Rising nuclear tensions in Northeast Asia

China’s military expansion and North Korea’s nuclear threats have led South Korea and Japan to strengthen their defenses. This could lead to an arms race in the Indo-Pacific.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s trip to Europe and North America in January was a reflection of rising tensions and the changing strategic landscape in the Indo-Pacific. The tour, which took him to France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States, was intended to lay the groundwork for the G7 summit that the Japanese government will hold in Hiroshima in May. But it also highlighted Japan’s new security concerns, as Kishida took the opportunity to deepen military ties with his partners and explain key reforms. in matters of national security that the country has undertaken in recent weeks and that will see Japan double its defense spending by 2027.

China’s increased assertiveness in the region and growing concern over a possible conflict with Taiwan are the main driving forces behind this change: Japan describes China as its “biggest strategic challenge” in its new National Security Strategy. But they are not the only ones. North Korea remains one of the main sources of concern for Tokyo, and also for Seoul, and the acceleration of its nuclear and missile programs is heightening tensions and increasing the risk of nuclear proliferation in Northeast Asia.

Response to growing threats

Pyongyang conducted more than 70 ballistic missile tests in 2022, setting a new record. in a belligerent speech delivered in December 2022, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un not only made it clear that this trend is likely to continue, but also announced that North Korea would begin mass-producing tactical nuclear weapons. Many also expect the regime to carry out its seventh nuclear weapons test sometime this year.

In response to this and other challenges, Japan has already announced its intention to develop counter capabilities to deal with possible threats from North Korea or China. For his part, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has raised the possibility that South Korea acquires nuclear weapons if the situation on the Korean peninsula worsens. Although he was careful to stress that this was not government policy, public support for the idea is already very high in the country and has been on the rise in recent years; some surveys place him today above 70%.

“Confidence in the US nuclear umbrella is waning (…) and Yoon issues a clear warning: South Korea could act alone if the situation does not improve”

These developments in North Korea, coupled with China’s growing military might, have pushed Seoul and Tokyo closer to their Western partners, as Kishida’s trip and the growing commitment of both nations to NATO demonstrate. Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary General of the Transatlantic Alliance, he was pleased about it on a visit to Tokyo on January 31, speaking of the “most tense security environment since the end of World War II.”

However, Russia’s war against Ukraine has also had profound implications for the Indo-Pacific. Both Tokyo and Seoul have realized the importance of strengthening their military readiness before a conflict breaks out, as well as their vulnerability to nuclear-armed states in the region. As the environment becomes more difficult and threats increase, Japan and South Korea will have to adapt to bolster their military and defense capabilities, fueling an arms race that risks going nuclear. Confidence in the US nuclear umbrella is waning in both nations, and Yoon’s words are a stark warning: South Korea could go it alone if things don’t improve.

Beijing sees the risks but blames the US

This dynamic has not escaped the attention of Beijing, which has accused Tokyo, Seoul and Washington of inciting confrontation and treating the Asia-Pacific as a “battleground for geopolitical competition.”

But beyond the rhetoric, Beijing remains concerned about the North Korean nuclear program, which it sees as a source of instability in the region. In an ideal scenario, China’s ultimate goal is much the same as Washington’s or Seoul’s: a peaceful solution to the conflict and the denuclearization of the peninsula. But as a neighbor to North Korea, and concerned that the United States is building a coalition to contain its rise, China will do everything possible to prevent the collapse of the Kim regime or a larger crisis on its borders, even if that it means opposing comprehensive sanctions or continuing to support the North Korean regime. Fundamentally, China’s policy towards Pyongyang has long been determined by its relationship with the US, and is likely to remain so.

This means that although Chinese experts have identified the risk of nuclear proliferation in Northeast Asia as one of the main security risks for China in 2023, they place the blame squarely on the US and its allies Japan and South Korea. A study on outlook for China’s foreign security risks in 2023, published by the Center for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University, points to two causes of the current crisis: The overreactions of the US and its allies to China’s development and their inability to respond effectively to South Korea’s security demands. North. The more China views the world through the prism of its geopolitical competition with the US, the more difficult it will be to enlist Beijing’s help in dealing with regional or global security challenges.

trouble to come

This new dynamic poses a problem for the region. North Korea will not give up its nuclear program at this point. And the rapid expansion of China’s nuclear arsenal, as well as its more assertive stance in the region, will not go away either. As neighboring countries respond, nuclear tensions are likely to rise.

Diplomatic efforts to curb this trend will be an uphill battle this year. Although Russia and China have in the past voted with the rest of the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on North Korea following nuclear or missile tests – even if the application was then limited – it seems unlikely today that that would happen again. Beijing and Moscow already they vetoed the renewal of the sanctions to Pyongyang in May 2022 and are likely to follow suit with further attempts. The break in relations with Russia, along with low levels of trust between Europe, the US and China, would also hamper any attempt to resume multi-party negotiations with North Korea.

“Although in the past Russia and China have voted in the Security Council in favor of imposing sanctions on North Korea after nuclear tests, it seems unlikely today that this would happen again”

To be sure, neither Japan nor South Korea are interested in a nuclear arms race. And few analysts believe that President Yoon will follow through on his statements. In any case, the changes in position by Seoul and Tokyo are clear indications of their growing perception of the threat and their desire to pressure the US and other allies to expand their involvement in the region and, especially, their defense guarantees.

Diplomatic solutions to this crisis remain worth exploring, and Europe would do well to play a more active role in trying to encourage or facilitate negotiations, however unlikely. But Europe also has a role to play in matters of security. Whether through NATO or bilaterally, it can contribute to deterrence by strengthening security dialogues and cooperation with Japan, South Korea, and other regional partners. After all, this is nothing less than what it committed to in the European Union’s Indo-Pacific Strategy and NATO’s Strategic Concept.

Article originally published in English in the Web from Internationale Politik Quarterly.

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Written by Editor TLN

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