A Looming Nuclear Arms Race In East Asia?
The current East Asian security dynamics have two determinants. The first is the challenge posed by North Korea’s aggressive nuclear and missile development programmes coupled with direct threats to the US, and the second is the rise of China as a regional power. The complications arising from these factors in the region are further exacerbated by the US’ inevitable and constantly increasing involvement and military presence.
The US and China have long been strategic adversaries. This, in the backdrop of the Trump administration trying to deter the North Korean regime and China’s aspirations to regional supremacy, magnifies the underlying US-China arms race into a regional ballistic and nuclear race. This, in turn, makes East Asia even more volatile to conflict than the Korean crisis alone did.
The lack of a substantive Chinese participation in reigning North Korea in while maintaining bilateral trade relations, could be attributed to three factors:
a) A cost-benefit analysis where DPRK stands as an asset for China
b) Concerns that measures like a trade embargo could lead to a fellow Communist regime’s collapse
c) Fears that the frayed relations with North Korea could be exposed.
Of these, China’s cost-benefit analysis is being severely disturbed by Pyongyang’s frequent nuclear threats to the US and allies which necessitates a reaction from the US – both to protect its local interests and those of its allies, South Korea and Japan. This is in the form of increasing weapons, missile defence systems and troop’ deployment. Currently, 40,000 US troops in Japan and 37,000 in South Korea are stationed on duty. The most immediate demonstration comes in the form of two US B-1B advanced bombers and four F-35B stealth jets flying over the Korean peninsula in a live-weapon, military flight/joint bombing drill/mock bombing military exercise with South Korean F-15K fighters. In addition are a joint urban warfare and frontline rescue drills withthe Japanese military as well as more fighter deployments to the peninsula. The long-term deployments have been the installation of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) and anti-ballistic missile system in South Korea and the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) system and Aegis Ashore system in Japan.
This now means the three powers are accumulating a formidable air defence system capable of intercepting a significant part of the North Korea’s ballistic missile arsenal. While these deployments can easily be explained as static defensive deployments, the Republic Of Korea Navy (ROKN) and the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF) in addition to the United States Navy (USN) are also significantly bolstering their naval Aegis fleets with ballistic missile interception capabilities. This cumulative force is far greater than what is needed to counter North Korea and naturally becomes a threat for China. Since force is fungible – the fact remains that any missile system capable of intercepting North Korean missiles is also capable of intercepting Chinese missiles, thus pronouncing a threat to China’s strategic missile system.
China has tried to maintain an active and diverse ballistic missile development programme, upgrading its missile forces in number, capability, and type. China has said it will conduct live-fire drills and test new weapons to safeguard its security in response to the US deployment of THAAD in South Korea. This illustrates that improving US missile defence capabilities influence the development of China’s nuclear forces. According to World Nuclear Forces, China has 270 warheads in stockpile that is a minuscule number as against 4,480 in the US stockpile. However several reports hint at a rough estimation of around 500 warheads or higher.
Although the true sophistication of Chinese missile defence technology remains unclear, it possesses approximately 1,200 conventionally armed short range ballistic missiles (SRBM), 300-400 medium range ballistic missiles (MRBM), and an estimated 81 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). Traditionally ,China maintained few ICBMs, concentrating instead on IRBMs as these were much more useful in the high-threat situation around its periphery. However, presently, the issue is all these missiles, being an intermediate range, come within the terminal velocities that THAAD and Aegis Ashore are intended to shoot down. This effectively blunts Chinese deterrence calculations and forces it to either innovate on countermeasures or simply expand its arsenal.
The missile and nuclear expansion are now happening in two ways – the first is the expansion of and investment in new ICBMs and the second is the investment in asymmetric technologies. The first investment reinforces deterrence against the US, and the second set enables accurate conventional strikes against large and threatening naval formations that would have previously required tactical nuclear weapons to take out. The first part of this expansion is visible in the newly unveiled DONG FENG(DF)-31AG ICBM, which can carry multiple warheads, meaning the actual number of ICBMs becomes less important as several warheads can be used to overcome anti-ballistic missiles (ABM).
Irrespective, it is also developing two new ICBMs – the DF-41 land-based missile with a possible range of 15,000 km and the submarine based Jù Làng-2 (JL-2) with an estimated range of around 8-9,000 km. This gives China a potent combination of first and second strike capability when taken in its totality. The second part of the expansion – a new way of dealing with regional powers – is evident in the continuing development of ‘carrier-killer’ ballistic missile to threaten US’ fleet of aircraft carriers. It has also recently successfully tested a hypersonic glide weapon – DF-ZF – for the seventh time, and is accumulating a force of well over 1,500 ground launched cruise missiles.
Developments in China’s nuclear deterrent cannot be ignored given the aggressive progress of the conflict between North Korea and the US. The build-up of US assets now and the direct costs it imposes on China’s own defence mean that Beijing’s cost-benefit analysis may have to change. The current Chinese missile investments indicate that it is based on a revised cost-benefit analysis; that China is now retooling its missile forces to re-establish deterrence and deal with a new, possibly more hostile threat environment. Clearly then this is not a Chinese government that does not approve of North Korea’s actions but rather one that was caught unawares and too early by North Korean actions which it quite possibly deemed inevitable.