Analysis: The Asia-Pacific arms race has taken an ominous turn

As China increases its military might and trust in US alliances erode, Australia and Japan are going on the offensive.

Asia pacific arms race analysis
Japanese Assault Amphibious Vehicles come ashore during a joint exercise between the Australian Defence Force and the United States Armed forces in Bowen, Australia [File: Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images]

Within days of each other, two key United States allies – Australia and Japan – announced their intentions to boost defence spending and adopt a more aggressive military posture. Rising tensions in the Asia-Pacific region account for what is being called a “game-changer” in the way the two countries think about protecting themselves from China’s rapid military expansion.

Australia’s announcement in late June that it would boost defence spending over the next decade by 40 percent caught most observers by surprise. Prime Minister Scott Morrison stated clearly that the world post-COVID-19 will be “poorer, more dangerous and more disorderly” and that the country needed to be prepared for any eventuality.

Australia changes direction

Australia is a key partner in the region for the US and cooperation between the two countries remains central to Australia’s new strategic thinking.

Intelligence sharing, basing of US troops in-country and the purchase of major arms from the US are still key joint concepts. Strategic aims in the region for both countries largely overlap, especially when it comes to deterring an ever-expanding Chinese regional influence.

An increasingly erratic foreign policy under the Trump administration has made its allies nervous about the US’s long-term commitments in the region. China’s increased assertiveness in the South China Sea, near Taiwan and on the border with India has many analysts concerned China is lowering the threshold for military action, making war more likely.

With this in mind, Australia has been steadily modernising its military, ordering advanced, super-quiet French submarines, received its first batch of American stealth jets and boosted its advanced naval vessels. The country’s geography dictates the bulk of the new defence funds will go to the navy, where most of the new personnel are earmarked.

Asia pacific arms race analysis
Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks during the launch of the 2020 Defence Strategic Update, in the wake of cyberattacks targeting Australia, at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra, Australia on July 1, 2020 [Lukas Coch/AAP via Reuters] 

In February, the US agreed to the sale of advanced, stealthy long-range anti-ship missiles, able to strike high-value targets and sink them at a range of 370km, triple the range of Australia’s current Harpoon missile. They can be launched from either aircraft or ship, sneaking up on an enemy ship, destroying it before they realise they are being attacked. This standoff attack capability will give the Royal Australian Navy a significant offensive capability.

Hypersonic missile technology is also being researched, with weapons able to attack their targets with very little warning time due to the extreme speeds at which the missiles travel. Able to fly in an erratic path, they are designed to confuse the enemy’s defences by seeming unpredictable until the target is hit.

Finally, the navy’s early warning capabilities will be boosted by a new underwater detection net that will span the northern sea-lane approaches to the continent, giving the Australian Defence Force ample warning of any approaching surface vessels or submarines.

The increased ability for early monitoring and detection of any enemy approach, the new potent long-range strike weapons and the hypersonic weapons in development gives Australia the option to take a far more offensive approach to defence, potentially allowing the country to strike first.

Asia pacific arms race analysis
Australian naval officers walk past the HMAS Canberra, one of four Royal Australian Navy ships visiting Sri Lanka as part of defence cooperation between the two countries, in Colombo, Sri Lanka on March 29, 2019 [File: Eranga Jayawardena/AP]

Japan’s game-changer

It is not the only country that wants this flexibility. Japan has always relied on its ally the US to protect it from potential aggressors while maintaining its post-World War II pacifist constitution. This trust has slowly been eroded and Japan, while still benefitting from substantial American support, now looks to develop its own first-strike capability, a game-changer for the country’s military posture.

In an increasingly volatile region, Japan’s military budget is set to rise for the eighth straight year to $48bn as it steadily seeks to rearm itself, revamping its air force, buying in US stealthy F35s and early-warning aircraft. Concerned not just by China’s rise but by a North Korea that has threatened to start testing its long-range missiles again, Japan now wants to give itself the option to hit targets hundreds of kilometres away should it need to.

This switch from defensive to offensive was highlighted when a major defensive system, Aegis Ashore, was cancelled in June. A land-based missile interceptor system, it was initially bought to protect Japanese cities and the 50,000 US troops stationed in the country from ballistic missile attack. At $4.1bn, it was expensive and not 100 percent guaranteed to work. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe decided to look for alternatives, ones that would firmly place operational control in Japanese hands and the focus of conflict away from Japanese shores. If a missile was going to be blown up, let it be over foreign soil.

Asia pacific arms race analysis
A Japan Air Self-Defense Force’s F-35A stealth fighter jet is seen at the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Komaki Minami factory in Toyoyama, Aichi Prefecture, Japan, in June 2017 [File: Kyodo via Reuters]

Japan is already augmenting an increasingly muscular self-defence force. Its helicopter carrier the Izumo is being modified for use by stealthy F-35B jets, turning it into a default aircraft carrier.

Japan is boosting its satellite coverage and cyber-warfare capabilities, in the full knowledge that outer space and cyberspace will be the new battlegrounds for any future conflict. Significant investment has also been made in its domestic stealth fighter programme, the F-X, although it is still in its experimental stage.

The US attempts to tip the strategic balance

Since the US left the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, it seeks to base medium-range missiles within striking range of China and North Korea. Among the US’s Pacific Rim allies the reception for the request to house the missiles has been tepid. While they worry about China’s military expansion, they also worry about provoking this new leviathan in their midst. Both Australia and the Philippines have publicly refused to house the missiles. 

Japan, due to its proximity and strategic partnership, is a natural choice in which to place them yet even here there has been opposition with Denny Tamaki, the governor of Okinawa, home to the bulk of US troops in the country, firmly opposed to the idea.

The US is keen however to push this idea forward, as hundreds of accurate, non-nuclear missiles based close by its adversaries would tip the strategic balance further back in its favour.

Asia pacific arms race analysis
Ship JS SUZUTSUKI DD-117, an Asagiri-class destroyer in the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) arrives at Tanjung Priok port in Jakarta, Indonesia in September 2018 [File: Andrew Lotulung/NurPhoto via Getty Images]

China’s rapid buildup of bases, naval forces and long-range air force in the South China Sea and beyond has unnerved its neighbours, who now seek closer defence ties with each other. Australia and India signed a naval and logistical cooperation defence pact in June.

Japan seeks to strengthen ties with India, Australia and other ASEAN states and is pushing plans for further cooperation in an effort to form an alliance that is able, with the US help, to counter any potential aggression from China.

In the middle of an increasingly dangerous continent, that is “poorer and more disorderly” these alliances will become all the more important. With the potential for American support to diminish, an ally that can strike back hard at its opponents is all the more useful. 

Some critics have voiced concern that such an offensive military stance would encourage China to boost its own offensive capabilities, in turn trying to counter what China sees as its aggressive neighbours.

Source: Al Jazeera