Howard W. French
In July, an obscure but important body called the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology announced the 77th launch of the Long March 2C orbital launch vehicle, a workhorse of China’s ballistic missile and space programs. Then, in late August, a little more than a month later, the academy announced the Long March’s 79th launch.
At a minimum, for the specialists who monitor such things, the omission of a 78th launch seemed to portend something odd and potentially momentous. Now, nearly two months later, following a scoop by the Financial Times, the world found out that China has begun testing a terrifying new weapons system that few had expected to be so far along in its development.
The rocket reportedly carried a hypersonic missile that can fly through low-earth orbit, before gliding toward a target at five times the speed of sound, all while potentially conducting evasive maneuvers and adjustments in descent. Making a weapon like this all the more troublesome, from the perspective of a defender, is that it can be routed over the South Pole, where the United States’ early detection infrastructure is particularly weak, because Washington’s defensive focus has always been on the Northern Hemisphere.
China denied the report, claiming that it had simply tested a reusable space vehicle. But for obvious reasons, the Financial Times article drew tremendous attention in international security circles, with some even calling it the story of the year. This was despite the fact that this early test of the newly revealed Chinese weapons system reportedly landed several dozen miles away from its target.
In fact, the hoopla over an exotic item that is still in a relatively early stage of development like this—like the reaction, just weeks before it, over the surprise announcement that the United States and Britain would partner in helping Australia build a fleet of nuclear submarines, but probably only more than a decade from now—detracts from a series of other pressing developments involving militarization in Asia that could be far more important, at least in the short and medium term.
The reality that has scarcely dawned on most of the public outside of Asia is that unlike Europe, World War II never really ended in the Western Pacific, and that this part of the world is entering into a new phase of security and political developments that will bring big, new risks and could prove tectonic. Taiwan, where tensions have been mounting steadily between Beijing and Taipei, with implications for that island’s Western allies, is the most prominent symbol of this.
But in helping to understand the breadth of tensions that spread well beyond the China-Taiwan faceoff, even a partial list of important recent developments is instructive. In recent weeks, despite a return to its chronic frequent leadership turnover, Japan has moved to double its target for military spending to 2 percent of its budget, from the long-time historic level of 1 percent. To Americans, perhaps, this might not sound like a lot, but outlays like this, which will take time to realize, will bankroll a serious expansion in officially pacifist Japan’s war-fighting capabilities. The new weapons systems that are likely to be brought online include medium-range missiles, advanced submarines and possibly full-fledged aircraft carriers.
Next door to Japan, South Korea is undertaking similarly dramatic changes to its defense posture. Last month, hours after North Korea announced the launch of a new generation of cruise missiles that Pyongyang says can travel farther than ever before and be launched from a train, South Korea announced a big, new development of its own. That country’s newest addition to a suddenly burgeoning regional arms race was a submarine-launched ballistic missile, a capacity that scarcely a handful of other countries—all of the-m great or near-great powers— possess. Not to be left behind, on Tuesday, North Korea announced that it, too, had tested a new submarine-launched missile.
The days when the Unit-ed States loomed supreme in the Western Pacific, although still strikingly recent, are completely over.
South Korea is also flirting with the idea of big, new shipbuilding programs, which could also eventually include aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines. A debate there is also underway about reinstating the military draft, and in what would be the biggest break of all with the country’s reliance on the United States for its defense, some voices in South Korea have begun to advocate for a nuclear weapons program.
South Korea’s proximate concern is, of course, Pyongyang, which—like China, but to far less fanfare—also claims to be testing hypersonic weapons of its own. The divide between North and South Korea is, together with the one between China and Taiwan across the maritime strait that bears that island’s name, the most explosive fault line left un-defused after two of the 20th century’s great wars, World War II and the Korean conflict. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent dissolution of the Soviet empire, Europe was not left with any remotely comparable political or geographic divisions.
The fundamental drivers of tectonic shifts in Asia, though, are not developments among the region’s middle and lesser powers, but rather, the ongoing rise of China and the gradual, relative downsizing of U.S. power in that part of the world. The days when the United States loomed supreme in the Western Pacific, although still strikingly recent, are completely over. If a conflict were to break out in the region now, there is already a considerable likelihood that Beijing could sink what was once the most daunting symbol of U.S. naval and air power, the aircraft carrier. And with China pouring money into the development of new weapons systems that can destroy a platform like this for a pittance of an aircraft carrier’s cost, Beijing’s ability to keep America at bay will only grow.
It is this unraveling of unquestioned American arms superiority that has driven allies that were once content to huddle under Washington’s security umbrella to begin seriously investing in their own deterrent capabilities. Their uncertainty about U.S. security guarantees was heightened further under former President Donald Trump, who disparaged alliances and used the language of a mob boss with the leaders of Japan, South Korea and others to drum up what amounted in his formulation to protection payments.
The damage Trump did to American credibility will prove lasting. Even though his successor, Joe Biden, has labored to revert to traditional diplomacy, including the celebration of long-standing alliances, politicians in Tokyo, Seoul, Taipei, New Delhi, Singapore, Manila, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Hanoi, among other Asian capitals, have to wonder, What if the Trump presidency was less of an anomaly than an augury of the future? The undergoing wild political drift of the Republican Party only accentuates this lingering doubt.
As China strengthens, and the United States’ relative power in Asia gradually declines, the risks to peace multiply. The argument here is not about some nefarious direction being pursued by Beijing. There is plenty of scope for debating how Chinese political and defense objectives are changing in response to the country’s rapidly increased wealth. Asia’s security challenges are much more complicated than this alone, though. The widespread introduction of new military capabilities brings a kaleidoscope of new risks, and the Cold War was simple by comparison.
In this new and uncertain present, with everyone newly arming up, unexpected conflicts become imaginable, sometimes brought on by accident, or else fueled by the generalized failure to resolve brooding, long-term animosities. When everyone is geared up for war, even nominal allies like Japan and South Korea, countries that share little trust, could stumble into open hostility. This is the new reality of the Western Pacific, and it should not be ignored amid the shock over hypersonic missiles.