Over the last several years nothing has piqued my curiosity more than China’s various anti-access developments. Things like “carrier-killer” missiles, ultra quiet diesel submarines, advanced mines, and even various types of cyberwarfare capabilities all illicit various reactions depending on where you sit in East Asia or even globally. The People’s Republic has surely developed some impressive capabilities with the intention of denying or delaying the arrival of large combat forces into a contested area of military operations. And while such capabilities are developed with the United States largely in mind, it might be North Korea that ends up negating some of Beijing’s new military capabilities – not America’s pivot or rebalance.
Over the last few weeks, Pyongyang has made various threats that have driven tremendous amounts of fear and anxiety around the world. In response, the United States has made several shows of force in an effort to demonstrate its resolve. B-52s, B-2s, and F-22s have all been used to signal to North Korea that such intense rhetoric and dubious claims would be met with the reality of American and South Korean military power. For its part, South Korea’s leadership has made it clear that North Korean provocations crossing from words into deeds would be met with a strong response.
Today reports surfaced that North Korea may indeed move beyond threats – possibly preparing another missile test. Such reports clearly demonstrate that the United States along with Japan and South Korea face a long-term strategic challenge of defending against what could be ever more sophisticated North Korean missiles. Indeed, the United States has moved various sea-based missile defense assets like the USS John S. McCain and the Sea-Based X-Band Radar system into the area to protect U.S. and allied forces as well as civilian targets from attack. The U.S. is also moving THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System) to defend Guam from a possible missile attack.
While such shows of force and tough words by all sides are important, one must look to the long-term consequences of North Korea’s latest provocations and how they impact the long-term strategic balance in East Asia.
Over the last two years the United States has shifted its geopolitical and strategic focus towards Asia in what has been dubbed the “pivot” or, to use the “politically correct” term, the “rebalance.” While Washington downplays it, there is a significant military component to such a strategy. Concepts like AirSea Battle and the JOAC (Joint Operational Access Concept) are clearly aimed at China and negating its anti-access capabilities within a larger framework of a shift towards Asia politically as well as economically.
North Korea may just provide the strategic rationale the United States needs to drop the veiled nature of the military and geostrategic components of its pivot to Asia. Even if tensions do cool in the coming months, American military planners may decide to keep ever increasing amounts of ballistic missile defense systems forward deployed in East Asia for the next time North Korea threatens the region.
U.S. allies could also follow suit. For example, with Tokyo already actively considering moving away from its more defensive military posture, the North Korea threat may provide the final impetus Tokyo needs to justify sustaining higher defense budgets beyond this year’s increase. Tokyo could also decide Pyongyang’s missile capabilities require it to further bolster its cooperation with the U.S. on missile defense. Just as important, the clear and present danger North Korea poses to South Korea could lead the latter to more actively participate in triangular security arrangements with the U.S. and Japan.
All of this has ramifications for Beijing. Ever increasing amounts of missile defense systems will certainly erode China’s growing anti-access capabilities. While it is hard to make solid predictions, it is clear that missile defenses utilized for the protection of U.S. bases and allies in the region also have the potential of being used and/or enhanced to defend against Chinese missiles in the event – however remote – of some sort of conflict. While no one knows for certain how effective China’s new capabilities would be in a crisis, nor how effectively American and allied missile defenses would prove against such missiles, there is certainly the potential that the potency of China’s asymmetric capabilities would be degraded.
It’s unclear how Chinese military planners would seek to regain the advantage – maybe by increasing the amount of missiles they have in their arsenal or by building new, more advanced systems. What is clear is that North Korea’s threats and bluster will have a long term impact on East Asia’s military balance for years to come, and it’s unlikely to be to the advantage of North Korea’s longtime ally in Beijing.