Cooling Temperatures and Defense Postures in East Asia
Photo Credit: China Military Online
By Tai Wei Lim

Cooling Temperatures and Defense Postures in East Asia

Sep. 06, 2018  |     |  0 comments

With cooling regional temperatures in East Asian affairs and politics, some wonder if the defense budgets in the region will also cool down correspondingly. The Trump-Kim summit in Singapore set the way for the possibility of lasting peace in East Asia. The Korean Peninsula stand-off between Pyongyang and Washington/Seoul/Tokyo has long been a worry. Since the conclusion of the summit, the North Koreans have returned the ashes of US soldiers who died in the Korean War (1950-53) as promised during the Trump-Kim summit. The Trump administration in the US is positive in their evaluation of this latest sign of rapprochement. Since the Trump-Kim summit, there have been no nuclear or missile tests by Pyongyang, partially silencing some of Trump’s critics who are suspicious of the summit outcome.

Pyongyang has also gone to other states in the region to invite companies from these countries to invest in its economy. China, Singapore and even South Korea and Japan are potential investors if the UN economic sanctions over North Korea are dropped when there is complete, irreversible, and verifiable denuclearization (CVID). The two Koreas have also held emotional events where families on both sides of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) who were separated by the Korean War half a century ago are able to come together, some of them meeting for the first time. The reunions are emotional, teary, and tugged at the heartstrings of people inside and outside both Koreas.

In the South China Sea, there have also been cooling temperatures as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China announced the success of incorporating all materials related to the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea into a single document. This by itself is a major victory and is a positive development pointing towards the eventual formalization of a Code of Conduct. This is testimony to the chairmanship of the ASEAN Chair. It is a major positive step in the right direction, along the long road of settling the South China Sea issue. Along with such discussions, there are voices of cooperation in issues like marine life conservation raised by the Philippines as a form of outreach cooperation with the Chinese.

On August 31, 2018, China took part in a major Australia-hosted exercise known as Exercise Kakadu for the first time. This is a reversal of the naval tensions in April 2018 when Chinese warships tailed Australian ones moving through the South China Sea. The Chinese participation was seen as a de-escalation of naval tensions and was welcomed by most of the 27 participants. Exercise Kakadu was also an invaluable opportunity to discuss issues of common interest where there are no detriments to cooperating closely together. They include: human smuggling, piracy, and criminal appropriation of other parties’ property by force. The Australians were firm in bringing up the topic of the freedom of navigation although they did not highlight or point out the Chinese in particular. The atmosphere was one of firmness in putting opinions across but also carefully managed with face-saving features, for example, not naming names.

China also made some moves in early June to reduce temperatures in the South China Sea. For example, it removed their HQ-9 missiles from one of their occupied islands, although it was not known if they were removed temporarily for routine checks, permanently un-deployed, or simply moved inside buildings. The HQ-9 is a lethal missile system whose capabilities are often equated with the top-of-the-line US Patriot or Russian S-300 missile systems.

China is reaching out to its neighbors Tokyo, Seoul, the ASEAN capitals and even India in order to hedge against the Trump administration’s economic tensions with Beijing.

Another major power in the region has also made policy decisions that indicate its moderate strategic military behavior and defense outlook. Japan released its annual Defense White Paper on August 28. While the Japanese Defense budget has been rising since the conservatives returned to power in 2013, it has not yet surpassed 1 percent of the Gross Domestic Product. In fact, in 2018, it stayed at 0.8 percent. The 1 percent limit is a self-imposed one, as there are no legal requirements to do so. A vast majority of Japanese society continue to remain pacifist and dovish.


In 2017, Japan had its budget increased following threatening missile tests from North Korea, especially after two North Korean ballistic missiles flew over Hokkaido. In 2018, temperatures have remarkably toned down since the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore. But Japan, like all other countries in the region, naturally maintains a vigilant and cautious attitude towards Pyongyang. Like the US, Japan seeks CVID conditions before dropping any security vigilance against North Korea.


The Defense White Paper also noted that, besides its nuclear devices and ballistic missiles, North Korea also has a large number of shorter-range Rodong missiles which can also threaten the region. Japan suspects that the nuclear devices may have already been miniaturized to a size small enough to fit into the missile cone warhead of the Rodong missile. This is in addition to the chemical warheads that Pyongyang is said to possess, in the form of sarin gas tipped Scud-type ballistic missiles. Therefore, in guarding against such Weapons of Mass Destruction, there must be vigilance in continuing to assess the ballistic missile situation in North Korea. For this reason, Japan has purchased long-range Lockheed Martin radar to complement their new Aegis Ashore missiles purchased from the US. It is a purchase that fits very well with President Trump’s promotion of US military technology for the defense and protection of US allies.


Japan has chosen the Lockheed Martin radar over the Raytheon alternative which has a shorter range. The Lockheed Martin radar is far more powerful than any other radar for the existing Aegis systems in Japan, and can monitor airspace over North Korea more effectively. The radar system allows Japan to intercept any incoming missile at a further and longer range from its territory. Together with the US-operated THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Air Defense) missile system in Seoul, the air defense over South Korea, Japan and US bases and assets there is ironclad and prevents any incoming missiles from North Korea reaching the US network of alliance countries.


Russia and China are mentioned in the Japanese White Paper but the mention has been considerably diluted due to warmer rapprochement of late between Japan and China. China is reaching out to its neighbors Tokyo, Seoul, the ASEAN capitals and even India in order to hedge against the Trump administration’s economic tensions with Beijing. The US is slapping tariffs in an escalating trade war with China which has seen China retaliating with their own tariffs. It is a tit-for-tat situation. In the bilateral tensions between the world’s two economic superpowers, Beijing needs all the support, friendship, partnership, and at the very least, non-obstructive behavior from other countries.


Even during Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed’s visit to China, Premier Li Keqiang sought to mobilize Malaysian support against trade protectionism. Meanwhile it appears the negotiations over the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is going well, and some regional pro-free trade countries are already optimistically declaring the possibility of an end to negotiations this year. This forms another reason for Beijing to reach out to Tokyo as both countries have a convergence of interest in keeping free and open global trade alive in an era characterized by rising protectionism, populism and anti-globalization forces.


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