News from the Island Chains

Alessandro Ponzetto | April 7th, 2022

While the situations both in Pakistan and Sri Lanka are still developing, there have been developments all across the Island Chains, the demarking lines dividing Asia from the Pacific Ocean. We will ideally walk through these lines from North to South, trying to cover the key areas of interest.

North: Japan and Korea

Japan is one of the most important countries in the Island Chains, not only because it represents the Northernmost sections, but also because it has been slowly but surely improving its capabilities. This improvement is going to be further accelerated in the upcoming defence budget, which has been proposed a month ahead of schedule.

This alone is noteworthy but there is also another piece of information that grabs the attention: the proposal will precisely lay out the timetable to boost the defence spending to 2% of GDP, a pledge made in 2021, and this proposal will be amended into the National Security Strategy, originally drafted in 2013.

As the original document already created monumental changes, including the first Japanese aircraft carriers since the end of the Pacific War, similar changes are to be expected. One is surely on offensive capabilities, as there could be a reinterpretation of the limitations put in place on the JSDF to allow “self-defence counterattack capability.”

Another relevant change is how Russia will be defined: the current NSS defines Moscow as a partner in security and energy, but the current tensions following Ukraine and the subsequent breaking down of the peace negotiations will surely bring change. For more context about this I previously wrote about why the two are, technically speaking, still at war.

West of Japan, there is Korea: while not in the Island Chains, it has played a key role for centuries and has become once again important. The reasons are two-fold: renewed activity from the North Koreans and a new South Korean President whose goals include improving the relationship with Japan.

This is of course easier said than done, as the Japanese exploitation of the peninsula from 1910 to 1945 is still a problem hindering the relationship between these two key allies of the US. Both sides face domestic situations that make resolving this long-standing issue difficult, but the increased activity from North Korea may give them impetus to do so.

In an ideal world, the US may help on this front. Japan is going to host an in-person meeting of the Quad in June, and President Biden is expected to visit South Korea as well (with President Yoon already in office by then, as he will be sworn in on May 10). The precise schedule is however still a mystery, as the Australian elections may have an impact.

The linchpin: Taiwan

With the war in Ukraine raging on, there have been several discussions regarding the possibility of conflict across the Taiwan Strait. We covered this specific issue previously (see ‘Is Taiwan the next Ukraine’ for more), but what is important now is how the situation has developed since then.

Before going through the current state of affairs, a brief explanation as to why I view Taiwan as the key to everything. Not only are there historic reasons, as the island represents the last remnants of the Republic of China (the historic rival of the CCP during the civil war) but it is also in a key strategic location geographically speaking. On top of that, Taiwan has become increasingly important for key economic sectors, such as semiconductors (with industry giants like TSMC).

Its importance is recognised by all parties with a vested interest in the region: on the one hand, the PRC is always craving for putting an end to the last surviving trace of the Civil Wars, and is not hiding the desire to annex them; on the other hand Taiwan itself has been preparing for this eventuality and so have both the US and Japan.

When it comes to the US, the recent exercise in the Philippines (see ‘The key of the Pacific’ for more), and especially in the Northern coast of Luzon, is no mere coincidence. Even now, the US Navy has been maintaining a presence off the coast of the archipelago: the following image comes from the USNI fleet tracker, as of April 4.

An even more telling detail is the number of ships underway per fleet.

The 7th, which is based at Yokosuka and covers the Pacific, represents the vast majority of the ships deployed (even surpassing the 6th, which has been active in the Mediterranean and has been following the developments in Ukraine). This further shows that it is incorrect to say that the US has been distracted by Ukraine, as the Navy has continued to keep watch.

Moreover, US politics have always paid attention to it, with the latest news on this regard being the announced Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. This of course has sparked quite a reaction from China, both from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and state-owned media. Quoting Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian:

“If the United States insists on having its own way, China will take strong measures in response to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity. All possible consequences that arise from this will completely be borne by the U.S. side.”

Then there’s the Global Times, who through former editor-in-chief Hu Xijin said the following:

Once the US and Taiwan island are bent on pushing Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan into fruition, then I suggest that the Chinese mainland should take unprecedented action to make Pelosi’s visit impossible to carry out properly. There are many options available, and I propose two here.

The two proposals are ultimately variations of one: have the PLA assert control over the Taiwanese skies the day of the visit, forcing a backdown or a potential confrontation.

When it comes to Japan, Taiwan is one of the primary drivers for the boost in defence spending, as Tokyo has included what once was their colony as part of the defence policy. For this reason, while it is unclear how Beijing will react to Pelosi’s visit, the JSDF will most likely stay on watch.

On top of this, Tokyo too is looking at the Philippines with keen interest: today, Defence Minister Kishi met with his counterpart, Delfin Lorenzana, ahead of the upcoming 2+2 meeting between the two countries. The two have started discussions about cooperation in maritime security, which could lead to more military exercises between Tokyo and Manila.

The move is more than logical from the perspective of both countries, as not only the two have their respective disputes with China but they also ‘guard the flanks’ for Taipei. Ultimately, if the Chinese were to attack the island they would have to first secure the approaches from North and South, as the geographic features limit considerable the possible beachhead areas (notwithstanding that Taiwan itself is not toothless).

This is precisely why such a scenario seems unlikely, having previously argued for a Fourth Strait Crisis not too dissimilar with the Third instead of a full fledged attack (most likely sometime after the 20th Party Congress).

The South and AUKUS

Speaking of the US, there has been another development regarding AUKUS, the defence pact involving Australia, the UK and the US. To start with, there has been a leaked image of the upcoming nuclear submarine for Canberra. If confirmed, it would be an evolution of the Collins-class, the conventional submarine currently in service with the Royal Australian Navy. The boat would not only have nuclear propulsion instead of diesel-electric but also have a vertical launch system (VLS), considerably increasing the capabilities of the Australian submarine fleet.

On top of this, officials from the three countries said on April 6 that other areas of interest are in hypersonic missiles and electronic warfare, an area which already had attention in the proposed Australian budget with $AU10 billion allocated to cyber warfare capabilities.

While all these developments will not bear fruit anytime soon, and especially the submarines, it is nonetheless significant. The three countries involved in AUKUS have been allies for a very long time and they will play an increasingly crucial role in years to come, especially as China has been moving its attention in the South Pacific (see ‘The Pacific influence war’ for more).

Conclusion

From North to South, there has been increasing attention to security matters, primarily as a consequence of the Chinese actions (although not exclusively, especially when it comes to South Korea and Japan). Most of them were already ongoing before the war in Ukraine, but the conflict has further accelerated the changes and may potentially lead to increasing tension (as Pelosi’s visit and subsequent Chinese reactions show).

There is however a potential silver lining out of all this: the uptick in activity from Pyongyang is also a potential concern for Beijing, and subsequently it is a potential starting point for meaningful talks. For example, Yoon’s transition team Chairman, Ahn Cheol-soo, met with Chinese Ambassador Xing Haiming and called for China’s cooperation for stability on the Korean Peninsula. This effort may bear no fruit, as several of the previous talks between the West and China, but the South Koreans could appeal to Beijing’s self interest and call the bluff on ‘true multilateralism’.

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