An East Asian Game of Risk: The Rise of an Arms Race
As American military presence in East Asia appears to perhaps gradually withdraw, the beginnings of an arms race have burgeoned between neighbouring countries. Along with the pre-existing divisions caused by contradicting and overlying claims and stakes in the South Chinese Sea, tensions are expected to worsen. As countries in East Asia continue to strengthen their economy and augment their military fortitude, their presence has grown increasingly hegemonic within the Eastern Hemisphere.
First, there exists the might of Xi Jinping’s Middle Kingdom, the rising global power which has started to assert dominance through more than abundant demonstrations of military might. To the east of China, the infamous hermit kingdom of North Korea led by Kim Jong-un grows stronger with its newly-acquired nuclear missiles, formidably disciplined army, and brutal dictatorship. South of the authoritarian state lies Moon Jae-in’s South Korea who may now struggle with the potential diminishment of American military presence after decades of it being the norm. Across the turbulent South Chinese Sea, Shinzo Abe tries desperately to revise his country’s pacifist constitution in the wake of rivalrous aggression. And then there is Taiwan — who in the center of the discord lacks formal recognition from much of the world, though it possesses the military capacity to strike the heart of its long-time arch-rival, China.
And so, the stage is set.
Moving Beyond Taiwan
China has recently developed a capable military backed by an ever-growing economy. Its standing on the world stage has grown from regional to international, and at the same time, so has its targets. Once especially obsessed with reunification with Taiwan, China’s militaristic ambitions have since moved well beyond Taiwan and into the wider world of international relations. In complement with its growing geopolitical ambitions, China’s military budget has also expanded; it will have more than doubled since the previous decade in two years’ time. By 2020, China’s defense spending will total to US$233 billion, an unprecedented value that has allowed China to further realize its identity as the superpower the rest of the world has long awaited—or feared. China has also greatly surpassed its missile-capabilities from the 1990s; from previously just being able to strike Taiwan to now having the ability to strike the US territory of Guam. China’s DF-26 Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM) has even been dubbed “The Guam Express.” Xi Jinping has armed his country with increased military spending and powerful missiles that will no doubt eventually allow China to begin deterring the intentions of American foreign policy and the aspirations of its numerous neighbouring rivals.
Broadening Their Horizons
North Korea has a missile culture. Missile programs date back to Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, who desired the military capabilities to strike American military bases throughout the Eastern world. In its plays at military assertion and demonstrations of power in the face of American pressure, North Korea has developed capabilities of striking faraway targets it once never could. In a short period of time, North Korea under Kim Jong-un has achieved the nuclear means to completely ravage Japan, Taiwan, and especially South Korea, whose capital, Seoul, lies just 56 km from the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and well in the range of the North’s nuclear warheads. Moreover, North Korea’s missiles are now more than capable of striking the North American mainland and even Auckland, New Zealand.
Ripping up the Constitution
Japan is a nation with a rich military culture, with what was one of the most disciplined and effective armies in the world, before the samurai and well-after their extinction. Having suffered the dreadful effects of a nuclear attack firsthand though, Japan’s most recent constitution has turned what was once the most powerful military power in Asia, capable of defeating Russia in 1905 and holding its own against the United States during the Second World War, into a self-made pacifist country. Its constitution formally dictates that it will not adhere to the use of powerful offensive weapons and will avoid war as a means of settling international disputes. In the face of growing tensions with China and an increasingly hostile North Korea, however, Shinzo Abe has made desperate attempts at revising this section of his country’s constitution. Additionally, Prime Minister Abe’s administration has expanded the defense budget to US $43.6 billion and has taken considerable strides toward purchasing its first cruise missiles: the Norwegian/U.S. Joint Strike Missile (JSM) and the American Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range (JASSM-ER), of which would grant Japan the ability to carry out strikes on the North Korean and Chinese mainland.
Manning the Fort
Taiwan has been, since the state’s creation, in between a rock and a hard place. With its traditional goal of being recognized as the “real” China under the controversial existence of the “Two Chinas”, Taiwan has sought to preserve a well-oiled army in order to maintain its unrecognized sovereignty in the face of its hegemonic rival, China. Despite these efforts, the Chinese Ministry of Defense has openly asserted that a military exchange in the name of reunification would be “futile” for Taiwan. In the wake of the arms race, Taiwan has sought to invest in its own missiles as well, developing the unique long-range Hsiung Feng III (HF-3) which possesses a capacity of hitting targets more than 500 km away, including prominent nearby mainland cities. In addition to the HF-3, Taiwan has numerous “Wan Chien” air-launched cruise missiles that may be deployed from 1,770 km away. It has also upended its defense spending by 50 percent just this year. There is no doubt that influence over the Taiwan Strait has historically been fought over by both China and Taiwan, however, it remains to be seen whether Taiwan will remain on the defensive or rather move towards more offensive means in this impending arms race.
Importing and Expanding
This arms race is manifested in not just arms accumulation alone, but also technological belligerence. Mainstream South Korean media and banks suffered from a massive cyber strike recently, after which fingers pointed at North Korea and China. South Korea is an eager arms importer already, buying just over $501 million worth of weapons just from the US and taking further measures to develop novel weapons. For instance, it currently possesses the German-manufactured Taurus air-launched cruise missile which can easily destroy solid concrete bunkers. South Korea has also taken advantage of its geography; surrounded by water, a submarine missile carrier is in the process of being developed to carry the already developed, Hyunmoo 2B missile which can hit targets 497 miles away. Like their aggressive neighbour to the north, they have taken to orchestrating military parades to demonstrate their newfound weapons technology since 2o13.
What will come from this arms race is unsure. In light of recent events, Trump’s relations with America’s oldest allies in Western Europe or in East Asia have led to unfortunate debacles, leaving those reliant on the American military for their country’s defense to seek other means of protection against regional foes. If America were to issue a complete withdrawal of their troops from South Korea, it is likely that the current arms race would accelerate with growing tensions. America has had a long history of playing mediator in East Asia that traces back to President Theodore Roosevelt negotiating the end of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, to General MacArthur’s democratization and reconstruction of war-torn Japan in 1945. So what of Trump’s intention to reduce American military presence in the Eastern Hemisphere? In due time, it may just invite China and North Korea to seek their traditional militaristic goals or incentivize Japan, Taiwan, or South Korea to retaliate against old enemies.
Jake Gouchie is an Education student at McGill University.
Edited by Shirley Wang.