Gearoid Reidy

The Race for Missiles in Asia’s Danger Zone

It’s no surprise that for US allies in Asia, “Top Gun: Maverick” is the year’s most-watched American movie, topping the box office in South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. The simple tale of US might and gumption against an evil faceless opponent certainly resonates in a region that’s facing intensifying threats.

But no one is placing bets that Tom Cruise and his younger movie cohorts are coming to save the day. Northeast Asia is instead putting its faith, and budget, into bulking up both offensive and defensive missile capabilities to counter any possible spillover of China’s actions on Taiwan and North Korea’s continued provocations.

That’s a significant change for Japan. The debate now is not over missile defense, but whether to strike enemy bases offensively. The government of Fumio Kishida is looking to boost its arsenal amid questions over its counter strike capability — a controversial subject in a country whose constitution renounces the “right of belligerency.”

Japan has not forgotten the North Korean missiles that flew over the country five years ago at the height of tensions between the administrations of former US President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. Just weeks ago, Chinese projectiles launched over Taiwan landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone, while on Wednesday, Taipei said it was stockpiling US-made weaponry that Ukraine had used to hold off Russia’s military to deter Beijing. With Japan heading into a generational debate over potentially doubling its defense spending, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Tokyo fears a North Korean “saturation” strategy of launching multiple missiles means any defense shield could be overwhelmed, said Stephen Nagy, senior associate professor of international relations at Tokyo’s International Christian University. That’s led the security establishment to the idea of striking first. “Preemptive strike capabilities will give the Japanese the capability to threaten Pyongyang if it continues to engage in provocative behavior,” Nagy said, with this capacity first and foremost aimed at North Korea, not China.

The legality of how and when Tokyo could utilize this capacity under its pacifist constitution remains far from clear. New defense minister Yasukazu Hamada, who took on the role in August, has nonetheless echoed those statements in recent days, highlighting the many ballistic missiles deployed by countries surrounding the island nation. Hamada said the world is entering a “new era of crisis,” describing it as the most challenging time since the end of World War II.

He wants all options, including counterstrike capability, to be on the table. That’s one reason his ministry is requesting a record 5.6 trillion yen ($40 billion) in next year’s budget, a figure that will rise even further once additional costs are accounted for. Reports suggest that Japan might look to deploy more than 1,000 missiles that would give it the capacity to strike China as well as North Korea and Russia. These weapons would still be conventional, however, with Kishida sticking to the long-held principle of rejecting possession even US nuclear weapons on Japanese soil.

In neighboring South Korea, the government has rejected calls to freeze deployment of its American-made missile defense shield. Lockheed Martin Corp.’s Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system, or Thaad, was designed to help protect South Korea against attacks from North Korea; instead it became the biggest obstacle to relations between Beijing and Seoul in decades when its deployment was announced in 2016.

Fearing the system could allow the US to monitor its capabilities, China declared Thaad a threat to the status quo. The system, which has no offensive strike capacity, led Beijing to declare an unofficial trade war on South Korea, hitting the likes of Lotte Group with business suspensions on spurious grounds, squeezing tourism revenue by suspending sales of package tours to South Korea, and even hurting the K-pop business.

It was an extraordinary moment of Chinese heavy-handedness, and should have been a warning to the US about how Beijing treats its neighbors. The dovish Moon Jae-in, who came into office the following year, only encouraged future deployments of this strategy by acquiescing to Chinese demands with his “Three Nos” policy: No extra Thaad deployments, no participation in a US-led missile-defense network and no involvement in a three-way alliance with the US and Japan.

His successor Yoon Suk Yeol pledged to expand the Thaad system. There’s no immediate sign of that happening, but Yoon’s administration has rejected the Three Nos and said the matter is “not negotiable.”

Perhaps there’s less at stake now: A Covid-zero Beijing can’t exactly cut off tourists to South Korea this time. But the threat from North Korea hasn’t gone away, even if the rogue nation’s place in the headlines has diminished from the days of “fire and fury”; Pyongyang has already fired more ballistic missiles in 2022 than any other year.

Even though Seoul needs no reminders of the threat on its border, Yoon is demonstrating a more clear-eyed approach to Pyongyang’s provocations than Moon’s clumsy attempts at reunification. Polls show more than 70% of South Koreans want to country to develop its own nuclear weapons, which it currently doesn’t possess. Likewise, having for years warned of the threat of Chinese expansion but done little to contain it, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made it clear to Tokyo the neighborhood it’s living in. After essentially abandoning diplomatic efforts to resolve a long-standing territorial dispute with Russia, Japan must be prepared for relations to turn frostier still.

How Chinese leader Xi Jinping, once secured in his third term as leader, approaches both nations — with attempted reconciliation or further threats — is also crucial. Things are only heating up in the danger zone.