By Collins Chong Yew Keat
Soaring tensions as a result of the surprising provocative moves by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un this year with a series of weapons tests and the impending nuclear test have caused expected countermeasures and defense postures aimed at giving a clear message to the Kim regime that deterrence and ability for pre-emptive action will still be counted upon as the prerogative measure by the region.
The U.S. 7th Fleet and Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force conducted a joint naval exercise at the Sea of Japan recently in an apparent attempt to deter North Korea’s provocation. Led by the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group, the joint naval exercise in waters between Japan and the Korean Peninsula for the first time in five years portrays the emergence of a no holds barred clarity in the seriousness of survival concerns in the region. The same maneuver is reflected in the war games and military drills last month by Washington and Seoul, all with the Pyongyang threat in mind. This forms the precursor for a greater scale of exercises to come, with Japan weighing to host the largest ever joint drills with the US Marines later this year in Hokkaido, with eyes on Beijing, Pyongyang and increasingly, Moscow.
While analysts have argued that these countermeasures further reinforce the rock-solid commitment by Washington in the region regardless of the distractions in Ukraine, Beijing has been feeling the jitters and in unrelented in its concerns on the layered threats and messages posed by these maneuvers. Beijing is deeply apprehensive of the military drills and maneuvers by Tokyo and Seoul involving Washington, seeing these as a pretext for targeting Beijing ultimately and its potential move on Taiwan. The US THAAD missile defense installation in South Korea continues to be fiercely opposed by Beijing, with previous punitive sanctions imposed on Seoul in 2017 with wariness on its radar capacities and in tracking Beijing’s maneuvers.
The significant presence of US power projection in that country, whether defensively and deterring in nature or otherwise, will always remain a thorn in Xi Jinping’s bargaining, a point underscored by the reality that Washington will only continue to bolster its arming capacities and ally-support enhancement for Tokyo, Seoul and strategically Taipei. It is worth noting that Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek is America’s largest overseas military base with the most active airfield in the Pacific. As much as Beijing is hopeful for Kim to rein in his provocations and assertive moves, it would still very much rely on Pyongyang as a powerful bargaining tool with the West and will continue to extract the positives for now. Newly inaugurated President Suk-yeol has tried to adopt the same strategy by Putin in the early phases of the Ukrainian war with the escalate to de-escalate approach, hoping to rein in Kim with early forceful deterrence. He took the opening gambit in laying bare the futility of Kim in continuing the first strike option as espoused recently and in abandoning the policy of deterrence only with his nuclear capacities. In giving the ultimatum to Kim to give up his nuclear brinkmanship dependence in exchange for long term economic support and prosperity, Suk-yeol tries to shift to a different dimension in coercing and coaxing his northern neighbor to change course, while trying to distance himself from the failed approaches of his predecessors.
Notwithstanding this, he realizes that this is the only apparatus and approach that is suited in this context, lacking other measures that will distance his policies with old, failed mechanisms. Early hawkish pressures and stance will not reap the desired results and will only set back the tone in giving enough face-saving and incentivizing tools for Kim to at least return to the negotiating table. Military drills and exchanges in various scales with Washington have never failed to invite greater bellicose rhetoric from Kim with growing displeasure, with the recent exercises already opening the floodgates for further brinkmanship threats. The view by Kim that those are rehearsals for war and unnecessary provocations will continue to be used as the justifications for continuous similar counter responses by Pyongyang.
With bigger eyes on Beijing in ultimate terms, Tokyo has long started a calculated response to the ongoing and worsening threats from both Pyongyang and Beijing. Defensive alliance with Canberra in bilateral structure as well as strengthening its QUAD commitment remain the central pillar for Tokyo, further backed by persistent and clear foreign policy of hard deterrence against Beijing, Pyongyang and Moscow by Prime Minister Kishida. Past courting with Moscow under his predecessor’s policies is practically put to bed with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, with Kishida keen to ensure that Tokyo remains aligned with the West’s push amidst ensuring its continuous support for Tokyo’s bigger threat from Beijing and Pyongyang. Increasing assertive postures by the Kremlin in the disputed regions in the Kuril Islands and its growing focus in its Eastern side further fueled the impetus for Kishida to maintain the hawkish pressure. The growing threat level has further pushed the talks for Japan to host American nukes to complete the strongest nuclear deterrence. Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe argued for this, using the case of Ukraine for having failed to have a nuclear deterrence in allowing the Kremlin to undertake the invasion.
While the prospects remain slim for now, the Liberal Democratic Party has already initiated internal discussions on further bolstering nuclear deterrence. The recent 2+2 engagement with Manila involving foreign and defense overtures signals the overarching responses by Tokyo in intensifying resilience and capacity measures against both Pyongyang and Beijing. The same worry is channeled through another preparatory measure seen in the recent signing of the defense pact between Japan and Australia, the Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) in strengthening seamless defense operations.
The regional tour to Southeast Asia by Kishida last month underscored another strategic maneuver by Tokyo in achieving the double-arrow aim of securing economic support and market and more importantly, getting the confidence and access in further boosting Japanese defensive agenda and posture in East Asia, primarily geared for Pyongyang but Beijing to a larger extent. Increasingly at the core of the security spectrum, Southeast Asia remains at the forefront and the first and final frontier in the decisive outcome of the potential all-out and high intensity conflict. Beijing continues to chart different mechanisms in dealing with apparent and concealed risks and threats both regionally and globally. Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently lambasted
America’s Indo Pacific agenda is deemed as destabilizing, accusing Washington of pitting one against another through the 5-4-3-2 containment measures against Beijing. Strategic responses with the Five Eyes Intelligence Pact (UK, New Zealand, US, Australia & Canada), the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), the AUKUS move and the bilateral arrangements with individual regional states. With warnings not to be used by pawns by Washington, Wang Yi has again repeated consistent messages to ASEAN and regional players that while Beijing will very much encourage an open and free stand by the regional players, increasing push by the West in its coercion to choose sides will be intolerable, at least in Beijing’s long term strategic grip. Existing long-established dominance in the region with even deeper chokehold in the region’s economic dependence and continuous security grip will not be easily jettisoned by Beijing, which will continue to preserve its early hold advantage in the region.
As much as the South China Sea and the region remain the paramount chokeholds and vital geostrategic concerns for Beijing, Taiwan remains the ultimate red line. The recent high-profile visits by US Senators to Taiwan again invited anger and harsh responses by Beijing, which resorted to military drills and provocative drive as the visit occurred to send a clear message to Washington that the visits are just another series of wrong signals sent which will not help improve progress in ties. The banking on the Liaoning aircraft carrier and strike group is another signal by Beijing that it has no intention to loosen its current momentum of regional military advantage closer to its border in both the First and Second Island Chains and in maintaining its edge in its increasing anti access/area denial (A2/AD) capacity in deterring any impactful and inflictive potential moves by the containing powers.
The saber-rattling and countermeasures in the escalating security dilemma in the region have long started even before the recent tensions, encapsulating the next chapter of contextualizing the potential risks and strategic maneuvers by the dominant regional players amidst the impact of the external aspiring parties who are keen and unrelenting to reverse the spectrum and to reassert the grip and the gap. Pandora’s box of security and survival has just been opened and the stakes have never been higher.
Collins Chong Yew Keat has been serving in University of Malaya for more than 9 years. His areas of focus include strategic and security studies, America’s foreign policy and power projection, regional conflicts and power parity analysis and has published various publications on numerous platforms including books and chapter articles. He is also a regular contributor in providing op-eds and analytical articles for both the local and international media on various contemporary global issues and regional affairs since 2007.