Why Asia’s arms race could get out of hand

The three largest economies in the world, together with one that is rapidly developing, are engaged in an arms race unlike any that Asia has ever witnessed. Decades-old alliances are also competing for an advantage in some of the most hotly contested land and sea areas.

The United States and its allies Japan and South Korea are in one corner. China and its ally Russia are in a different corner. And North Korea is in the third.

Each is locked in an uncontrollable vicious spiral because they all want to be one step ahead of the others. After all, what deters one person might escalate another.

Ankit Panda, a nuclear policy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told CNN that “we’ll continue to see these dynamics escalate in East Asia, where we have no measures of restraint, we have no arms control.”

The recent trip to Washington by Japanese leaders only served to emphasize the point. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida highlighted his concern on China’s military activities in the East China Sea and the firing of ballistic missiles over Taiwan that landed in waters close to Japan in August on Friday, following a meeting with US President Joe Biden.

Kishida said it was “extremely necessary” for Japan, the US, and Europe to stand together on China and warned Beijing against attempting to “alter the international order.” His remarks followed grave statements by US and Japanese ministers about the “ongoing and rapid growth of (China’s) nuclear arsenal” just a few days prior.

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On September 30, 2022, the US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan and the submarine USS Annapolis will participate in a combined trilateral anti-submarine exercise.
On September 30, 2022, the US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan and the submarine USS Annapolis will participate in a combined trilateral anti-submarine exercise.
Defense Ministry of South Korea/Getty Images
However, China and North Korea claim that Japan is the aggressor. They have lately witnessed Tokyo make a commitment to quadruple its military budget and acquire missiles that can strike targets inside of Chinese and North Korean borders. The recent news of fresh US Marine deployment plans on Japan’s southern islands, including new mobile anti-ship missiles intended to deter any first strike from Beijing, will only have increased their reported anxieties.

Such actions are escalation to Beijing but deterrence to the US, Japan, and other countries.

China argues that its worries are founded on historical justifications, digging into the past. It expresses concern that Tokyo is resuming the military expansionism of World War II, when Japanese forces dominated substantial portions of Asia and China took the brunt of their aggression. During the eight-year battle with Japan from 1937 to 1945, around 14 million Chinese killed and up to 100 million fled their homes.

Beijing maintains that Tokyo is once again posing a threat to regional stability with these plans, which call for Japan to acquire long-range “counterstrike” weapons like Tomahawk missiles that could strike sites inside of China.

However, detractors believe China is reopening old wounds to divert attention away from its own military expansion.

They note that Beijing has been expanding its naval and air forces in areas close to Japan while claiming the Senkaku Islands, an uninhabited Japanese-controlled chain in the East China Sea, as its sovereign territory. This is despite Beijing vehemently rejecting US and Japanese concerns about Beijing’s own burgeoning military might.

In late December, Japan said that 334 days in 2022—the most since Tokyo bought portions of the islands from a private Japanese landowner in 2012—Chinese government vessels had been observed in the area surrounding the islands, known in China as the Diaoyus. The longest such intrusion since 2012 took place from December 22 to December 25 when Chinese government vessels spent over 73 hours in a row in Japanese territorial seas off the islands.

On December 20, 2022, a Chinese fleet departs from a military port in Zhoushan, east China’s Zhejiang province, for a naval drill with Russia.
On December 20, 2022, a Chinese fleet departs from a military port in Zhoushan, east China’s Zhejiang province, for a naval drill with Russia.
Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images Li Yun
Through the expansion of its relationship with Russia, China has also ratcheted up the heat. A State Department official recently told CNN that given how Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping had displayed their close friendship in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, this had not only sparked some of the US-Japan agreements but that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had “moved things on warp drive.”

Additionally, Russia has been showcasing its military prowess in the Pacific, most notably in December when its warships participated in a week-long live-fire exercise in the East China Sea with Chinese ships and aircraft.

When it comes to Taiwan, a self-governing island with a population of 24 million that the Chinese Communist Party claims as its own despite never having had control of it, Beijing’s aggression has been particularly apparent.

China has upped its aggressive military exercises around the island, particularly since the visit of Nancy Pelosi, the former speaker of the US House of Representatives, in August. Xi has refused to rule out the use of military force to put the island under Beijing’s authority. China conducted massive military exercises surrounding the island in the days after Pelosi’s visit, firing many missiles close to its waters and dispatching jets to harass it.

Last week, China dispatched 28 warplanes over the Taiwan Strait, including H-6 bombers, three drones, J-10, J-11, J-16, and Su-30 fighters, as well as an early warning and surveillance aircraft. The People’s Liberation Army sent 47 planes beyond the median line during a similar exercise on Christmas Day.

The US has maintained its resolve notwithstanding these actions. As required by the Taiwan Relations Act, Washington has continued to approve a growing number of military shipments to the island.

Escalation of North Korea’s nuclear program
Talk of cooperation on the Korean Peninsula is a dimming light 1,000 miles to Taiwan’s north.

The North Korean leader Kim Jong Un wants to “exponentially boost” his country’s nuclear arsenal beginning in 2023 and is developing a fleet of “super big” mobile rocket launchers that are capable of delivering a nuclear bomb to any location in the South.

According to a paper released on Thursday by the South’s Korea Institute for Defense Analyses (KIDA), Kim’s strategy might eventually result in 300 weapons.

That represents a significant improvement over 2022, when the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) projected that he had 20 nuclear warheads in assembled form and the fissile material to manufacture up to 55 more.

In a picture issued by the North Korean government’s Korean Central News Agency on November 19, 2022, Kim Jong Un, the country’s leader, examines an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
In a picture issued by the North Korean government’s Korean Central News Agency on November 19, 2022, Kim Jong Un, the country’s leader, examines an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
North Korea would overtake the long-standing nuclear powers of France and the United Kingdom with the addition of 300 nuclear warheads, leaving it only behind Russia, the US, and China in terms of nuclear stockpiles.

Yoon Suk Yeol, the president of South Korea, has pledged a military buildup in response to such a possibility.

The Yonhap news source quoted Yoon as saying this week that “firmly creating a (military) capability that lets us to strike back 100 times or 1,000 times more if we are attacked is the most critical approach for averting attacks.”

The possibility of South Korea developing its own nuclear arsenal was also brought up, with the speaker saying that his nation may “deploy tactical nuclear weapons or possess its own nukes.”

US policymakers are extremely concerned about the possibility of the Korean Peninsula hosting additional nuclear weapons, even if those weapons belonged to an ally.

SUNDAY, AUGUST 24, 2022 – FUJIAN, CHINA On August 24, 2022, Zhangzhou City, Fujian Province, China will host a cross-day, all-factor live-fire red-blue confrontation drill between the PLA Navy and the PLA Army. (Future Publishing should be listed as the photo’s source rather than CFOTO.)
A wargame predicts that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would fail, albeit at a great cost to the forces of the US, China, and Taiwan.
Furthermore, South Korea would lose part of the moral superiority it has had as a result of adhering to the Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula from 1992, which Pyongyang has repeatedly broken, if it were to develop nuclear weapons.

In order to reassure its friend, the US has stated that all US military resources are available to defend South Korea and that Washington’s support for Seoul is “iron clad.”

Adm. Mike Gilday, the US chief of naval operations, said on Thursday at a virtual forum of the Institute for Corean-American Studies (ICAS), “The United States will not hesitate to fulfill its extended deterrence commitment to (South Korea) by using a full spectrum of US defense capabilities, and that extends to nuclear, conventional, and also missile defense.”

The visit of a US aircraft carrier to the South Korean port of Busan last year was touted by Gilday as evidence of US support for the South. However, Pyonygang perceives a threat in the demonstration of one of Washington’s most potent warships in North Korea’s backyard.

The spiral keeps on.

However, as Asia’s arms race heats up, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the US, Japan, and South Korea will be fighting together rather than singly.

The fact that Kishida and other Japanese leaders have been in Washington for the past week is amply visible proof of that.

In his statement to the ICAS, Adm. Gilday referred to the three-way cooperation as “the closer we work together, the stronger we become.” Hopefully, that will persuade any possible enemies that it wouldn’t be worthwhile to intervene.

He continued that perseverance is essential in the face of constant pressure from enemies.

“Whatever it takes for all of us to come together, we shouldn’t be discouraged and we shouldn’t lose our nerve.”

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