It's a rather new Cold War. New rhetoric, spiraling conflicts and opposing fronts have returned to the panorama of the world. Posing a threat to the region's still fragile peace, a new arms race has begun in the Asia-Pacific.
Japan's new defense policy, which is aimed at countering China's military might, could strain the ties between countries and foster the creation of assorted blocs in the region. The policy calls for a thorough swing from land-based defenses organized to fight invasion attempts to a far more aggressive and contemporary policy of increasing naval and air capacity. The new strategy also appears to fall in line with Washington's attempts to sustain naval dominance the region.
Tensions are gradually escalating as the battle now pretty much seems to have shifted from sustaining the unprecedented levels of economic growth to protecting individual sovereignty of nations and land within their borders. Even as officials in Tokyo claim that the policy is to strengthen the country's defenses, analysts see it as preparations for an inevitable conflict with the neighbors.
For the first time since the Cold War era, Japan made a drastic shift in its strategy by entirely focusing on China and North Korea as threats, leaving out Russia. The review, released on Friday, calls for bolstering troops on its Southern Islands, increasing the country's submarine fleet, upgrade fighter jets, and strengthening its defenses to counter possible ballistic missiles threat from North Korea. It maintained that the defense capabilities should be used 'more proactively.'
We will build a dynamic defense force backed by sophisticated technologies and intelligence, with readiness, mobility, flexibility, sustainability and multiple disciplines, it said.
The 10-year policy approved by the Cabinet calls for the focus of the Tokyo to be shifted away from the forces deployed in Hokkaido to the north to counter the Soviet Union during the Cold War by scaling down the defenses. It urged increased maritime capabilities in the south west islands of Nansei and Senkaku/Diaoyu near China. The number of Maritime Self-Defense Force submarines will be increased from 16 to 22 along with warships. China's vital shipping routes could be cut off with the increased military activity.
The defense policy complained that the communist China is 'rapidly modernizing' its armed forces while 'expanding activities in its neighboring waters'.
Together with the lack of transparency on China's military and security issues, the trend is a concern for the region and the international community, it stated.
The remarks as seen as Prime Minister Naoto Kan's attempts to fight criticism on his rather feeble approach on Beijing's recent military activity near the isles of East China sea and win back public support. Kan had suffered both domestic and international setbacks in the recent months, with approval ratings plunging to a record low since he took office. Senior politicians from the ruling Democratic Party of Japan and the Social Democratic Party have already warned that the new policy guidelines would worsen the situation in the region.
The disputed, yet uninhabited islands in the East China Sea are claimed as a sovereign territory by China and Japan. China calls the region as Diaoyu while Japan refers to it as Senkaku islands. Surrounding the islands lie rich fishing grounds and huge deposits of gas and oil reserves. In the recent months both countries have bolstered defenses in the region escalating new set of tensions.
Japan's new policy documents also emphasizes on affirmative action against the increasingly belligerent North Korea. Citing the 'changes in global power balance' it sought to develop stronger ties with the United States, South Korea, Australia, India, the European Union and NATO. Analysts feel that the policy hints at the creation of a new bloc in the region to counter the China-North Korea-Russia alliance.
Japan's lawmakers who consistently resisted the presence of the 50,000-strong US troops in the country have in recent weeks, agreed to pay them $2.2 billion (188 billion yen) for their presence which is a deterrent for security threats from the neighbors. A total of 23.49 trillion yen ($283 billion) has been allocated as the country's defense budget for the next five years.
Tokyo recently urged Australia to train its military personnel and sought to strengthen bilateral logistic support to the armed forces. Both countries have also reportedly agreed on intelligence-sharing over China's military activity. Classified documents leaked by whistle-blower site Wikileaks also mention that Australia told the US diplomats to be prepared to 'use force' against China. The documents exposed that a dozen attack submarines were being procured to strengthen Australia's navy as a response to China's growing ability to project force.
South Korea, which suffered attacks from the North recently, is also planning to acquire more self-propelled artillery and fighter-bombers from a defense budget of approximately $27 billion. Seoul maintains that the new arsenal will help them prevent possible strikes from Pyongyang which is backed by the communist regime in Beijing.
According to a recent report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), North Korea's forces are divided into 950,000 Army, 46,000 Navy, 110,000 Air and 189,000 Paramilitary units. Spending more than 25 per cent of its Gross National Product (GNP), the state has reportedly developed notably, one of the largest special operations forces in the Asia Pacific region. Adding strength to the forces is its accessibility to road-mobile ballistic missiles with a projected range of 3,000 to 4,000 kilometers and reportedly the latest versions of the No-dong ballistic missile. Naval forces of the South also face peril of being overpowered by the North, which has an estimated 700 units and close to 70 submarines.
Meanwhile, Chinese officials have also admitted to have been working on a conventional-powered aircraft carrier building program to strengthen its maritime units. The project is expected to be complete by 2014, a year before the earlier proposed date. Nuclear-powered aircraft carriers are likely to hit the seas around China by 2020. China's defense budget that that witnessed a sharp increase over the past five years is aimed at bolstering naval units to counter threats from Japan, South Korea and the United States. Beijing regards US-led naval manoeuvres as a threat to the region's stability. Recent Pentagon reports suggest that the country's total annual military spending amounts to $150 bn approximately.
For the moment, Obama administration's aggressive initiatives pressurizing Japan to assume greater responsibility in the Asia-Pacific region seem to be undermining the Chinese influence. Unlike the expansion of military technical superiority as a basis for deterring conflict, stronger diplomatic ties and mutual economic exchange could help soothe the ailing relations. Even the contest of flaunting military might would certainly be of greater concern to the stability of the region.