of which it does not approve.” Or, as another leading Washington analyst puts it: “The region does not default to a balance of power. Historically, it is the Middle Kingdom and its tributaries.”

For the U.S., North Korea remains a top concern. According to Pacific commander Admiral Locklear, North Korea and “the unpredictable nature of the country and its government,” is the issue that “I worry about every day. We've put Korea on the back burner for the past couple of decades.” Now, he says, it's time again to put the country and related issues back in the spotlight.

Locklear acknowledges concern about the growing importance of China in the region and elsewhere, but says the Navy and the nation have known for some time the Asian giant would start to take such strides. “China is going to rise,” he says. “We've all known that for a long time—for the past 20-30 years.”

According to June's CNAS report, the changing Asian security environment, “no longer defined by the U.S. 'hub-and-spoke' alliance system,” is reflected in a network of bilateral security ties, along with unexpected forms of cooperation: India training Vietnamese submarine crews, and Japan reaching an independent security agreement with Australia. CNAS lists 24 significant agreements since 2006.

Joint operations and exercises are on the rise. With vital regional interests in sea lane security, Asian nations have been heavily involved in counter-piracy missions—in March 2013, a Singaporean officer took command of the international task force in the Gulf of Aden. Australia and Indonesia held their first joint naval exercise in 2011 and, in 2012, Indonesian air force Sukhoi Su-27SKM and Su-30MK2 fighters took part in the biennial Pitch Black air superiority exercise in Northern Australia.

Humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) are an important factor in the region and an element of “soft power.” Arrival of China's hospital ship Peace Ark in the Philippines in late November, to assist victims of super-typhoon Haiyan, was hailed in Chinese media. Airlifters and landing helicopter dockship (LHD) naval vessels are vital HADR assets, and local powers are both acquiring them and developing them. (China's Xian Y-20 and Japan's Kawasaki C-2 are cases in point.)

Defense industry and acquisition strategies are changing with the environment. Intra-Asian arms sales are few in number—but no longer non-existent. Potential deals on the horizon include a Vietnamese order for the Indian-Russian BrahMos supersonic anti-ship missile, and an Indian order for Japan's Shinmaywa US-2 maritime search-and-rescue amphibian. South Korea's Daewoo, having cut its teeth on building German-designed submarines for the nation's own navy, is supplying three Type 209s (also originally designed by Thyssen-Krupp Marine Systems) to Indonesia. Two of the ships will be constructed in Indonesia.

The U.S. still expects to remain the dominant arms supplier in the Asian region (see page 67.) but some observers note trends toward nations seeking more diversity in their supplier base, or better deals in terms of price, financing, industrial participation or access to technology. While not an Asian deal, the September 2013 announcement that Turkey had chosen China's CPMIEC HQ-9 surface-to-air missile system—derived from the Russian S-300V—over the U.S. Patriot and others was a surprise to Washington, given Turkey's NATO membership and partnership with U.S. and European industry.

A conference in January held by Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies focused on the future of the global arms market—noting that China's influence, more modern Russian equipment, new market entrants and new industrial ambitions could put pressure on U.S. companies' market share. Several participants noted (the conference was operated under Chatham House rules so quotes could not be attributed) that U.S. dominance is mainly confined to aircraft and larger helicopters, with Europe steadily eroding the latter market.

Singapore's progress as both a customer/operator and developer of systems is one case where national ambitions and regional rivalries drive decisions. While a U.S. ally, Singapore is ethnically and commercially linked to China and distinctly different from its neighbors. One Washington analyst points to this factor as a partial explanation for Singapore's close defense ties with Israel—“They are both isolated and at risk of being cut off.” Singapore's F-15SGs and its latest F-16s are enhanced with Israeli hardware, and operate with IAI-Elta Conformal Airborne Early Warning aircraft. Singapore's air force also uses the Rafael Spyder air defense missile system.

Singapore's most costly weapon platforms, however, are the navy's Formidable-class stealth frigates. French-designed and European-equipped (armed with MBDA's Aster surface-to-air missiles, with some U.S. and Israeli components), five out of the six ships were built locally. The new Type 218SG submarines ordered from TKMS last year may be even more costly and ambitious. Singapore's local ST Electronics and the government Defense Science and Technology Agency collaborated on the Formidable ships' combat systems and will do the same for the 218SGs.

At the same time, ST Engineering has developed armored vehicles for Singapore's army, and exported its Bronco amphibious, articulated tracked vehicle to the U.K.—after a competition with BAE Systems.

South Korea's industry has passed important milestones, not only with the Indonesian submarine deal—the most complex combat ships the nation has yet exported—but also with its selection to build four 37,000-ton Tide-class fast fleet tankers for the Royal Navy. Designed by Britain's BMT, the ships are to be delivered from 2016 and will support the navy's new aircraft carriers. Norway ordered another in November 2013. Late last year, South Korea also sold a version of its T/FA-50 fighter-trainer to Iraq, and moved closer—despite Chinese objections—to a sale to the Philippines.

Japan's newly adopted defense doctrine, under the conservative administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is leaning toward more diverse international alliances and—possibly—an end to its long-lasting ban on arms exports. Rear Adm. Umio Otsuka, director general of the JMSDF command, control and intelligence office, noted a series of initiatives related to the government's new national defense program guidelines (NDPG) at a Washington conference organized by CNAS. Internationally, the government is aiming at establishing confidence-building measures—such as maritime “rules of the road” to regulate encounters between warships—with China, as well as Russia. Abe's government is also pushing ties with India—as another strategic maritime nation—and it was announced in early January that Abe would be the guest of honor at India's Jan. 26 Republic Day parade.

The previous NDPG, in 2010, launched a change from a “minimum deterrent force with a Cold War mindset,” Otsuka said, to a “dynamic defense force” with a higher operational tempo, “24/7” intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and more active international cooperation efforts. The newly revised NDPG moves toward a “dynamic joint defense force” with higher-end equipment and better logistics and command and control support. It also focuses to a greater extent on Japan's offshore islands, and launches the establishment of an amphibious force to bolster the defenses of the nation's East China Sea possessions.

An associated revision to guidelines covering U.S.-Japan cooperation will be issued late this year, covering HADR, counter-terrorism and peacekeeping operations and the long-term status of U.S. forces in Japan.

As Japan's armed forces gather strength, the nation's longstanding prohibition on arms exports is being interpreted in new ways. Some of the impetus comes from Japan's acquisition of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter: The concept of logistical and spares support for the F-35 means that, for Japan's industry to build F-35 components, Japan has to accept that those parts may at some point be installed by another nation. In this case, Japan is likely to agree that parts can be exported under the control of the U.S. government.

(With Michael Fabey.)