Attempt to stop North Korea’s rocket launches sharpens Asian divisions
Hong Kong — Kim Jong-un’s near-weekly rocket launches are spurring a push for missile-defence systems across Asia that risk sharpening divisions between China and US allies in the region.
South Korea started deploying the US-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) system in March and Japan is considering purchasing its own missile shield. Australia’s senior defence planners have also started discussing options for fending off a North Korean attack. The Pentagon this week claimed success in intercepting a mock intercontinental ballistic missile.
The threat posed by Kim’s regime is likely to dominate talks when the region’s top defence and military officials, including US secretary of defence James Mattis, gather for the annual Shangri-La Dialogue security forum in Singapore starting on Friday. Earlier in the week, North Korea conducted its ninth ballistic missile test in 2017 as Kim ramps up efforts to deliver a nuclear warhead as far as North America.
US President Donald Trump has sought to pressure China, North Korea’s main ally and trading partner. Yet the concurrent military moves threaten to curtail co-operation, a realisation of Hillary Clinton’s 2013 warning in a private speech — included among hacked e-mails released by WikiLeaks in 2016 — that the US would "ring China with missile defence" if it did not help stop North Korea.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has received support from Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in opposing the deployment of the defence system in South Korea. Both countries worry that its 2,000km radar range would be able to detect their missile activities and counter their ability to respond to an attack. They also fear that a November agreement between South Korea and Japan to share intelligence could morph into a US-backed missile-defence co-operation pact.
"If the US, South Korea and Japan step up anti-missile co-operation, China and Russia are very likely to ramp up joint efforts to counterbalance the de facto mini-Nato in East Asia," said Yue Gang, a retired colonel with the People’s Liberation Army who worked on the anti-satellite missile programme. "It would be a big strategic threat for China due to connectivity of their military technologies and sharing of intelligence."
South Korea and Japan in 2016 managed to put aside decades of hostility to sign their agreement to share sensitive information on North Korea. The move represented a major breakthrough among American allies that still clash regularly over issues stemming from Japan’s more than three-decade occupation of South Korea.
Still, it remains to be seen if both countries can build on that to form what would amount to a regional missile-defence shield. Sharing information between different systems — from the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system to the land-and-sea-based Aegis — would contribute to a layered defence that had a better chance of stopping a missile, said Richard Bitzinger, who studies military modernisation as a senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
"It is not the technology, it is the political will that’s getting in the way of co-operation," he said. "The need for missile defence increases every year — at the very least because of what North Korea has been doing. But the Chinese missile problem is also one that’s expanding."
Xi elevated PLA’s rocket force to an equal branch alongside the army, navy and air force during a sweeping military reorganisation in 2015. China has about 1,200 short-range ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan, and a growing arsenal of anti-ship missiles that could attack aircraft carriers in the Western Pacific. Its long-range ballistic missiles can deliver nuclear warheads to most of the continental US, according to the Pentagon’s 2016 report on China’s military.
China has sought to court South Korea’s newly elected president, Moon Jae-in, who favours better ties with Beijing and Pyongyang. Foreign Minister Wang Yi in May called on Moon’s administration "to take concrete action to pull out the thorn stuck in the throat of China-South Korea relations".
This week, Moon ordered an investigation into how the final components of the missile shield arrived in the country without his knowledge. He has said he wants to review how the decision to deploy the system was made.
The threat from North Korea is constantly growing. The country has conducted nine ballistic missile tests in 2017, including a rocket on May 14 that it said could carry a "large-size, heavy nuclear warhead" over long distances, putting it within reach of US military facilities on the island of Guam.
North Korea suggested in April that Australia could be a target because of the presence of US troops near Darwin, which it saw as evidence that the US was planning a nuclear war. Defence strategists in Australia, which has no missile defence system, are now discussing how to better protect itself.
Washington and Canberra are discussing an upgrade of Australia’s Jindalee over-the-horizon radar network, which is now used to detect aircraft but could be adapted to detect incoming missiles, according to Bitzinger. Australia is also planning to equip its three destroyers now under construction with the Aegis radar-and-combat system, which could be retrofitted for SM-3 missiles designed to take out medium-range ballistic missiles.
"Missile defence is a worthwhile option for Australia," said Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra. "Our role in missile defence is more being a regional actor, a responsible partner to the US, to share burden and counter the regional threat against countries like Japan and South Korea."
Japan and the US already share intelligence on ballistic-missile defence and have established a joint operation co-ordination centre at Yokota Air Base in Japan. Members of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling party recommended in March that Japan consider stepping up its capacity to intercept incoming missiles by introducing the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence or a land-based Aegis system. Japan already has a two-stage missile-defence system, consisting of ship-borne SM-3 interceptors and ground-based PAC-3 missiles. Both are undergoing upgrades.
Despite opposition from China, Russia and among some political groups in South Korea and Japan, deeper missile-defence co-operation was inevitable because Asian nations were not likely to be able to credibly rid themselves of the North Korean threat, said Patrick Cronin, director of the Asia-Pacific Security Programme at the Centre for a New American Security.
"The reality is, that an unfettered North Korea will force its neighbours to take serious action to defend themselves," Cronin said. "Missile defence remains a much more realistic means, especially in democracies, to reassure your public that you have at least a chance of surviving a missile launch."