Military Modernization in an Era of Uncertainty

Military Modernization in an Era of Uncertainty, Edited by
Ashley Tellis and Michael Wills

Dr Shivshankar Sastry

This comprehensive and excellent collection of analyses has been brought out by the US based National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR) as part of its Strategic Asia Program. The NBR is described as a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institute dedicated to informing and  strengthening policy in the Asia Pacific. The book is the fifth in a series of annual  volumes produced by the NBR.

The 14 chapters of the book are divided into 5 broad sections: an overview, a country  studies section with individual chapters on the US, China, Japan, the Koreas and Russia; a Regional Studies section with chapters on Central Asia, South Asia and South East Asia. The penultimate section contains special studies on Australia, nuclear proliferation in Asia, the Chinese economy and Taiwan, while the last section deals with economic, military and demographic statistics from Asia.

The great strength and most notable aspect of this volume is the overall excellent ability  of each author to put himself inside the country being reviewed and write about how that  country’s government sees threats, challenges, allies and enemies, and how military  modernization is being balanced between the economy and the dictates of the above factors. The book succeeds in giving the reader a grasp of what it is that drives military modernization in every country that is dealt with, and can serve as a  one-stop shop to create an instant Asia expert with an ability to comment on developments anywhere in Asia. The editors and authors are to be complimented for this and for this reason the book will find a place on the bookshelf of every serious military or political student of Asia.

Several concepts describing US policy are described, as well as useful pointers to thinking 
in various Asian capitals and the state of the military and economy in all. The realist 
hypothesis is quoted for expecting an increase in military spending along with economic 
growth in Asia, while the long cycle theory is quoted in analyzing the possible causes of 
war between nations and the role of an existing hegemon in keeping the balance of power. US 
policy is analyzed first in the country analyses section, firmly placing the US as an Asian 
power by virtue of its presence and clout all around Asia. The continuing prospect of the US 
in being the pre-eminent economic and military power is described and defined. The role of 
the US in Asia is described as one of holding the ring akin to a stabilizing force that 
prevents the ring from being pulled in one direction or other.

The chapters on China, the Koreas, Russia, Australia and Taiwan each bring out unique 
insights. Chinese growth in economic and military power is analyzed by itself as well as in 
relation to its implications for the US, Japan, the Koreas, Taiwan, Australia and South East 
Asia. China is looked at in detail. Its economic boom is seen both in a positive and a 
negative light. Suspicions remain about China’s long term trajectory and intentions, but its 
current military strength is described as being regional alone, with a visible tendency to 
appear not to threaten neighbors. Japan’s gradual move towards a more normal role for its 
armed forces is described in detail along with factors that are hindering this, and factors 
that could encourage Japan to go further down that route, including, if need be, developing 
a nuclear deterrent of its own. North Korea’s faltering economy, militarized society, 
nuclear weapons and negotiating tactics are analyzed along with South Korea’s thrust towards 
reconciliation with the North and desire and ability to take charge of its own defense. The 
opportunities and dilemmas for the US are analyzed. Taiwan is dealt with in similar detail 
along with the prospects of war with China, its internal political balancing acts, and what 
the role of the US may be in various circumstances. Russia is analyzed with some concern, 
noting its precarious economy, under-funded, corrupt and faltering armed forces and 
increasing reliance on nuclear forces alone. 

Australia’s gradual integration with Asia and its desire not to antagonize China while 
retaining its relations with the US is described. There is a very interesting chapter on the 
drivers that may provoke nuclear proliferation in Asia and what can be done to reduce the 
risk. The US faces many policy dilemmas here. 

If one must be critical at all about the book, it has to be about the cursory dealing of 
India, bracketed with Pakistan in the regional studies section. India gets 16 pages, less 
than the 26 pages reserved for the states of Central Asia. While the information is concise 
and accurate, brevity can be a cause of misinformation. For example Pakistan is described as 
being on the strategic defensive with respect to India. This rather unfair characterization 
fails to account for India’s entirely honorable role in a neighborhood of predominantly 
small nations, particularly that of leaving Bangladesh as a free country after quelling the 
genocide there in 1971. Bangladesh does not feature at all in the book except for a single 
mention of the port of Chittagong in Bangladesh in the chapter on South East Asia. 

This is a surprising omission considering that the author of the South Asia chapter, John 
Gill, is also the author of an atlas of the war of liberation of Bangladesh. While the South 
Asia chapter can hardly be described as comprehensive, the problem may really lie in the 
relative absence of writing, official analyses and literature from India that could serve as 
reference points for a scholar interested in the area. But this should in no way reduce the 
genuine value of this book as a comprehensive all round source of information about the 
topic that the title promises: Military modernization in an era of uncertainty in Asia.