Geographically, the East Asian region is composed of China, Japan, Mongolia, Taiwan (Republic of China), South Korea (Republic of Korea) and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). The region has two economic powers i.e. China and Japan- the former qualifies as a true power, both economically and militarily. The history of conflicts in the East Asian theatre has been long, spanning over two world wars, the Korean War and also includes post-cold war skirmishes such as the third Taiwan Strait crisis of 1996 between the China, Taiwan and the United States. Nevertheless, peace continues to prevail, anchored on the American military presence in the region and owing to the complex network of security arrangements between her and her Asian partners. Also, the gradual growth of Asian tiger economies and post-world war reconstruction effort, kept East Asia devoted to her economic agenda over the decades registering double-digit growth. This, in turn, created opportunities for them, to develop economic interdependence and push conflicts to their sides. But, the underlying disputes and enmities continued to exist despite economic prosperity. Some key disputes from past wars remain unsolved posing challenges to regional stability. One of the key issues in the region is that of nuclearization of North Korea and the chances of disruption to peace along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), that continues to keep the Korean peninsula at risk. The independence of Taiwan and the claim over its sovereignty by China is another problem to be dealt with. The East Asian region has also become a theatre of a post-cold-war showdown between Russia, China, and the United States, given the land border of Russia’s the Far East with North Korea.
Thus, the relative peace in the region has been destabilized with the rise of China and her desire to achieve her lost glory and preeminence in Asia buoyed by the unprecedented growth of her military capabilities. This has opened up the underlying fault lines that were kept untouched over the period of time. Her recent act of aggression of land reclamation and construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea, claim over islands in the East China Sea and strategic support to the North Korean regime, have further stressed the fragile security environment. This essay will discuss the key security issues in the East Asian region, the players involved and the implications of rising of China on the security equation of the region.
East Asia Security Conundrum: Players and Plays
Despite its economic success, high level of human development index and low poverty rate, the region features among the most volatile regions in the geopolitical risk map. Disputed borders, colonial hangovers, and post-world war trauma continue to haunt this part of the world. It seems the region is under ‘Cold Peace’.
- Korean Drama: The push and pull over the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea, as missiles and men from either side waiting for the final assault, with the occasional defection of citizens from the authoritarian regime into democratic South making it nothing short of a drama. Kim Jong-un, the supreme leader of North Korea continues to threaten regional peace through his nuclear weapons and his policies towards South Korea. However, the bigger picture behind his belligerence is his fear of American invasion and their machinations to topple his regime. For him, possession of nuclear weapons is an assurance to the survival of his rule. Notwithstanding his claims of total destruction of United States, given the technical factors, the quantity of missiles and their reach dictating any sort of such future scenario, a single missile launch is enough to descend the entire region into a full-fledged nuclear war. But, one should think that it is not the launch of the nuclear weapon but the threat behind its use that has a premium. Threat and its location multiples the value of the former manifold. With China to the North and Seoul to the South, the danger to the region is quite high and that itself provides the regime with nuclear weapons a bargaining chip.
There is a China factor to the overall drama as well. Given, the history of the Korean war and pre-cold war power politics in the peninsula, China continues to be a dominant player with a decisive role in this play. It is the only country whose trade with North Korea is substantial compared to other minor partners. However, the recalcitrant southern neighbor is a buffer between the US forces in South Korea and its own borders. So, in an eventuality of a collapse of the North Korean regime, it will bring the US forces to China’s southern borders. Given this fact, China has a substantial interest in both convincing yet nudging its Southern neighbor not to toe the nuclear red line.
- Taiwan: Also, known as Republic of China (ROC), Taiwan is a democratic republic and was part of mainland China, under the rule of Chiang-kai-Shek government. After the Chinese civil war and the subsequent fall of the democratic government, the officials of the erstwhile regime fled to the island state and established a democratic government there. But, the communists continue to hold Taiwan as part of mainland China. The dispute over its control and legitimacy led to military maneuvers by China across the Taiwan Strait resulting in a crisis on three occasions in 1954-55, 1958 and 1996. Over the years, it has further strengthened its claim over the island state and has been using both economic and diplomacy, successfully to coerce sovereign nations to derecognize Taiwan.This has turned the dispute into a flashpoint in the region. In the past, there has been discussion within the Taiwanese government of revival of a nuclear missile program as a deterrent against Chinese invasion. In recent steps to strengthen its aerial combat capabilities, Taiwan has been planning to acquire F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) from the U. S.If reports are to believe, regarding nuclear missile carrying capability of the fighter craft, this will be decisive on part of Taiwan. Also, the United States National Defense Authorization Act, 2018as undersigned by the President Donald Trump, calls for opportunities to be explored for making port calls in Taiwan. This has resulted in a warning from China of her military invasion, and have also initiated aggressive military maneuvers to signify her resolve.
- East China Sea Islands: The rocky, uninhabited cluster of rocks to the south-east of China and south of Japan has been a flashpoint on the East China Sea. The disputed area is expected to have rich deposits of oil and natural gas apart from its abundant marine resource. Both China and Japan, have been fighting out their claim using historical fishing rights and other diplomatic documents to legitimize their right. At present, both of them have established their own Air Defense Zone (ADZ) in the disputed region. However, Japan continues to disregard China’s provocative imposition of air defense identification zone (ADIZ), active since 2013. Over the years, China has used different tactics to lay her claim over the disputed waters, most commonly the use of maritime militia that swarms into the disputed waters en masse for fishing activities accompanied by Chinese coast guard vessels. This is the traditional way of using people’s rights to claim a disputed area. Another aspect of this dispute can be attributed to the importance of sea lanes of communication along these islands, critical to the economy of China’s coastal provinces to its north. It is obvious that presence of Japanese troops close to Chinese mainland can create a naval blockade in an event of war, stifling shipments of essential energy resources to the northern part of China. Increase in aggressive military maneuvers by China in the region have led to recent deployment of Japanese Self Defense Force (JSDF) fighters to its Naha air base. Already, Japan has reinterpreted the components of the pacifist clause of its constitution through the enactment of new laws enabling Self Defense Force (SDF) to undertake operations for collective self-defense and also secure its allies in an event of security threat. Even though robust economic relationship exists between the two countries, the tension is poised to increase after Xi Jinping’s nationalistic marathon speech in the 19thNational Congress meeting in October 2017.
- Russia: In terms of geography, it has land borders with China and North Korea and shares the maritime border with Japan to its south along the disputed Kuril Islands. Even though Russia stands far from the regional flashpoints such as the South China Sea and the East China Sea, it has a role to play given its closeness to both China and North Korea. The same can be seen in its foreign policy concept published in 2016. The document refers to special emphasis made on Russian strategic partnership with China and India while reiterating its commitment for beneficial cooperation with Japan for stability in the Asia Pacific environment. The paper also talks of Russian support for denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and promotion of political dialogue between North and South Korea through the platform of Six-Party Talks. The stability in the Korean peninsula is directly linked with prosperity in the Russian Far East region of Vladivostok; any kind of military misadventure in the East Asian Theatre will have a spillover effect, across into the Russian Far East region. It can be said, Russia remains as one of the balancing force in the East Asian security matrix, in the eastern end of the arc.
- United States: The role played by the United States in the East Asian region is that of a ‘net’ security provider to Japan and South Korea. It has around ten air and naval bases in the region and the total number of troops hover above sixty thousand that are spread across more than 180 sites. The presence of the United States acts as a stabilizing factor, and source of strength to its allies, given the presence of two other nuclear powers, North Korea and China and the concurrent security challenges emanating from each of them. Over the years, the US Navy has been undertaking Freedom Of Navigation Operations(FONOPs) in the region owing to the aggressive behavior of China with its increasing military capabilities. But, the dilemma remains with the United States’ bitter relationship with the North Korean Regime. Scholars have long warned against any military misadventure in the region and have suggested negotiations as the only way for denuclearization of North Korea based on the basis of quid pro quo. There has been a precedent in the past regarding the framework agreement that was signed in 1994 between Clinton administration and North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-il. The agreement had certain conditions of quid pro quo, with the ultimate denuclearization of North Korea. However, it met an abrupt end in 2002, leading to a resurgence in nuclear weapon development by DPRK.The push must come from the US administration to take the initiative and negotiate a deal through any agreeable platform. In the absence of any direct talk, the risk of war looms large over the region. Also, it would benefit, on part of the United States and her Asian allies to reach some of the kind of solution, because delinking of North Korea from Asian great game, can only provide room for addressing the threat arising out of China military aggressiveness in the region.
Rising China and its Implications
The prophetic growth of the middle kingdom to regain its lost glory has proven to be true and its phenomenal economic growth buoyed by its economic reforms in the late 80s has surprised and impressed political analysts and scholars alike. However, the security implications of this rise have been unveiling gradually to the chagrin of neighboring countries who are at the receiving end of the much celebrated economic and military growth. The problem was and is, a not with economic growth of China, but rather the opening up of historical disputes and its forceful assertion on her part, upon his neighboring states, which is a point of discussion. The paranoia over China’s lost glory tracing back to its monarchical past and its position as a middle kingdom in the constellation of Asian states, has been so much that, the myth is repackaged with selected facts and sold as primary dose of information to the domestic audience in particular and to international public in general. The objective is to undo the trauma of a century of humiliation it considers as a bloat on her glorious history, through reclaiming its lost lands over the period of historical wars and regain the pride of the Chinese nation. Given the history and the behavior based on it, the moot question is what are the implications of rising China, both militarily and economically to the security scape of the wider East Asian region?
Post-world war security matrix in the East Asian region continues to exist on the American hub and spoke model enacted through a series of bilateral and multilateral treaties and forums with Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines. And this had not only ensured stability in the region but also prevented East Asian countries like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan to abandon their nuclear weapons development programs. It must be remembered that some of the major geopolitical disputes that remain in the East Asian region include nuclearization of North Korea and its rogue regime, East China Sea islands dispute between China and Japan and China’s claim over Taiwan’s sovereignty. One can safely assume that the militaristic ambition of a nation-state can be understood from the nature of force-structure it maintains (offensive or defensive), types of weapon profile it has, and the finesse with which it is able to blend its political objective with that of the military. China has all three of them to justify its geopolitical ambitions. This must be seen in the context of geopolitical flashpoints in East Asian Region. The rise of China has no doubt forced other major and minor regional powers to change their security calculus on this occasion, and in some case also triggered the phenomena of the arms race.
China continues to hold East Asia as its backyard and an area of her inherent natural interest and expects to command the state of affairs in the region. But the presence of the United States and the preeminence of other regional powers like Japan has made it difficult for the middle kingdom. Hence, it is obvious for her to consider the United States as a natural adversary and a power to compete with. It can be understood from the status of G2 economic power it has been vying for- there has been a remarkable shift in her attitude, from opposition to the idea of G2 status in 2009 to that in support of it by the end of 2016. And, then there has been this recent narrative of ‘Chinese Characteristics’ peddled by Communist party, loosely suffixed to various elements of international power politics (economic growth, politics, military, ideology etc.), giving it a distinct meaning. The remarkable economic growth of China has an immense contribution to its military modernization programs and so does its aggressive posture in the East Asian theatre. This can be gauged from the consistency in her military expenditure over the years. Not only that, there was a restructuring of her seven military regions into five integrated military commands and forced the layoff of around 300,000 soldiers, so as to maintain a lean force with increase lethality. This renewed vigor has been buoyed by new military capabilities, causing frictions in and around its maritime borders with Taiwan and Japan. As discussed earlier, the dispute over the uninhabited rocky islands (Diaoyu: China, and Senkaku: Japan)in the East China Sea has been a point of dispute between two countries, both over its sovereignty and rich deposits of oil and natural gas in the region. This dispute has led to aggressive behavior by China, deploying not only maritime militia in combination with coast guard but also it is fighter jets to intimidate and lay claim over the disputed islandsand has also led to change in the security structure of Japan. Over the years, Japanese President Shinzo Abe has been vying for withdrawing his country from Pacifism and attaining the ability to defend itself and her allies in the face of a Chinese onslaught. The recent victory of his presidency was based on public support in the face of dual-threat from China and North Korea. The domestic backlash has been immense and the fear of receding American influence will further strengthen Japan’s move towards normalization of her military force. The other country that has been a sore point in China’s quest for her global power status is Taiwan. The defiant state with a democratic government has been at the receiving front of Chinese military threats over the years. The past events of the cross-strait military crisis on three occasions have been a source of fear for the democratic republic. China’s aggressive behavior has kept nationalist forces on the toe, so much so that there has been a request for US presence in its vicinity to hedge against Mainland China, including calls for developing nuclear capabilities as a deterrent against the military threat from China. The third yet important consequence of China’s military growth is the one it has on the nuclearization of the Korean peninsula. It must be remembered that the existence of North Korean regime is critical to the security and sustenance of communist regime in China. Any unfortunate event of a collapse of North Korean government will not lead to an influx of refugees onto its side and will also bring American troops close to its borders. Hence, by both treading with caution, China has been instrumental in maintaining a North Korean nuclear threat in the region. This has also led to the development of ballistic missile capability by South Korea to deter North Korean nuclear threat.
East Asia apart from its status as a prosperous region, has earned the repute of being a volatile region and will continue to remain so given the nature of power play in the region. The emergence of China as a global power, her security ambitions and strive to influence regional power politics against American influence will remain for decades to come. Remilitarization of Japan, ballistic missile development by South Korea, Nuclear ambitions of Taiwan have set the pace of the arms race in the region on the swing. The cost-benefit and profit-minded knee-jerk foreign policy of the Trump administration have also sent a message across the region of the volatility of American commitment that is susceptible to the whims of his political leadership and may happen so in the foreseeable future. It is certain that the rise of China, along with her aggressive military posture, has destabilized regional peace.
(The article was originally published by Centre for Land Warfare Studies and can be found here)