East Asia militarizes even as cooperation deepens

As a result of North Korea’s nuclear ambition, the country has been the chief factor pushing the growth of military strength in South Korea and Japan.

The Cheonan incident and the exchange of fire between the two Koreas last year led to a sharp increase in military investment by both South Korea and Japan. Sino-US military relations are also changing, and the whole military situation of Northeast Asia is shifting.

During the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union confronted each other on the Korean Peninsula for nearly half a century and the military situation in Northeast Asia was stable. With the US-Soviet confrontation coming to an end after the Cold War, military situation in Northeast Asia changed.

In the early post-Cold War period, although the focus of military deployment by Japan continued to its southwest and Japan developed its military strength with China as the “imaginary enemy,” the military situation changed little.  

US overseas military operations focused on the Middle East and Central Asia. South Korea still “tolerated” the North Korean military buildup. Russia put NATO issues first. And China was focusing on economic development. The Six-Party Talks basically maintained the stability of the regional security situation of Northeast Asia.

Today, the military situation in Northeast Asia is going through a second round of adjustment.

The most prominent is the closer relationship between Japan and South Korea. On January 10, South Korea and Japan agreed to strengthen mutual security and defense cooperation, and decided to take turns to host talks between ministers of defense and vice-ministerial level talks each year, as well as signing two new military agreements.

Meanwhile, Sino-US military relations are also being adjusted. Chen Bingde, Chief of the General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China is scheduled to visit the US in the first half of this year, following up on the visit of US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and negotiations will begin on cooperation in non-traditional security fields, including counter-terrorism, peacekeeping, escort, and humanitarian relief.

This suggests that the Sino-US military relationship has begun to recover and Northeast Asian security will be a shared concern for the two countries.

However, the Russia-US and Russia-Japan military relationships are worsening. In December 2010, when US-Japan joint military exercises were being held, the Russians sent Il-38 fighters to the exercise area, and the US-Japan joint military exercises were suspended.

In November 2010, before Russian President Dimtry Medvedev visited Japan, Russian military aircraft flew around the Japanese archipelago.

Relationships between North and South Korea have clearly deteriorated. South Korea’s defense white paper made it clear that North Korea is the “enemy,” a phrase that has not appeared for many years. Japan also lists North Korea as one of its military targets.

Everyone is building up its military strength in Northeast Asia.

Currently, the US is increasing its military efforts in the East Asian region. According to British media reports, the US plans to invest $12.6 billion in the expansion of military facilities in Guam, the largest single investment of US military in military facilities construction in the Western Pacific since World War II. Guam will become the largest military base in the Western Pacific region.

Meanwhile, the Japanese government’s new “Interim Defense Force Readiness Plan” proposes that in the next five years, the investment in the construction of Japan’s defense forces will reach $276 billion. South Korea has also increased military investment.

In addition to large-scale military exercises with the US, the South Korean army has increased its own military exercises. Russia also plans to hold the largest military exercises ever in its Far Eastern region. China has unveiled new weapons and equipment.

The military situation in Northeast Asia is quietly changing. The US and China are the most influential, the influence of Japan and South Korea is on the rise and Russia’s influence is declining.

The shock of the Korean Peninsula incidents last year means that the whole military structure in East Asia will be restructured.

The author is a professor at the National Defense University. forum@globaltimes.com.cn

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