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Defense Transparency Stable Among Northeast Asia Powers (For Now)

January 06, 2023
Chi Fang and Jade Reidy


The newly released 2021–22 Northeast Asia Defense Transparency Index (DTI) found only a marginal decline in overall defense transparency among Northeast Asia powers, with Japan showing noteworthy improvements in its transparency score. Concealing defense activities is often an indicator that countries are quietly making preparations for military conflict and contributes to declining trust and confidence among states. Evidence from the latest DTI—that defense transparency is relatively stable in Northeast Asia—is cause for cautious optimism that the long peace that the region has enjoyed remains intact for now. But transparency is just one indicator of the overall state of defense affairs, and the powerful underlying currents that are the main determinants of war and peace, such as threat perceptions and arms dynamics, all appear to be trending negatively.

Northeast Asia Defense Transparency Index 2021–22

Policy Summary

Key Takeaways
  • Defense transparency in 2021–22 showed a negligible decline due to lapses among countries in reporting to the United Nations (UN), but there were encouraging signs of improved openness in other important areas, including legislative oversight and cybersecurity.
  • Japan upheld its first-place ranking in 2021–22, while the United States dropped from second to third place and the Republic of Korea (ROK) moved up in rank from third to second place. The U.S. drop was due primarily to its failure to report to the United Nations, while the ROK rise was due primarily to more transparent defense budgets and cybersecurity policy. Japan enjoyed the largest increase in transparency due to improvements in legislative oversight and its ability to sustain UN reporting submissions amid lapses by other countries.
  • Despite fluctuations across categories, China, North Korea, and Russia’s overall scores remained relatively static compared to 2020–21. China in particular did not publish any new white papers; did not disclose detailed budgets; and did not submit full reports to the UN. Its official website favors propaganda over useful operational content.
  • Most countries—especially China, Japan, and Russia—made improvements in legislative oversight. Transparency in cybersecurity also improved overall, driven by large increases in scores from Russia and South Korea. The United States exemplifies transparency in cybersecurity policy and operational details with its nearly perfect cybersecurity transparency score.
  • Overall, the defense transparency tiers have remained consistent since 2010: liberal democracies (Japan, ROK, and the United States) are the most transparent group; authoritarian countries, such as Russia and China, demonstrate moderate transparency; and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), despite modest improvements, remains the least transparent country in the region.


Military and geostrategic distrust, rivalry, and naked armed aggression among states escalated sharply in 2021–22. Russia’s punishing war against Ukraine in 2022 plunged the world back into the dark ages of militarization, spiraling arms races, and the unrelenting threat of nuclear and all-out conventional warfare that the world had seemingly left behind after the Cold War. In Northeast Asia, military tensions also ratcheted up and called into question whether the long peace that the region has enjoyed since the Korean War in the 1950s is coming to an end. North Korea continued to carry out missile tests and announced a new nuclear doctrine that allows for pre-emptive strikes. China’s defense modernization and the projection of an increasingly capable long-range military capability continue at a vigorous pace. At the same time, the United States' regional allies remain uncertain about the U.S. commitment to burden-sharing, and tensions in the Taiwan Strait continue to boil.

All of these developments underscore the importance of developments in Northeast Asia for the future of the global security order. Improving security, preventing escalation, and averting war depend on trust and confidence-building between adversaries and competitors. Mistrust and misperception among states are major causes of conflicts and wars. Improving transparency helps states assess other states’ capabilities and moderate the chance of miscalculations. Studies have repeatedly demonstrated that confidence-building measures that improve defense transparency reduce tensions. This is often done by establishing regular disclosures of strategic documents and official statements, in which states elaborate on their understanding of the current security environment. Domestic information such as budgets, legislation, and reporting in the media also help states understand each other’s policy intentions and constraints. In short: “When defense transparency improves, so too do prospects for peace.”

In 2010, the University of California’s Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation (IGCC) created the Northeast Asia Defense Transparency Index (DTI), which provides a framework that clearly defines and measures different components and factors that quantify defense transparency. Carried out every two years, the DTI offers a detailed examination of how open or closed major regional states are in disclosing information on their defense postures.

The 2021–22 DTI shows a minor decrease in overall transparency among the six countries covered in the survey: China, North Korea, Japan, the Republic of Korea (ROK), the United States, and Russia. Except for Japan’s clear improvement and leading position, every other country’s DTI score has either remained static or slightly declined since 2020. However, there were encouraging signs of improvement in key areas, and the overall decline in scores was driven primarily by country performance on one indicator—reporting to the UN—which tends to fluctuate anyway. Moreover, the fluctuation in overall scores is part of a longer trend: for example, while the 2018–19 DTI update showed a significant decrease in overall transparency, scores increased overall in the 2020–21 Index.

Country rankings changed in 2021–22. Japan upheld its first-place ranking, while the United States dropped from second to third place and the ROK moved up in rank from third to second place. The U.S. drop was due primarily to its failure to report to the United Nations, while the ROK rise was due primarily to more transparent defense budgets and cybersecurity policy. Japan enjoyed the largest increase in transparency due to improvements in legislative oversight and its ability to sustain UN reporting submissions.

Little change was seen in two of the areas controlled by formal legal institutions—budget transparency and media independence—but big strides were made in legislative oversight. While Japan’s National Diet produced more reports on defense issues, China implemented new regulations to monitor the budgetary process. South Korea held more public hearings and Russia enhanced its supervision of defense corporations and legislative collaboration with the executive branch.

The liberal democracies disclosed more information about their international activities, missions, and arms transfers than in 2020–21. And in cybersecurity, all countries released more information about their policy goals, regulations, and threat assessments than they did in the last cycle. The United States, in particular, published a comprehensive document to describe its cybersecurity command structure and related agencies.

Most states provided less information in their defense white papers and on their defense ministry websites, and shared less information about their defense budgets in 2021–22, with some variation.

Reporting to the United Nations decreased precipitously this year. Except for Japan, no countries submitted full information about their arms transfers and holdings to the United Nations. In particular, both the United States and North Korea failed to submit any report to the United Nations.

Overall, the defense transparency tiers have remained consistent in the last decade: Japan, ROK, and the United States are the most transparent while Russia and China show moderate transparency. Finally, North Korea remains the least transparent country in the region.

The DTI also identified conditions outside the defense domain that nonetheless have positive spillover effects for defense transparency. Public access to technology in particular may improve the ability of states to understand the activities and intentions of other states. Examples include private companies and think tanks that use satellite images to reveal military build-ups and warfighters who use social media on the battlefield to deliver first-hand observations.

As the 2022 war in Ukraine sets a precedent for hybrid warfare across diplomatic, economic, informational, and military spectrums, defense transparency is a critical tool to mitigate escalation. It is through defense transparency that clearer understandings of strategy, capability, and intentions are gained, and that understanding has great potential to reduce unnecessary suffering.

Read more detailed findings here

About the Index

The index assesses three domains: (1) information-sharing processes, (2) domestic institutions and hierarchies, and (3) signals and intentions. Each of these represents states’ capacity to convey information, as well as other states’ ability to understand strategy and intentions. Based on these three facets, the DTI tracks progress across eight indicators to measure a country’s defense transparency:

  1. Disclosures in defense white papers
  2. Information available on official defense websites
  3. Reporting to the United Nations
  4. Openness of defense budgets
  5. Robustness of legislative oversight
  6. Robustness of media independence and reporting
  7. Disclosures of international military activity
  8. Disclosures of cybersecurity activities

Defense transparency is defined as the ongoing process in which governments credibly transmit timely, relevant, and sufficient information about their military power and activities, budgetary matters, and intentions to allow other states and domestic audiences to assess the consistency of this information with declared strategic interests and institutional obligations to reduce misperception, ensure good governance, and build mutual trust.

This year, IGCC hired several native speakers from each country to enhance the comprehensiveness of the data collection process. The coding process goes as follows. Scores for white papers are based on the depth and breadth of information contained in the most recent strategy document(s) released by the countries. We also score the information on respective countries’ websites—with attention to both the English and native language versions of the websites. UN reporting is scored for completeness and timeliness. Budgetary transparency scores are based on third-party databases from the Open Budget Survey (OBP), Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), and International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), as well as publicly available information regarding the financial resources devoted to the countries’ militaries, with a focus on the particularity and specificity of the accounting entries. Legislative oversight is judged by nongovernmental organization (NGO) reports, official government publications, academic writings, and media reports. Media oversight is judged by the level of press freedom found in the country, primarily as reported by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The transparency of international activities is judged by the publicly available information about such activities by states in white papers, on their websites, in press briefings, and in press releases. Lastly, cybersecurity activity is based both on officially published cyber strategies and on pertinent content found in the white papers and websites of each country. Overall transparency scores are based on the equal weighting of all eight subindices. Scores with different weightings of subindices can be accessed in the dataset.


CHI FANG is a Ph.D. student in political science at the University of California, San Diego, and a graduate student researcher for the UC Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation.

JADE REIDY is a Staff Research Associate with the UC Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation.