US-led arms race in Asia-Pacific region

By Simon Korner

The US strategic encirclement of China is drawing Japan – and other Asian countries – into a dangerous arms race. 

According to Wikileaks, in 2013 Hillary Clinton warned:  “We’re going to ring China with missile defence.”  Three years later, Ash Carter, US Defense Secretary, visiting Japan and South Korea in April, underlined US policy to “transform the US-Japan alliance, expanding opportunities for the US armed forces and the Japan Self-Defense Forces to cooperate seamlessly.”

This seamless ‘co-operation’ binds Japan, as well as key ally South Korea, into close military co-ordination with – and dependency on – US technology, and means huge spending increases in the military budgets of both countries.  Japan’s military budget has risen every year for the past five years, reaching £38 billion in 2016.  South Korea’s military budget has risen to £27.5billion.

At the core of this military alliance is the new missile system THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Defence) developed by US high-tech giant Lockheed Martin.  THAAD will give the US first-strike capability against China, as well as Russia’s Far East – with the misnamed ‘defence shield’ designed to destroy any retaliatory missiles that escape the first strike.  It follows the model set by Star Wars against the USSR in the 1980s, forcing an arms race as a way of undermining the economy.

Both South Korea and Japan have bought versions of this system, and South Korea has, in addition, bought a sophisticated radar system, made by another US producer Raytheon - the X-band radar.

Fan Gaoyue, a Chinese military expert from Sichuan University, commented that THAAD is forcing South Korea “to join the US-Japan missile defense system.”  Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said: “The coverage of the THAAD missile defense system, especially the monitoring scope of its X-Band radar, goes far beyond the defense need of the Korean Peninsula.  It will reach deep into the hinterland of Asia, which will not only directly damage China’s strategic security interests, but also do harm to the security interests of other countries in this region.”

Alongside this re-armament comes the recent abandonment of Obama’s proposed ‘no first use’ of nuclear weapons policy –under pressure from Ash Carter and nationalist Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe.  

Japanese re-armament

For its own part, Japan as a major imperialist power is eager to scrap the peace-oriented constitution imposed on it by the victors of WW2.  Like Germany it is seeking to become a ‘normal’ (ie warlike) nation again, to match its economic might.   This requires the repeal of Article 9 of its constitution outlawing war as a means of settling disputes. 

As it re-asserts its military capability, it has begun to dispute the terms of its surrender after WW2. Its conflict with China over the Senkaku (Japanese) or Diaoyu (Chinese) islands in the East China Sea is the most dangerous of these disputes.  The islands had been claimed by the Japanese during the Imperial era in the late 1800s, but China – along with Taiwan – regards them as conquered territory that should have been handed back in 1945.

The islands have a commanding position over important shipping lanes, through which China brings in 80% of its imported energy – particularly oil from Angola, Saudi Arabia and Iran.  There are also rich fishing grounds and potential oil and gas reserves in the surrounding waters.  Recent joint US-Japan military exercises rehearsed invading an island, using drones and air support for ground forces – a clear sign of Japan’s serious intent.

Japan is also producing land-to-sea missiles to station on Miyako island, near the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, along with troops, to gain control over the islands’ waters.  In addition, it is building a new submarine force based in Nagasaki, and producing its first stealth fighter, a co-operative venture between Mitsubishi and Lockheed Martin.

A similar territorial dispute – between Japan and Russia – centres on the Kuril islands, which Russia took over as part of Japan’s surrender in September 1945.  Russian foreign minister Lavrov criticized the Japanese for “demonstrating overtly its negligence of the commonly recognized results of WW2.”

Japanese claims that “not all results of WW2 had been summed up” between Moscow and Tokyo show Lavrov is right to be concerned.  Tensions over the Kuril islands fit the broadly aggressive western stance towards of Russia, including Nato expansion in eastern Europe right up to the Russian border. 

US Economic strategy: TPP

Alongside the military threat of the US ‘pivot’ to Asia, economic force is being used.  Sanctions against North Korea – under UN Security Council resolution 2270 – have been imposed, with the aim of devastating an economy reliant on exports of gold, titanium, rare earth and so on.  This resolution is similar to the punitive sanctions imposed on Iraq and Libya before those countries were destroyed. 

On a regional level, the US trade deal, the TPP, aims at deregulating and prising open protected Asian economies to US capital.  Obama made it clear what TPP is about:  “If the US doesn’t write those rules, then countries like China will.”  Oxfam and Médecins sans Frontières have warned that TPP will lower living standards, through bringing in tighter control of patents by big US pharmaceuticals and the undermining of food security, among other changes.

There is widespread opposition to TPP in Asia, as there has been against TTIP in Europe – with protests against the lack of transparency, democratic accountability and the threat of unemployment.  This opposition is coming from domestic ruling classes as well as workers – and increasingly from within the US.  The US’s difficulties over bringing in TPP are a sign of its diminishing influence more broadly as the Chinese renminbi rises against the dollar, giving China more control over trade and foreign exchange markets. The Chinese Silk Road communications network extending westwards, eventually to Europe, shows the scale of China’s ambition.  

The challenges to US influence in the Pacific are also reflected in its cooling relations with the countries like the Philippines, its long-term Pacific base.  Philippine president Duterte has recently demanded that US forces leave Mindinao, in the south of the Philippines, and stopped joint Philippine-US naval patrols of the South China Sea.  Cambodia has given China greater access to an important deep-water facility, further enhancing Chinese maritime dominance.  Other Pacific countries are drawing closer to China in terms of trade.  Total trade between China and the Pacific countries almost doubled from $4.5billion in 2014 to $7billion in 2015 – mostly Chinese exports. 

While the US will try to stem the tide – Duterte is likely to come under particular pressure – the direction of travel is clear. 

Inter-Imperialist Rivalry

The US faces other challenges from its imperialist rivals.  Former colonial powers such as France, with its long history in Indo-China, are looking to make inroads into the US sphere of influence in Asia.  French investment in the Asia-Pacific region reached $75billion in 2012. 

At the same time France supports the US containment of China, whose growing power the French fear – particularly in French-dominated parts of Africa.  A French government report this summer concluded:  “France has started to re-balance its strategic centre of gravity towards the Indo-Pacific” – in other words, a French ‘pivot’ to Asia.  French islands in the Pacific and Indian oceans are to serve as bases for its navy, already co-operating closely with the US, Australia and New Zealand.

Similarly, Britain supports the US ‘pivot’, fearful of Chinese domination.  In 2012, then defence minister Phillip Hammond, acting as the US lieutenant in Europe, rallied Nato powers behind the US ‘pivot’. 

  At the same time, Britain is stealing a march on China economically.  Britain was the first western power to join the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in 2015, set up by China as a rival to the World Bank – raising US concerns about the World Bank's loss of influence.

"The UK's decision to join the AIIB as a founding member upset Washington but pleased China enormously,” said Philippe Le Corre, from the Brookings Institution.

The Asia-Pacific region is likely to become increasingly dangerous as the US seeks to offset its declining economic influence through military means. 


Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe.