An anxious Asia arms for a war it hopes to prevent
On March 13, North Korea launched cruise missiles from a submarine for the first time. The same day, Australia unveiled a $300 billion plan to build nuclear-propelled submarines with America and Britain that would make it only the seventh nation to have them.
Japan, after decades of pacifism, is also gaining offensive capabilities unmatched since the 1940s with US Tomahawk missiles. India has conducted training with Japan and Vietnam. Malaysia is buying South Korean combat aircraft. US officials are trying to amass a giant weapons stockpile in Taiwan to make it a bristling “porcupine” that could head off a Chinese invasion, and the Philippines is planning for expanded runways and ports to host its largest US military presence in decades.
None of this may be enough to match China. Its own surging arsenal now includes “monster” coast guard cutters along with a rapidly increasing supply of missiles and nuclear warheads.
In flashpoint after flashpoint over the past year, China’s military has also engaged in provocative or dangerous behaviour: deploying a record number of military aircraft to threaten Taiwan and firing missiles into the waters of Japan’s exclusive economic zone for the first time last August; sending soldiers with spiked batons to dislodge an Indian army outpost in December, escalating battles over the 3380 kilometre border between the two countries; and last month, temporarily blinding the crew of a Filipino patrol boat with a laser and flying dangerously close to a US Navy plane, part of its aggressive push to claim authority in the South China Sea.
Many countries hope that stronger militaries will discourage China from going any further, but the buildup also reflects declining confidence in the United States. The war in Ukraine has drawn down US political capital and material support. In many Asian capitals, there are doubts about the US military’s ability to adapt and stop China’s advance, and worries about what US politics might produce – the dreaded nightmare of an overreaction to Chinese provocations, or abandonment with a retreat.
Asia’s security calculations ultimately point to an unsettled and ill-tempered global order, shaped by one-man rule in a more militarised China with slowing economic growth, polarised politics in a heavily indebted America, bolder aggression from Russia and North Korea, and demands for greater influence from the still-developing giants of Indonesia and India.
“The balance of power is shifting so rapidly, and it’s not just China,” said Shivshankar Menon, India’s national security adviser from 2010 to 2014.
“There will be higher risks,” he added, “in a time of change.”
China’s military transformation
The Indo-Pacific holds 60 per cent of Earth’s population, covers two-thirds of the planet and accounts for around 65 per cent of global gross domestic product.
In 2000, military spending in Asia and the Pacific accounted for 17.5 per cent of worldwide defence expenditures, according to SIPRI, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. In 2021, it accounted for 27.7 per cent (with North Korea excluded, making it an undercount), and since then, spending has shot up further.
China’s growth has been a major driver of that increase. It now spends about $US300 billion a year on its military, according to SIPRI, up from $US22 billion in 2000, adjusted for inflation – an expenditure second only to the $US800 billion defence budget of the United States. And while US military spending covers a global network, China has focused on Asia, rolling out hardware to project power and intimidate its neighbours.
China’s navy has already outstripped the US Navy, reaching 360 battle force ships in 2020, compared with the US total of 297, according to the US Office of Naval Intelligence. In 2021, China fired off 135 ballistic missiles for testing, more than the rest of the world combined outside war zones, according to the US Defence Department.
Beijing’s nuclear arsenal is smaller than those of the United States and Russia, but here, too, the gap is starting to narrow. By 2030, the Defence Department has estimated, China’s supply of more than 400 nuclear warheads is likely to expand to 1000. It already has more land-based launchers than the United States, leading some to call for the Pentagon not just to modernise its own technology but also to add to its nuclear stockpile of 3708 available warheads.
Although many of China’s weapons are less advanced than America’s, that is starting to shift with fighter jets and missiles. The US Defence Intelligence Agency’s chief scientist told Congress this month that China now appears to have the world’s leading arsenal of hypersonic weapons, which can fly at several times the speed of sound and be maneuvered in flight, making them much harder to intercept with missile defence systems.
China’s DF-41 missile circumnavigated the globe in 2021. The Dong Feng-26 missile can be armed with a conventional or nuclear warhead, and it is called “the Guam Killer” by Chinese media because it can reach US military installations on the island.
Beyond raw capacity, Xi’s willingness to brandish the People’s Liberation Army on disputed borderlands from northern India to the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea has magnified anxieties, as has China’s new naval base in Cambodia and recent security agreement with the Solomon Islands.
But more than anything else, growing hostilities with the United States have set the region on edge.
Raising the level of concern: recent statements from US commanders suggesting that war could arrive by 2027 or even 2025, and the combative comments of China’s leaders. Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang warned this month that conflict between his nation and the United States was inevitable if Washington “continues to go down the wrong road”.
Xi also called out what he described as a US-led campaign to “contain, encircle and suppress” China, telling Chinese officials that they must “have the courage to fight.”
Many countries have concluded that to restrain the Chinese Communist Party and gain leverage with the United States or other nations, they must show that they can and will counterattack if needed.
“In Australia, in countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and now the Philippines has given the US more access. Why?” said Bilahari Kausikan, a former permanent secretary of Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Because China has been unnecessarily aggressive.”
Japan and India were among the first to sound the alarm. In 2006, they started sharing security assessments over concerns about China’s efforts to expand airstrips and ports across South and East Asia, an effort that would later include building military bases on islands and reefs that other nations claim as their own.
India and Japan have since signed several agreements that typify the region’s interlocking defence plans. One deal granted access to each other’s bases for supplies and services; another eased regulations to encourage co-operation in military manufacturing. So far this year, the two countries have conducted naval training together and their first joint fighter exercise.
Both countries are also expanding cooperation with the United States, while ensuring they are not too dependent. Menon, the former Indian diplomat, called it a natural “balancing reaction” – signalling resistance to China, stopping short of collective defence.
The United States is also seeking to upgrade how it might fight, with a focus on coordinated interdependence.
Now that many kinds of missiles from China and North Korea can hit big US bases both in nearby Japan and in Guam, every US service branch has begun aiming for a dispersed approach in the Indo-Pacific – “the priority theatre” for global security, according to the Defence Department, which has stationed 300,000 troops in the region.
To minimise risk and maximise deterrence, US officials have been hunting for real estate. The Philippines, Japan, Australia, Palau, Papua New Guinea and US territories across the Pacific are all working with Defence Department officials on expanding military access and facilities, often with the US proposing investments in shared infrastructure.
Cope North, the multilateral exercise that sent jets to Tinian, hinted at that more networked future, using 10 airstrips on seven islands with Japanese, Australian and French partners (from Tahiti). It also included new dangers: When Japan’s F-15s landed, the day’s training included a simulated response to an enemy missile strike.
“Can the US go it alone?” asked Col. Jared Paslay of the US Air Force, the joint integration team leader for Pacific Air Forces. “I would prefer not to.”
Interviewed at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, he described America’s ability to make friends as an important “asymmetric advantage” that raises complex questions.
How much fuel and maintenance equipment should be pre-positioned in remote locations? Where else should the United States negotiate for airport access and the improvements needed for warplanes? How much sharing of weapons systems increases deterrence without adding to risks of conflict?
Many countries also worry that working with the United States could make them a target of Chinese military or economic punishment, and in exchange, they are requesting more trade and training from Washington – demands that Congress has failed to address.
Paslay, a foreign affairs specialist who speaks Japanese, said the United States may soon find that Japan is moving faster to fill gaps and pull allies along. Japan is now the largest bilateral donor of aid in Asia. More significantly, the country’s government is pushing to reinterpret the constitution it adopted in 1947. Japan embraced pacifism after terrorising Asia and losing World War II, but now, like Germany, the country is rearming. Japan recently agreed to raise military spending to 2 per cent of GDP, or by 60 per cent, over the next five years, which would give it the third-largest defence budget in the world.
“We were an excessively pacifist nation for the past several decades,” said Kuni Miyake, a former high-ranking Japanese diplomat. “Now we are becoming normal.”
Some American analysts argue that Japan should do more, faster, but its assertiveness has already stirred up old animosities. China, North Korea and Russia have criticised its increased military spending. South Korea, which endured brutal Japanese colonisation from 1910 to 1945, has its own concerns, with some analysts in Seoul warning against allowing Japan to set the regional agenda even as the two countries’ leaders have been seeking to repair relations.
Farther south, Australia’s AUKUS deal with the United States and Britain to acquire nuclear-powered submarines has also angered Indonesia, which has concerns about proliferation and has increased the closeness of its military ties to China.
US officials acknowledge that tensions across the region are rising alongside military budgets. But they say they believe the glue of shared distress about China will hold.
And locations like Tinian are starting to play a bigger role as rallying points.
During a break from flying, Captain Shotaro Iwamoto, 37, one of the Japanese F-15 pilots, said he had made a “meaningful visit” to where the atomic bombs that killed tens of thousands in Japan were loaded onto US planes. He came away determined to work harder on his English so he could communicate more quickly and easily with US allies in the air.
Senior commanders from the United States, Japan and Australia also made a shared trip to the area, where they touched the cracked tarmac and stared at the concrete pits where the giant atomic weapons were attached to B-29 Superfortress bombers.
For many, the horror of the last world war and the threats of the present seemed to rise like heat from the island’s ragged old runways.
“If we are not a credible force to deter aggressors, then potentially we’ll end up in a circumstance where we might have to consider something like that again,” said Group Captain Robert Graham of the Royal Australian Air Force. “We hope never to be there.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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