February 2023

Taking the Chinese bully by the horns

China’s aggression in the Indo-Pacific region has led neighbouring nations to adopt a more pro-active stance in countering Beijing. g,  Yvonne Gill reports

From the Far East and South East to South Asia and the entire Indo-Pacific, China is becoming more isolated by the day. Middle powers such as Japan and South Korea – which had generally maintained a softer posture towards their powerful communist neighbour – are taking a firmer stance against Chinese belligerence and territorial bullying, while various global alliances, from AUKUS to the QUAD initiative, are now being interwoven into these nations’ security policies. While Indian forces resolutely thwarted Chinese intrusion attempts, in December 2022, across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Yangtse area of Tawang in the north-eastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, both Japan and South Korea have revised their strategic position towards China, in particular, and are speaking out for a free Indo-Pacific and rule-based global order.

On December 16 last year, Japan released the National Security Strategy (NSS), a national security framework, along with complementary defence planning documents, the National Defence Program Guidelines (NDPG) and the Mid-Term Defence Program (MTDP), laying down guidelines for its military to achieve NSS objectives.

The first and only NSS was released in 2013. The document charts the strategic policies of Japan, which has previously followed a pacifist policy of building only defensive military capabilities. NDPG and MTDP are issued periodically. The latest NSS, however, is a departure from this earlier pacifist policy. It authorises the state to acquire ‘counter-strike capabilities’ and double its defence budget.

General view during the test firing of what state media report is a North Korean "new type" of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)
UPPING THE ANTE: North Korea has provocatively fired more missiles into the sea in 2022 than in any previous year

Japan’s post-war constitution says force can be used only to defend Japan’s territory in the event of an actual attack, not just the likelihood of one. The constitution also does not allow ‘armaments deemed to be offensive weapons designed to be used only for the mass destruction of another country’ (eg intercontinental ballistic missiles, long-range strategic bombers or attack aircraft carriers).

As weapons used in a counter-strike could also be used to attack, there was reluctance among policy-makers in Japan to acquire such weaponry. Moreover, it is difficult to determine when the enemy attack using a missile has begun, or whether it can be technically called an attack as soon as the missile takes off or only after it is on its ballistic path towards Japan.

So far, Japan is dependent on its missile defence system to fend off any attack, and on the US for counter-strike capabilities. Tokyo has made it clear that there will be a system in place to ensure that the counter-strikes are ‘responsive’ and ‘not pre-emptive’. The NSS document makes it abundantly clear ‘we need counter strike capabilities: capabilities which, in the case of missile attacks by an opponent, enable Japan to mount effective counter-strikes against the opponent to prevent further attacks while defending against incoming missiles by means of the missile defence network’.

Japan’s new security policy has widely been acknowledged as an important step towards containing China and reining in North Korea

The NSS describes China as ‘the biggest strategic challenge’ for Japan and the global rule-based order. North Korea was in the first place in Japan’s threat perception in the 2013 NSS, followed by China. ‘China’s current external stance, military and other activities have become a matter of serious concern for Japan and the international community and present an unprecedented and the greatest strategic challenge in ensuring the peace and security of Japan…Japan should respond with its comprehensive national power and in cooperation with its ally, like-minded countries and others,’ the document says in no ambiguous terms.

The segment on North Korea has been expanded to emphasise that its military exercises pose an even more serious and immediate danger to Japan’s security, besides expressing concern over advances made in nuclear missile capabilities evident in the frequent ballistic missile tests conducted by North Korea. The NSS also names Russia and its strategic coordination with Chins as ‘strong security concerns’. The two countries, the document goes on, ‘have ramped up their military coordination by continuing to conduct joint exercises and drills, such as joint navigation by their naval vessels and joint flights of their bombers’ near Japanese territorial waters. ‘Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and its other actions clearly demonstrate that it does not hesitate to resort to military force to achieve its own security objectives,’ the NSS underlines.

Though both China and North Korea have lashed out at Japan’s new security policy, it has widely been acknowledged as an important step towards containing China as well as reining in the rogue North Korean dictatorship.

The US, India and Australia have had no illusions about the growing Chinese threat

Close on the heels, South Korea unveiled its Strategy for a Free, Peaceful and Prosperous Indo-Pacific Region on December 28, 2022. The document is an obvious shift from the earlier policy of treading a middle path between the US and China, pursued by former President Moon Jae-in, or a sort of ‘strategic ambiguity’ in relation to the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific. Even Japan was earlier reluctant to directly take on China. While the Japanese have come out loud and clear, Seoul is more cautious. Though the US has been South Korea’s guarantor of security, neighbouring China is its largest trade partner.

The strategy paper is a carefully drafted document, shifting the primary focus of the country’s foreign policy from North Korea to broader economic and security issues. It doesn’t mince words when it raises alarm at ‘a rise in a combination of challenges that threaten a free, peaceful, and prosperous Indo-Pacific’ – obviously a QUAD formulation.  It says that ‘there is growing concern about democratic backsliding and challenges to universal values such as freedom, the rule of law, and human rights’. Both China and North Korea fit this bill.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and his foreign minister Park Jin, the architect of the new policy, have been working on it since the new South Korean dispensation came to power in May 2022.The policy paper doesn’t directly mention China, but the references to human rights, unilateral changes to the status quo by force, rules-based maritime order in the South China Sea, peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, and freedom of navigation, etc, clearly implicate Chinese belligerence in the region and rights abuse in China, while calling for strategic cooperation among ‘like-minded’ countries.

UNICORN NORA-50 masts
India is likely to buy UNICORN NORA-50from Japan to be installed on Indian Naval ships

The strategy framework seeks gradual expansion of the ‘nodes of cooperation with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD)’ and to ‘contribute to enhancing the region’s ability to tackle comprehensive regional security threats and challenges’. The document labels North Korea as a ‘serious threat to peace and stability’, both to the Korean Peninsula and globally, and calls for the denuclearisation of North Korea and the Korean Peninsula as a whole. North Korea has provocatively fired more missiles into the sea in 2022 than in any previous year. As the year ended, it flew drones into South Korean airspace for the first time since 2017.

What do these geostrategic policy changes in the Far East portend for India and its QUAD partners? The US, India and Australia have had no illusions about the growing Chinese threat. Japan was considered the weakest link of the QUAD due to its reluctance to proactively respond to the looming threats from its Western neighbour. India is looking forward to greater defence cooperation with Japan.

Similarly, the South Korean document sees great potential for cooperation in the sphere of cutting-edge IT and space technologies with India: ‘We will increase strategic communication and cooperation through high-level exchanges in foreign affairs and defence, while strengthening the foundation for enhanced economic cooperation by upgrading the Republic of Korea (ROK)-India Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA).’

India, Japan, and Australia are already seeking to strengthen their long-range strike capabilities. India has deployed supersonic cruise missiles along the India-China border and is conducting hypersonic missile tests. Long-range strike weapons deployment by India in its Southwest and Japan in its Northeast will mean that the Chinese will have to fight on multiple fronts, not to speak of its vulnerabilities in chokepoints of its maritime supply lines. Besides, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines and South Korea are also acquiring strike weapons to challenge Chinese intrusion in maritime economic zones of these smaller nations.

India and Japan are already collaborating on armaments development for unmanned vehicles. India is likely to buy UNICORN (UNIted COnbined Radio aNtenna) NORA-50, a stealth antennas system, from Japan to be installed on Indian Naval ships. The two countries have also identified other avenues of defence cooperation.

Meanwhile, in line with it new defence policy, Japan will be spending $320 billion to acquire missiles to bolster its counter-strike capabilities. It is also doubling its military budget from one to two per cent of its GDP and will become the world’s third-largest buyer of arms next to the US and China.

It is high time Beijing reconsiders it belligerent polices and abides by a rule-based global order that respects the sovereignty of other nations. China’s growing isolation in the region and the world must be enough of a reason for it to step back and reflect on the futility its hegemonic designs.

Yvonne Gill is a freelance journalist based in London