AUKUS adds another nuclear layer to arms race in Asia-Pacific
An arms race is heating up in the Indo-Pacific region amid the double whammy of a strategic competition between the US and China and North Korea’s completion of its nuclear armament.
It’s the beginning of a vicious cycle where one side’s increased armament leads to a response from the other. Yet with the countries involved feeling deep mutual distrust amid the vast geopolitical upheaval of the “new Cold War,” there are also few signs of anything that might turn that tide.
On Sept. 15, there were three back-to-back developments that demonstrated just how serious the situation is in the region.
The first news was about North Korea, which tested a short-range ballistic missile that morning from a train. Roughly two hours later, South Korea tested its own submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). South Korean President Moon Jae-in observed the missile test himself at the Agency for Defense Development (ADD) testing center in Taean, South Chungcheong Province.
The next morning (which was still Sept. 15 by Korea time), the US, the UK and Australia launched “AUKUS,” a new Asia-Pacific security alliance. US President Joe Biden made the decision to provide nuclear-powered submarine technology to Australia, dealing a partial blow to what had previously been a robust Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons framework.
The Indo-Pacific arms race is unfolding on two main fronts, the first of which is the Korean Peninsula.
After North Korea declared its nuclear armament “complete” with the November 2017 test launch of the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the Korean Peninsula peace process was pursued from 2018 to 2019 to achieve denuclearization.
The situation turned into a long impasse, and somewhere along the way, a heated arms race began between the South and North. At its eighth Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Congress in January 2021, the North announced plans for the development of small, lightweight nuclear arms as tactical weapons; “ultra-modern tactical nuclear weapons”; solid-fuel engine-propelled intercontinental underwater and ground ballistic rockets; and acquisition of nuclear-powered submarine and underwater-launch nuclear strategic weapon capabilities.
South Korea responded on Sept. 2 with its 2022–2026 intermediate-range plan for national defense, which included measures such as completing the introduction of F-35 stealth aircraft; continuing development on the 6,000-ton next-generation KDDX destroyer; continuing to acquire medium-sized 3,000-ton submarines (with the ROKS Dosan Ahn Changho commissioned in August); and continuing the force integration of surface-to-surface and ship-to-surface missiles with increased destructive capabilities.
If all of these plans are implemented, South Korea’s national defense budget would exceed 70 trillion won (US$59 billion) by 2026.
Meanwhile, Japan has used the North Korean nuclear threat as justification for eight straight years of defense spending increases since former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returned to office in 2012. It is currently working to establish “enemy base strike capabilities” that would allow it to launch direct strikes on North Korean missile bases.
The second front is in the East and South China Seas, which combined represent the main battlefield in the US-China strategic rivalry.
At US$740.5 billion, the 2021 US national defense budget is three to four times higher than second-place China’s. The US has gone even farther, establishing a separate budget late last year specifically for reining China in.
With the addition of a new Pacific Deterrence Initiative in its defense budget plan, it plans to allocate US$2.2 billion this year before more than doubling that to US$5.1 billion next year.
The budget is stated as being intended for use in beefing up the US military posture and strengthening alliances in the Indo-Pacific region in order to counter China. The US Indo-Pacific Command is requesting a budget of US$22.7 billion between 2023 and 2027 to achieve this aim.
Between 2024 and 2045, the US plans to deploy intermediate-range missiles to the Asia-Pacific region — something prohibited in the past by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. If those plans come to fruition, many worry the repercussions will be incomparably greater than during the two sides’ Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system dust-up in 2016–2017.
China has been responding with its own military rise. Against the US, it has adopted an anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) strategy rooted in its powerful intermediate-missile capabilities. The idea is to prevent US aircraft carriers and other major strategic assets from approaching the Asia-Pacific region.
It also aims to force the US out to the edges of Guam, or even Hawaii. To this end, it’s been focusing on developing state-of-the-art weapons, such as hypersonic glide vehicles and ballistic missiles capable of striking aircraft carriers.
To achieve that, China has increased its national defense budget by 14 times compared with 1995 (versus 2.7 times for the US) and 2.6 times compared with 2010 (roughly the same as the US). In March, China unveiled a 2021 defense budget of 1.3553 trillion yuan (US$209 billion), or 6.8% more than the year before.
At a ceremony in July to commemorate the centennial of the Chinese Communist Party, Chinese President Xi Jinping said, “Anyone who would attempt to [bully, oppress, or subjugate China] will find themselves on a collision course with a great wall of steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people.”
Australia’s Centre for Independent Studies predicted that China’s long-term defense spending will eventually exceed US levels by around 2050. Some analysts have also commented on the many “gaps” in China’s defense budget.
Based on its own modeling analysis, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimated that China’s actual defense budget for 2019 amounted to 1.66 trillion yuan (US$257 billion), rather than the officially announced 1.213 trillion yuan (U$187.8 billion). That’s 37% higher than what was made public.
As its strategic rivalry with China intensifies, the US has used its regional allies to apply pressure. The most favorable response has come from Japan, which prides itself on being the “No. 1 ally” of the US in the Indo-Pacific region.
Since the mid-2010s, Japan has been responding in various ways to blockade China in the western Pacific.
Perhaps the best example of this is its establishment of a “ring” deterring Chinese naval and air force activities in the so-called “first island chain” linking Kyushu with Okinawa and Taiwan. Japanese surface-to-air and surface-to-ship missiles deployed there are expected to severely constrain attempts by the Chinese navy to reach the western Pacific in the event of an emergency.
Japan has also decided to go even farther by repurposing its 20,000-ton Izumo and Kaga amphibious assault ships as light aircraft carriers. In December 2018, its cabinet decided to purchase 42 F-35B aircrafts, which are capable of vertical takeoff and landing.
The two Japanese aircraft carriers are being deployed to the East and South China Seas, putting them in confrontation with the Chinese navy.
A rule in place since 1976 that restricts Japan’s defense spending to less than 1% of its gross national product has been essentially lifted. In a joint statement following the US-Japan summit in April, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said that Japan had “resolved to bolster its own national defense capabilities to further strengthen the Alliance and regional security.”
AUKUS is an attempt to boost the US-Japan alliance on the frontline of that standoff with China. In military terms, AUKUS means that Australia — an active partner in containing China — is to be provided with certain nuclear capabilities that would enable it to counter China in the South China Sea.
It’s a case of the US breaking its own rule, after its past efforts pushing nuclear non-proliferation policies. In that sense, it appears certain it will draw objections from China and cause a commotion for its neighbors.
China has been hurrying to beef up its nuclear firepower in response. China currently possesses six to 12 nuclear submarines; by 2030, it is expected to own around 20.
Some observers fear that AUKUS could prompt China to ramp up its nuclear submarine capabilities at an even faster rate. China’s 350 or so nuclear warheads still fall well short of the 5,800 or so owned by the US, but it is reportedly building around 200 nuclear silos — over 10 times what it has now. Within China, some are even suggesting the country should reconsider its past rule barring preemptive use of nuclear weapons.
Taiwan, which faces a constant security threat from China, has been expanding its armament through increased US weapon purchases and other means. Vietnam and India, which are in competition with China, have been joining in the arms race as well.
By Choi Hyun-june, staff reporter
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