It is, by now, clear that Kim Jong-un is madder than his father. He’s blasted off North Korea’s third nuclear test and plans to restart its nuclear reactor, as his people continue to starve. Last weekend his government declared that the ‘time has come to stage a do-or-die final battle’ with South Korea. He has instructed his troops to ‘break the waists of the crazy enemies’ and also ‘cut their windpipes’. For good measure he described Park Geun-hye, South Korea’s first female president, as a ‘venomous swish of skirt’ and has severed all military hotlines with Seoul, like a petulant teenager refusing to answer the phone. It would be funny, if only his nukes weren’t real.
America, at any rate, is taking the threat seriously. Last weekend, two nuclear-capable B-2 bombers took off from Missouri for a practice run over the Korean Peninsula. This was not just a warning to Kim. General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, admitted that his exercises ‘are mostly to assure our allies that they can count on us to be prepared’. In other words, America isn’t just worried about North Korea. It’s worried about the reaction of its neighbours — and the furious arms race that is happening throughout the East.
America’s role as the policeman of Asia, established since the second world war, seems to be diminishing. From Japan to the Philippines, old war wounds are being reopened. Erstwhile rivals are playing a dangerous game of ‘what if’. Now that China has just become the top regional power, what if it starts to point its nukes at specific targets? What if Japan, in its paranoia, rediscovers its old militaristic self? And what if a debt-ridden, war-weary America decides it hasn’t the time or energy to deal with Lil’ Kim? Having spent the last five decades growing prosperous in relative peace, Asia looks like it’s gearing up for conflict.
A milestone has been passed this year: Asia’s military spending is now greater than Europe’s. Not just Nato Europe, the whole continent. The International Institute for Strategic Studies, which keeps an eye on these things, says ‘the increase in Asian spending has been so rapid, and the defence austerity pursued by European states so severe’ that the plates of military power are shifting almost as fast as those of financial power. Most of the world’s wealth is now created in the East — and the bulk of the world’s military arsenal may now follow. The biggest arms importers over the last five years are all in Asia: India, China, Pakistan, South Korea and Singapore.
China doubles its military spending every five years. As Beijing’s expanding bourgeoisie prowl across the globe shopping for watches and handbags, the Chinese military has treated itself to its first aircraft carrier. Indeed, China would be the world’s largest buyer of weapons if it didn’t make so many of its own. That makes other countries in the region nervous. Arms deliveries to Malaysia jumped eightfold in the second half of the last decade. Singapore, an island half the size of Shetland, has become the world’s fifth-biggest arms importer.
Not all of this can be blamed on Kim. The rise of China has forced its smaller neighbours to realign their loyalties and look for protectors, while making sure they’ve got enough war kit to defend themselves — just in case. After four decades of near-miraculous financial progress, Asian nations can certainly afford more than the odd fighter jet. And their newfound wealth has fostered a hyper-competitive environment that often spills over from the economic to the political to the military. This is all the more worrying because Asia has not tried to resolve its past conflicts the way Europe has. The wounds are still festering and contributing to today’s jostling for power.
Imagine, for example, if Angela Merkel were to get up one morning, put on her best togs and make a state visit to a German shrine that venerates Hitler. The world outrage would be as nothing compared to the horrified reaction from Germans. Yet Japan’s new Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has indicated that he intends to pay homage at the Yasukuni shrine, dedicated to those who died for the Empire of Japan (including 14 convicted Class-A war criminals, among them Japan’s wartime leader, the general responsible for Pearl Harbor). The shrine owns a museum that may be politely called ‘revisionist’, displaying Imperial Army memorabilia ranging from military badges to suicide torpedoes.
For decades, Japan has been prevented from rearming by its pacifist constitution, much valued by the parts of Asia where memories of its wartime record remain vivid. If Abe does go to the shrine — as he did as opposition leader — it would be an outward sign of Japan’s new wave of ultra–patriotism. And the Japanese are by no means aghast at all this. Abe’s cabinet includes 14 members of the League for Going to Worship Together at Yasukuni. Tomomi Inada, the minister running administrative reform, has denied that the 1937 Nanking Massacre ever took place. Hakubun Shimomura, his education minister, wants to overturn the verdicts of Tokyo’s war crimes trials.
The Japanese mood music discomfits the Chinese and South Koreans, who bore the brunt of Japanese imperial ambitions in the 1940s. But Japan’s new nationalistic fervour was not born in a vacuum. It is itself a reaction to China’s surging influence, and to Beijing’s recent bellicose rhetoric and navy manoeuvres over the disputed Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands.
Perhaps more pertinently, China’s economy moved ahead of Japan’s two years ago and may be the world’s largest within four years. Japan’s sensitivity is the result of weakness, not strength. Still struggling to fight its way out of the economic stagnation and recycled debt of the past decade, Japan seems doomed. Not for nothing is its new Prime Minister sometimes called ‘Downturn Abe’ — his mission is to salvage both the nation’s weakened economy and its wounded pride.
Once, the idea of Japan rediscovering its appetite for conflict would have terrified its smaller neighbours. Now they fear Beijing’s expansionism even more, and are positively urging Abe on. The Middle Kingdom’s bullying of surrounding countries over disputed lands (and its recent claim to almost the entire South China Sea) has provoked Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam to express vigorously their sovereignty. And this means expanding their armies.
The foreign minister of the Philippines recently said he would ‘welcome very much’ the abolition of Japan’s pacifist constitution that prohibits the use of weapons except for self-defence. ‘We are looking for balancing factors in the region,’ he said. This, of course, speaks of an arms race. Each Asian country is playing a war game: asking what would happen if China’s ascent were to prove not as peaceful as they had hoped, and imagining conflicts in the Indian Ocean or the South China Sea.
Increasingly, they see that a conflict could play out between Asian nations, rather than against a western enemy. The recent massive computer hacking at South Korean broadcasters and banks immediately raised suspicions that either North Korea or China was the culprit; Beijing no longer regards automatic support for Pyongyang as being in its strategic interest and is looking to its new best buddy Russia; Burma is shying away from Chinese control and is resuming rice exports to Japan after a 45-year hiatus; Japan is (once more) courting Mongolia.
Of course no one (except Kim) is actually preparing for an ‘all-out war’ — most Asian states are still too busy making money. But it’s easy to see why America is nervous. A group of nations nursing very old grievances and armed to the teeth may find themselves tripping into actual conflict. There is, as the IISS puts it, a ‘tangible risk of accidental conflict and escalation’.
Take the recent curious skirmish in Malaysian Borneo, which last month was ‘invaded’ by a ragtag army of rebels from the Philippines staking the claim of the old Sultanate of Sulu — a claim that dates from 1658. Some suspect the involvement of a guerrilla group called the Moro–Islamic Liberation Front (acronym: Milf). It’s not a joke in Malaysia, whose government says the incursion has resulted in nearly 70 deaths.
Southeast Asia has very little history of cross-border aggression. But the Borneo incursion shows how age-old territorial spats can easily bubble to the surface. You can see why Uncle Sam is turning his gaze away from the Atlantic and over the Pacific. But the US Navy is finding itself less and less able to shape events in the area, with a fleet which is smaller now than at any time since 1916.
The increasingly skittish behaviour of eastern nations shows that they’re taking steps to make new alliances, if needs must. In a region where money speaks louder than words, there’s a growing feeling that the US — walking away from an unwon war in Afghanistan — may not be as reliable a big brother as it once was. India has flatly rejected an offer of a three-way security deal with Japan and America. A pattern was detected four years ago by Joel Fitzgibbon, Australia’s then-defence secretary. ‘It would be premature to judge that war among states, including the major powers, has been eliminated as a feature of the international system,’ he said.
A century ago, the Europeans played out a similar game. Britain’s attempt to maintain naval supremacy, symbolised by the construction of Dreadnought, ended in a naval race with Germany and then a war in which the continent was able to use its recently acquired tools of destruction. The parallels are there now, for those with an eye to see them. Vietnam will soon take delivery of six Russian-built Kilo stealth submarines, an answer to Malaysia’s fleet of Scorpène attack submarines. And New Delhi has talked openly about its ambitions for the South China Sea, just in case Beijing gets any ideas.
But there is another interpretation: arms races tend to assure the peace rather than induce war. The Cold War, and its accompanying nuclear arms race, ended without a red button being pressed — precisely because the stakes were so high. What looks like a military splurge could be seen as Asian countries acquiring normal-sized armed forces, the better to persuade crackpots like Kim to calm down. It is quite possible that the next 50 years will be as peaceful as the last 50. But we will have to look to the East, not the West, to find out.
Listen to Clarissa Tan discuss North Korea and Asia’s arms race at 0:41