Why is the Asian arms race at risk of spiraling out of control?

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Seoul, South Korea
CNN

This is an arms race the likes of which Asia has never seen before – the Big Three nuclear powers and fast-growing, the world’s three largest economies and decades-old alliances are all vying for supremacy in the world’s most contested land and sea areas.

In one corner are the US and its allies Japan and South Korea. In another corner is China and its partner Russia. Third, North Korea.

Everyone wants to be one step ahead of everyone else, and everyone gets caught in a vicious circle that spirals out of control. After all, one person’s barrier is another’s strength.

“We’re going to see that dynamic break down in East Asia, where we don’t have restrictions, we don’t have arms control,” Ankit Panda, a Carnegie nuclear policy expert, told CNN. International Peace Foundation.

The visit of Japanese leaders to Washington last week only highlighted this fact. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, fresh from a meeting with US President Joe Biden on Friday, expressed concern over China’s military actions in the East China Sea and the launch of ballistic missiles over Taiwan. landed in the waters near Japan in August.

Kishida warned Beijing against trying to “change the international order” and said it was “absolutely necessary” for Japan, the US and Europe to unite against China. His remarks came just days after US and Japanese ministers spoke ominously of “the continued and accelerated development of (China’s) nuclear arsenal”.

However, according to North Korea and China, Japan is the aggressor. They have seen Tokyo recently commit to doubling defense spending, along with acquiring weapons aimed at targets inside China and North Korea. Their concerns are only heightened after the announcement a few days ago of plans to further deploy US naval forces to Japan’s southern islands, including new mobile anti-ship missiles to deter any first strike by Beijing.

For the United States and Japan, such measures are a deterrent; In Beijing, this is escalating.

China maintains that its concerns are based on historical reasons. He said Tokyo fears a return to the military expansionism of World War II, when Japanese forces controlled large parts of Asia and China. During the eight-year conflict with Japan between 1937 and 1945, about 14 million Chinese died and about 100 million became refugees.

Beijing’s plans, which include Japan’s acquisition of long-range “counterattack” weapons such as Tomahawk missiles aimed at bases in China, signal Tokyo’s renewed threat to peace in East Asia.

But critics suspect that China’s attempt to heal historical wounds has a secondary purpose – to divert attention away from its military.

They noted that Beijing strongly dismissed US and Japanese concerns about its growing military power. it developed its naval and air forces in areas close to Japan, claiming the Senkaku Islands, a chain of Japanese-controlled uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, as its sovereign territory.

In late December, Japan said Chinese government ships had been spotted in the contiguous area around China’s Diaoyu Islands for 334 days in 2022, the most since 2012, when Tokyo bought part of the islands from a private Japanese owner. From December 22 to 25, Chinese government vessels spent nearly 73 consecutive hours in Japanese territorial waters off the islands, the longest such incursion since 2012.

China has also increased the heat by strengthening its partnership with Russia. A State Department official recently told CNN that not only did it spur some deals between the US and Japan, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “set the chain of events” in light of the way Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping have expressed their positions. proximity. Relations on the eve of the Beijing Olympics.

And Russia has demonstrated its military capabilities in the Pacific, including in December when its warships joined Chinese ships and aircraft for a week-long live-fire exercise in the East China Sea.

Beijing’s aggression is particularly directed at Taiwan, an island of 24 million people that the Chinese Communist Party claims as its territory, but which it has never ruled.

Xi has refused to rule out using military force to wrest control of the island from Beijing, and China has stepped up its aggressive military presence around the island, particularly after the Chinese president’s visit in August. United States House, Nancy Pelosi. In the days following Pelosi’s visit, China conducted unprecedented military exercises around the island, firing several missiles near its waters and sending warplanes to harass it.

Last week, China sent 28 fighter jets, including J-10, J-11, J-16 and Su-30 fighters, H-6 bombers, three drones and an early warning and reconnaissance aircraft across the center line of the Taiwan Strait. . The exercise mirrored a similar one on Christmas Day, when the People’s Liberation Army sent 47 planes over the median.

During such actions, US resolve remained strong. Washington continued to approve a growing list of military sales to the island in line with its commitments under this Taiwan Relations Act.

Thousands of kilometers north of Taiwan, cooperation talks on the Korean Peninsula are in a weak and dim light.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has called for an “exponential increase” in his country’s nuclear weapons arsenal from 2023 and the creation of a “very large” fleet of mobile ballistic missiles that cannot hit anywhere. any point south with a nuclear warhead.

In a report on Thursday, South Korea’s Institute for Defense Analysis (KIDA) said Kim’s plan could produce 300 weapons in the coming years.

That’s a big step up from 2022, when the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimated it had stockpiled 20 nuclear weapons and up to 55 fissile material.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inspects an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in this Nov. 19, 2022 photo released by the North's Korean Central News Agency.

Three hundred nuclear warheads put North Korea ahead of the established nuclear states of France and Great Britain, leaving behind only Russia, the USA and China in the ranking of nuclear stocks in the world. SIPRI.

Such a prospect has prompted South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol to pledge to strengthen his military.

“If we are attacked, building a solid (military) capability that allows us to strike back 100-fold or 1,000-fold is the most important way to prevent attacks,” Yun said in a service statement this week. information from Yonhap.

He even raised the possibility of South Korea building its own nuclear arsenal, suggesting that his country could “deploy tactical nuclear weapons or acquire its own nuclear weapons.”

The idea that there are more nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula makes U.S. leaders very wary, even if those weapons belong to an ally.

Developing nuclear weapons also means that South Korea will lose some of the moral high ground it has held until now for adhering to the 1992 Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, which Pyongyang has repeatedly violated. circumstances.

Thus, the United States has made it clear that Washington’s support for South Korea is an “iron fence” to reassure its ally, and that all American military means are on the table to protect it.

“The United States (South Korea) will not hesitate to fulfill its long-term deterrence obligation, using the full range of American defense capabilities related to nuclear, conventional and missile defense,” he said. Admiral Mike Gilday, US Secretary of Defense. The naval operations were announced on Thursday by the virtual forum of the Institute for Korean American Studies (ICAS).

Gilday cited last year’s visit of an American aircraft carrier to the South Korean port of Pusan ​​as an example of US support for the South. But it is one of Washington’s most powerful warships in North Korea’s backyard that Pyongyang sees as a threat.

And so the spiral continues.

As the Asian arms race heats up, one thing is clear: the United States, Japan, and South Korea are participating as a group, not as a group. isolated individuals.

The presence of Kishida and other Japanese leaders in Washington last week provided ample evidence of this.

Speaking at ICAS, Admiral Gilday said of the trilateral cooperation: “The more we work together, the stronger we are.” “I hope (that) convinces any potential opponent that they don’t have to move.”

Persistence is needed in the face of relentless pressure from opponents, he added.

“We shouldn’t be held back and we shouldn’t lose ourselves because of what it takes for us all to come together.”

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