PacNet #9 – A New Space Race? The Meaning Behind Japan’s New Plans

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This article originally appeared at East Asia Forum and is reprinted with permission.

During the new session of parliament in January this year Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo reiterated his pledge to utilize outer space to guarantee national security. Only last year, Abe confirmed that a unit responsible for space operations will be established inside the Air Self-Defense Force (SDF) by the start of fiscal year 2020.

The announcements triggered media attention and concerns in some overseas capitals, but Japan’s outer space ambitions are not new. Neither do the announcements imply that the country is about to enter the space race heating up between the United States, China, and Russia. Japan is still legally restricted when it comes to space activities and capabilities.

Based on Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, a 1969 parliamentary resolution states that Japanese use of outer space should be only for “peaceful purposes.” This meant that space activities could be conducted only by the civilian sector and for the development of civilian technologies.

In 1998, after North Korea launched its Taepodong-1 missile over Japanese airspace, Japan started an Information Gathering Satellite (IGS) program to monitor Pyongyang. The Japanese government denied violating the 1969 resolution, asserting that multifunction IGSs were dedicated to supporting the exclusively defensive duties of the SDF. The term “peaceful purposes” gradually reinterpreted from its original meaning of “non-military” to “non-offensive.”

In the mid-2000s—as the Six-Party Talks on North Korean nuclear weapons between the United States, Japan, South Korea, North Korea, China, and Russia stalled—the Japanese government sought a legal revision. In 2008, the parliament approved a new law that permitted space activities “to increase the national security of Japan.” This opened the door to the development of early warning and military grade intelligence satellites. But the use of space is still only permitted today through non-offensive means.

Japan currently possesses five radar IGSs, two optical IGSs and plans to develop a constellation of eight satellites of both types plus two relay satellites. Tokyo has also begun deploying military communications satellites. In 2017, Kirameki-2 was put into orbit over the Indian Ocean, Kirameki-1 was launched over the Pacific Ocean in 2018 and Kirameki-3—with a planned orbit over Japan—will be launched this year. Japan is developing its own Global Positioning System (GPS), the Quasi-Zenith Satellite System (QZSS). Four Michibiki satellites are now in orbit and another three are scheduled to be launched by fiscal year 2023.

The objective of Japan’s space strategy is to ensure it maintains in all circumstances the ability to use space-based assets for the combined operations of the SDF. This will tackle the threat posed by anti-satellite (ASATs) weapons and space debris. According to a 2019 report by the Japanese Ministry of Defense, the main dangers are Chinese and Russian ASATs, including ground- and aircraft-launched ballistic missiles, “killer satellites,” laser weapons, and jammers.

Defending satellites is the primary mission of Japan’s new space unit. The National Defense Program Guidelines released in December 2018 suggest its role is to conduct “persistent monitoring of situations in space, and to ensure superiority in use of space at all stages from peacetime to armed contingencies.” The Space Domain Mission Unit, to be based at Fuchu Air Base near Tokyo and initially staffed with about 20 personnel, will become fully operational in 2022.

It will cooperate with US Space Command, established by US President Donald Trump last year.

Protecting Japanese satellites requires an in-depth monitoring of space, thus Space Situational Awareness (SSA) space-based optical telescopes and ground-based laser ranging devices will also be deployed. Japan’s SSA capabilities are expected to be connected to US forces in two years. Another dimension of US-Japan cooperation is related to QZSS, as the system is compatible with the US GPS and explicitly dedicated to complementing it in the Asia Pacific.

Japan’s space strategy is almost purely defensive in the sense that it aims to protect against the elimination of space-based assets, which would blind and paralyze the SDF and leave the country vulnerable. Due to legal, political, and budget constraints, Japan is not militarizing outer space beyond what is necessary to guarantee the proper functioning of the SDF. In other words, Japan is not on the verge of playing a remake of Star Wars.

But this does not mean that Japan’s space program has no offensive dimension. First, one of its stated goals is to build “the capability to disrupt C4I (command, control, communication, computer, and intelligence) of opponents in collaboration with the electromagnetic domain.” The future development of Japan’s own ASATs cannot be ruled out. This would certainly trigger domestic debates over their constitutionality as ASATs could arguably violate the non-offensive principle.

Second, Japan’s space-based information gathering and positioning capabilities are key to allowing the SDF to strike targets with precision, for example using the Joint Strike Missile or Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile. It is no secret that some in Japan are seeking the capacity to destroy North Korean missile launch pads and vehicles. And to strike, one must first see.

Lionel Fatton is Assistant Professor of International Relations at Webster University, Geneva. He is also a Research Collaborator at the Research Institute for the History of Global Arms Transfer, Meiji University, Tokyo, and an Adjunct Fellow at the Charhar Institute, Beijing.

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YL Blog #19 – GSOMIA vs. TISA: What is the Big Deal?



South Korea’s announcement to end the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) with Japan on August 22 marks the lowest of bilateral relations. Following the decision, Japan’s removal of South Korea (Republic of Korea, or ROK) from its whitelist of preferred trading partners took effect on August 28, for the first time since 2004. ROK also officially ousted Japan from its whitelist on September 18, signaling unyielding bilateral tensions.

While the United States (U.S.) has been encouraging ROK to reconsider its decision before the GSOMIA formally expires in November, prospects are grim. For instance, after North Korea launched ballistic missiles on September 10, the two countries did not utilize GSOMIA to share military intelligence. International media publicity regarding the potential termination of GSOMIA has also been gaining increasingly less public traction with time (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Number of Newspaper Articles on GSOMIA (in English, from July 1 – October 16, 2019) 

In weighing the benefits and costs of GSOMIA, many experts and scholars turn to the Trilateral Intelligence Sharing Arrangement (TISA) as its substitute. TISA, signed in late December 2014, enables both Japan and South Korea to access military information on North Korea through the U.S. Meanwhile, GSOMIA—the first military agreement between Japan and ROK since 1945—was signed in November 2016 to allow the two nations to directly exchange military intelligence. Since GSOMIA, “TISA has not been activated very much.”

The question, then, is whether TISA could serve as an adequate alternative for GSOMIA. The next sections provide a brief overview of both Japanese and South Korean perspectives on the issue in reference to the conference proceedings at the U.S.-ROK-Japan Trilateral Dialogue in Maui (hosted by Pacific Forum) in September.

Japan’s Perspective:

Operational Significance of GSOMIA: Is Military Intelligence Cooperation with ROK Really Necessary?

The view of GSOMIA’s operational value varies among Japanese intellectuals. Proponents support the extension of GSOMIA pointing the importance of comprehensive intelligence collection. For example, in the case of North Korea’s missile launch, ROK is in a better position to attain more accurate data of the boost phase in addition to detect signs of a launch from suspicious activities of personnel and vehicles. Furthermore, HUMINT collected by ROK claimed to be valuable by some government officials and experts. These types of information combined with U.S. intelligence such as gathered by Early Warning Radar will supplement each other and enable extensive and multifaceted analysis on DPRK’s military activities.

On the other hand, some experts question the value of GSOMIA arguing the alternative use of TISA and the superiority of Japanese intelligence capability. Japan currently has seven ISR satellites in operation, six Aegis BMD-capable vessels and four ground-based radars in addition to maritime patrol aircrafts and Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft. Some claim Japan has sufficient intelligence capabilities without relying on information from ROK which possesses much fewer equipment and assets related to intelligence collection activities.  Moreover, some argue Japan could achieve necessary information exchange through TISA instead of GSOMIA.

However, intelligence analysis based on information obtained only by Japan and the U.S. might overlook some important observables and fail to attain comprehensive picture. Also, as discussed in the section above, TISA cannot ensure timely and comprehensive intelligence sharing like GSOMIA. Thus, even though Japan has better ISR capability and TISA will partially facilitate information sharing with ROK, comprehensive intelligence sharing under GSOMIA is an effective countermeasure for Japanese government to address new regional challenges not only limited to the DPRK’s missiles and nuclear programs but also including the threats from China and Russia.

South Korea’s Perspective:

90-Day Window Until the Final Deadline: Time Won, or Time Lost for South Korea?

The domestic political divide is reflected in the way South Korean officials and intellectuals evaluate GSOMIA, its military value and strategic implications. Those who stand in favor of the Moon administration’s decision to end GSOMIA view it as a diplomatic card against Japan amidst continued bilateral trade disputes. They advocate ROK’s maintenance of “strategic ambiguity” throughout the 90-day window between the government’s announcement to end GSOMIA in August and the deadline to renew it in November. By neither confirming nor denying its withdrawal from GSOMIA, proponents believe that ROK can utilize the time to effectively weigh its costs and benefits.

With regard to GSOMIA’s military significance, advocates of the government decision claim that TISA is a valid alternative as an intelligence-sharing mechanism between Japan and ROK. They argue that TISA is reliable since it had been utilized in the past prior to the enactment of GSOMIA, and because “the [same] level of confidential military information” is shared by TISA and GSOMIA. More active supporters consider GSOMIA as a biased agreement since it provides Tokyo easier access to Seoul’s information on early detection of North Korean missile and nuclear threats. By splitting the U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral alliance into two individual and competitive hubs-and-spokes, they suggest that Washington’s strong encouragement toward the renewal of GSOMIA may raise Seoul’s suspicion of its impartiality in addressing the two regional allies.

Perhaps the Moon administration’s announcement to withdraw from GSOMIA and its maintenance of “strategic ambiguity” throughout the three-month window following it are more strategically driven than they may seem. According to a survey conducted in late August, 54.9 percent of the South Korean public supported the decision end GSOMIA, showing a 7.9 percent point increase since earlier survey results. From the respondents, only 38.4 percent opposed the government decision. With continued Japanese boycotts in South Korea, public support is increasingly shifting towards GSOMIA’s termination.

However, time itself is a double-edged sword. While the administration has bought time to waver between renewal of and withdrawal from GSOMIA, prospects for reconciliation with Japan have further dimmed. As the deadline to renew the agreement approaches, ROK will have to arrive at a decision that will have lasting consequences on the U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral alliance. In addition, time will be paid later if ROK decides not to renew GSOMIA. TISA will slow down the intelligence-sharing process for both Japan and the ROK with the U.S. as an intermediary source of information. Most importantly, once terminated, it may take decades before an agreement such as GSOMIA is re-enacted between the two countries.

Conclusion: GSOMIA vs. TISA

Overall, while TISA may function as a substitute to GSOMIA, it is more likely to hinder swift intelligence exchange and effective coordination for three reasons.

First, unlike GSOMIA, information sharing under TISA is limited to North Korea’s nuclear and missile activities. This limited focus weakens both Japan and ROK’s capabilities in addressing new regional challenges, such as North Korea’s SLBM. For instance, on October 2, DPRK launched the Pukguksong-3 into Japan’s exclusive economic zone.

Secondly, TISA provides lower intelligence confidentiality than GSOMIA. Under GSOMIA, Japan and ROK exchange information that is both confidential and legally binding. In contrast, under TISA, either Japan or ROK can reject the counterpart’s request for military intelligence if it detects the risk of information leakage. The issue of confidentiality, then, inevitably influences the two nations’ willingness to share information and especially valuable information.

Finally, information sharing between Japan and ROK through TISA will be operationally inefficient due to delays in information exchange. GSOMIA reduces this operational cost and facilitates swift coordination in intelligence gathering amongst the U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral alliance.

During the U.S.-ROK-Japan Trilateral Dialogue in Maui, both South Korean and Japanese representatives—regardless of their respective political standing—either indirectly or directly suggested the need for continued bilateral cooperation. For instance, many South Korean participants inferred that the government would renew GSOMIA in so far as Japan initiates the reconciliation process. Japanese participants also showed willingness to share classified information with ROK through GSOMIA prior to receiving a formal request from Seoul.

Hence, what is necessary for the two parties at this time is mutual dialogue, which has been hindered by respective national pride. Deterrence against regional security threats require a cooperative effort based on a stable U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral alliance; the termination of GSOMIA should be reconsidered before it is too late to nullify the decision.

Disclaimer: All opinions in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent any organization.

YL Blog #17 – Reflections on the Indo-Pacific and the Demise of the INF: Challenges and Opportunities


In July, I joined a gathering of analysts, researchers and government figures from the United States and allied states within the Indo-Pacific at the Centre for Global Security Research (CGSR) in Livermore, California, to discuss the demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Washington’s decision to withdraw from the Treaty, which restricted the deployment of ground-launched missiles with ranges of between 500 and 5500km, was motivated predominantly by Russia’s non-compliance. However, the biggest strategic dividends for the US could be reaped in the Indo-Pacific, where the US is seeking to refresh its regional posture and strategy in response to China’s growing anti-access/area denial (A2AD) and power projection capabilities, particularly its sizeable arsenal of land-based short-, medium- and intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles — over 90 percent of which are of an INF range. For the US, fielding its own missile systems represents one of several ways to begin correcting the perceived military imbalance with China. Indeed, Washington plans to test and develop a new ballistic missile with a range of 3000-4000km, and also recently tested a new ground-launched cruise missile with a range exceeding 500km, which could be ready for deployment as early as 2021.

Discussions at CGSR raised many issues worthy of consideration and elaboration. While it is impossible to capture all of them within this report, and with recent developments in mind, five key takeaways stand out. Firstly, theatre-range missiles may have great deterrent and operational value, but are perhaps more important in that they may pose problems for China’s overall strategy in tandem with other capabilities. Secondly, US allies are reluctant to host American missile systems not because they are unwilling to assume strategic risk, but because of domestic political considerations and the likelihood of Chinese economic and/or political punishment. Thirdly, the end of the INF Treaty offers opportunities for the US and its allies to collaborate on missile research and development (R&D). Doing so could simultaneously fill existing gaps in their force respective structures and contribute to the development of a strategy of collective or federated defense. Fourthly, introducing new missiles into Asia to counter China could conceivably undercut diplomacy with North Korea if these conflicting strategic priorities are not reconciled. Finally, there is the question of how exactly China will respond to missile proliferation in Asia.

Targeting China’s Strategy

Rather than simply quantitatively matching China’s missile forces, introducing new missiles into the Indo-Pacific should be done with the aim of qualitatively undermining its overall strategy. Conventionally armed INF-range missiles are not a silver bullet for America’s strategic dilemmas in the region, but would nevertheless bolster deterrence and provide alternative credible strike options to existing air- and sea-launched missiles. The INF Treaty constrained the US military’s ability to threaten the Chinese interior, allowing Beijing to invest heavily in power projection rather than defensive systems. Now, the growing quality, range and size of China’s missile inventory threatens not only US regional bases and access points, but also its key surface power projection capabilities, and US forces arriving from outside the region would have to “fight to get to the fight” in the event of conflict. Leading thinkers have highlighted the pressing need to redefine US power projection capabilities within the Indo-Pacific to respond to the challenges posed by Chinese forces, and to deter Beijing from pursuing a fait accompli in the South China Sea, East China Sea or over Taiwan. The logic goes that systems like INF-range missiles should be employed to try and produce uncertainties in China’s operational and strategic calculi, and shore-up US-led regional deterrence in the process. 

Four potential missions for ground-launched IRBMs were canvassed in discussions at CGSR. Firstly, they could be used to suppress Chinese airpower by targeting major airfields and communications facilities in a hypothetical conflict. Secondly, they could serve a counter-value targeting role, putting select People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) assets and/or locations under pressure, particularly if coupled with credible loitering munitions. Thirdly, the missiles could fulfil a long-range sniping role, disrupting operations or destroying assets at critical moments, creating opportunities for US or allied forces to exploit. Finally, they could be used as a broader suppressant, providing cover for other military assets to operate under — much as PLA forces would rely on their own missile forces to do the same.

Of course, considering missiles in the Indo-Pacific beggars the question of ‘how much is enough?’, and the answer will likely depend on the role(s) these capabilities are expected to play. Matching China’s missile inventory one-for-one is neither cost effective nor suited to broader US operational doctrine or regional strategy. Rather, the challenge is to figure out how INF-range systems most effectively complement existing and planned US force structure to maximize their operational and strategic value, in the interests of undermining China’s overall strategy. While unlikely to voluntarily relinquish or restrict its missile forces under present circumstances, forcing changes in China’s military spending, strategy and even appetite for arms control diplomacy should remain the primary motivator for leveraging new US missile capabilities in the region.

The Challenges of Basing

To do that, of course, these systems will need to be based appropriately. Such is the geography of the Indo-Pacific, however, that the US there are relatively few locations for the US to field missile systems on its own territory, and it enjoys only minimal strategic depth compared to China. While INF-range missiles could conceivably be deployed to US Pacific territories in order to range the Chinese mainland, that could result in the putting of too many strategic eggs in too few baskets, creating a small number of geographically concentrated high-value targets in a conflict. US military planners fully expect present bases along the first island chain as well as those as far afield as Guam to be primary targets for the PLARF in a future conflict scenario, and are thus seeking alternative wartime operating locations across allied and its own Pacific territories. Northern Australia, for example, could provide an alternative basing location for ground-launched IRBMs that could range the South China Sea, or even the Chinese mainland with the right payload. Shorter-ranged GLCMs would indeed undoubtedly need to be deployed to allied territories in order to threaten sea- or land-based PLA targets. 

However, securing missile hosting agreements with allies would require a significant investment of political capital, a commodity which the Trump administration has all but expended. In addition, allied governments may be unwilling to squander their own domestic capital in attempting to convince their own publics of the strategic benefits of hosting such assets. The concern is that if mishandled, US missile deployments could become another point of friction between America and its regional allies — and another point of leverage for China. Indeed, for allies to accept such deployments could invite Chinese retaliation. Though they would not necessarily be assuming greater strategic risk by hosting US missile systems, allied governments are far more concerned about potential short- to mid-term economic or political punishment from Beijing. Chinese officials have stated in no uncertain terms that allies that agree to host US missiles should be prepared to pay an unspecified ‘price’ for their actions. Recent history suggests what that ‘price’ may look like. In 2017, for example, it unofficially sanctioned South Korean companies in response to the deployment of the US Terminal High-Altitude Air Defense (THAAD). Even after Seoul agreed to limit military cooperation with Japan and the US as well as cap further THAAD deployments, China only lifted these sanctions entirely in May this year

It is perhaps unsurprising therefore, that when Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently visited the region to canvas a range of strategic issues with allies, including potential missile deployments, both South Korea and Australia — which has also suffered the political and economic consequences of Beijing’s displeasure — stated somewhat preemptively that they would not host US missiles. A policy whereby US missile systems are periodically rotated between allies could provide a compromise of sorts, but China is unlikely to acknowledge the nuance in that sort of deployment, and would likely continue to leverage its economic largesse over smaller US allies. Allies’ receptiveness to hosting missiles could certainly change rapidly in the event of a conflict, but by then it could be too late or too difficult to deploy. After all, time is of the essence if the US and its allies are to prevent a Chinese fait accompli. 

Building Collective Defense

Considering the above, rather than hosting US missiles, it may well be more politically and operationally viable for allies to develop field their own. To do so, they could deepen collaborative R&D with the US and other regional partners on relevant technologies such as hypersonic missiles and sensors. That approach would be consistent with recommendations that the US and its allies pursue strategies of ‘federated defense‘ and/or collective defense in the Indo-Pacific in the interests of equitable and sustainable burden-sharing. Indeed, a recently released report from the United States Studies Center, on which I worked extensively, detailed not only the scale of China’s military challenge to the US, but the equally serious and enduring budgetary, capability and readiness challenges it faces now and in the future. It is therefore in allies’ interests not only to help offset these pressures by improving their strategic self-sufficiency, but to simultaneously think more regionally about their strategic futures and to share in the costs of defending regional order.

Rather than simply fulfilling US strategic imperatives by hosting American missile systems, co-developing or sharing missile technology with and between partners could help the US and its allies fulfil their individual strategic needs, enhance burden-sharing efforts, and contribute to long-term collective defense. Both Australia and Japan, for example, are presently seeking to fill their own long-range strike gaps, and could each benefit from working together and with the US to develop and field these systems. In terms of collective strategic planning, agreeing upon an appropriate operational division of labor between the US and its allies — for example, the targeting of fixed versus stationary targets, or distributing strike versus ISR capabilities — could also benefit the capability-cost equation for all parties. Nonetheless, while it might be tempting for states to see missiles as the silver bullet to countering China’s regional strategy, they will not uniformly fulfil the individual strategic needs of different regional partners. The long lead-times and significant costs of developing ground-launched missile systems, the varying appetites between states for political and strategic risk, and simple geography will motivate different states to pursue different capabilities to varying degrees. Partnering with the US to develop and deploy these systems is an appealing way for allies to secure a qualitative edge and the keep the America ‘in the region’, but allies should attempt to strike a balance between alliance interoperability and independent capability wherever possible.

North Korea and US Grand Strategy in Asia

While much of the discussion around theatre-range missiles in Asia centers around China, the US has yet to address the disconnect between strengthening its military posture vis-á-vis China with diplomacy and trust-building efforts with North Korea. It is not entirely clear how or where North Korea fits into the United States’ Indo-Pacific Strategy — in fact, it has arguably been compartmentalized from wider regional policy, seemingly ignoring geographic and geostrategic realities. Under the Trump administration, North Korea policy is conducted in a strategic vacuum quite apart from the wider ‘Asia Chessboard’. This could be problematic when it comes to fielding new missiles across the region. 

Diplomacy itself is not the issue, but the US President’s apparent willingness to consider offering strategic concessions to Pyongyang could become one if these gestures stand to undercut wider regional security objectives. Indeed, it is not difficult to see how the Trump-Kim “bromance” could complicate the introduction of new ground-launched missile systems into the region — North Korean State Media has already warned against doing so. Supposing that Pyongyang continues to tie incremental denuclearization to so-called ‘reciprocal measures’, including strategic concessions, the chances that it would allow the US to deploy missiles in Asia, it is difficult to see the US being able to field a missile system in the Indo-Pacific that can range both China and North Korea without some kind of setback in talks on the Peninsula. The other elephant in the room is the US President himself. In fact, new missiles in Asia could be just as unpalatable to Trump as they would be to his “good friend” Kim Jong-un. There is every reason to believe that Trump would side with Kim, criticizing such deployments as another example of allied free-riding and completely overlooking their value vis-á-vis Beijing.

Unlike the Trump administration, analysts and government officials across the wider region are realistic about the limited prospects for North Korea disarming, and recognize that it will continue to pose a serious threat for the foreseeable future. A thorough arms control model to “quantitatively and qualitatively limit, rather than eliminate,” North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities should is a realistic goal to set in dialogue with Pyongyang. Furthermore, Commander of US Forces Korea General Abrams has stated that even in the event of denuclearization, North Korea’s conventional capabilities would justify an ongoing US presence on the Peninsula. For the US government to accept those assessments would allow it to reconcile and de-conflict its strategic objectives regarding China and North Korea respectively: in other words, INF-range missiles in Asia would be serving as a deterrent to both of those threats. In any case, discussions over new missile systems in the Indo-Pacific cannot occur in a ‘China vacuum’ that ignores the potential for North Korea or President Trump to complicate regional strategy.

China’s Possible Reactions

Finally, there is the question of how China might react to new missile systems in the region. China could double down on its power projection strategy, accelerating the development and production of new and existing missile models. This would reinforce existing operational problems for the US, though would not necessarily offset the vulnerabilities exposed by US theatre-range missiles. China could also pursue new offensive capabilities to augment its current strategy, and attempt to create new problems for US freedom of action in a regional conflict. As the aforementioned USSC report details, China has rapidly modernized its air and naval forces in parallel with the development of its missile forces which, alongside the PLARF, will pose increasingly significant challenges to their US counterparts, perhaps even contesting America’s primacy in critical domains in which it has traditionally enjoyed near-complete dominance.

On the other hand, introducing conventional IRBMs into the Indo-Pacific could also put China on the defensive. Beijing may feel compelled to divert funding to defensive measures in the face of a new US or allied missile threat, specifically missile defense and ISR capabilities, which it has until now been able to avoid thanks to US compliance with the INF Treaty. Beijing might also feel pressured to pursue a new arms control reduction treaty with the US, Russia and other missile-capable states. This, however, is highly unlikely given the centrality of missiles to China’s power projection strategy and the significant advantage which they presently confer. Beijing is unlikely to see ground-based INF-range missiles as a game-changer in the region, but rather a multiplication and diversification of a preexisting capability (namely, air- and sea-launched missiles). All the same, as a threshold Great Power with few allies in a region fraught with risk, Beijing may not be able to avoid arms control negotiations forever, and it is in the region’s collective interest to prevent arms proliferation from spiraling out of control. 

For now, however, the prospects for diplomacy look bleak. As the US and its allies adjust to the region’s shifting landscape and prepare for an uncertain strategic future, ground-based intermediate-range missiles are likely just the beginning. 

Disclaimer: All opinions in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent any organization.

YL Blog #16: Fostering Trust and Dialogue to Manage US-China Strategic Competition


Early this month, the US Department of Defense released its Indo-Pacific Strategy Report. In the said document, the DOD stressed the primacy of the Indo-Pacific Region in terms of priority level and citing inter-state strategic competition with China’s as the chief concern for US national security. This view about China is shared by the analysts and strategists, at least on the US side, who attended the recently-concluded 11th US-China Strategic Dialogue held at Lahaina, Maui on 17-18 June 2019.

For outside observers, this perspective is understandable. On the military front, China has undergone massive military modernization, upgraded its nuclear capability, fortified its assets in the artificial islands in the South China Sea it occupied to the point where some experts believe that these man-made facilities can now be capable of serving as offensive and defensive bases for China in the Pacific, heightening security risk for the US and its allies who view China’s military rise as threatening. The Chinese government has also used its economic clout to gain political advantage, providing loans to least developed and developing countries to build their infrastructure, primarily through “the Belt and the Road” Initiative, and using predatory economic practices to coerce these nations to support China’s interests, to the detriment of the US and other nations.   

The explicit articulation of the geopolitical rivalry between the US and China in official documents is a major concern expressed by the representatives from the Chinese side during the Dialogue. The change of perception about China being a “strategic competitor” instead of a partner for cooperation has led to the worsening of the relationship between the two countries. China has always forwarded, and it is a view that is consistently articulated by Chinese practitioners in Tracks I, II, and III, its policy of peaceful development where it does not seek absolute security for itself, but common sustainable comprehensive security for all.

The problem with this claim, however, goes back to a point that is repeatedly brought about during the Dialogue, that of the inability of China to provide reasonable assurance in face of facts to the contrary. The Chinese side always insist on the purity of its intention and the US side remaining unconvinced, just as what we have seen during the Dialogue. Chinese representatives kept on harboring that it does not intend to use its nuclear force against the US, for example. It begs the question then if it is not meant for the US, then whose actor/s are they targeted on. Because of the US commitment with its allies in the Region, China’s nuclear program is of particular interest. 

China, on the other hand, is increasingly concerned with the US’s use and deployment of more low-yield nuclear weapons, a strategy noted in the 2018 US Nuclear Policy Review. They fear that because low-yield missiles create lower collateral damage and are equipped with better navigation system and mobility, the risk of such weapon being activated is higher compared with high-yield bombs. Deployment of these missiles therefore exacerbate the security situation in the Region.    

This element of distrust is exacerbated by asymmetric information, wherein both sides are second guessing each other in the absence of formal dialogues at the high-level to discuss pertinent issues, especially in relation to military and nuclear capabilities and strategy. In the absence of complete information, the tendency for both sides is to prepare for the worst case scenario, which might lead each party to assume that the other is carrying more arsenal than it has in reality. Arms build-up is the natural recourse, which further breeds insecurity not only between the two countries, but also within the region and outside of it. 

The importance of maintaining communications and transparency, especially at the high-level, is very important to help resolve information asymmetry and arms build-up. Both sides, however, are currently at an official deadlock, with only Track 1.5-2 levels like Pacific Forum providing platforms for dialogues. While these kinds of talks create an avenue to exchange views and sides, it cannot displace Track I in terms of informing and directing policies and interventions at the State-level. 

The reasons behind the non-existence of official talks, especially now at a time when such dialogues are necessary and when situation is not at its worst, have to be addressed. The representatives from the Chinese side during the recently-concluded US-China Strategic Dialogue offered some areas that the US can work on. First is in the matter of agenda. The Chinese representatives noted the tendency of the Americans to include other sensitive topics, sometimes at the last minute, that derail talks from happening in the first place. There is also the issue of venue and visa issues, which prevents or limits the participation of some experts due to travel bans or sanctions imposed on some vital organizations to the talk. Another sticking issue is the prevailing perception on the Chinese side that the US is not sincere in its offer for talks. An example that was cited during the Dialogue is when the US invited China to be part of the New START, knowing full hand that statistics wise, it cannot be an effective party to such agreements.  

When in talks with the Chinese, one almost cannot escape hearing references to great Chinese thinkers. To understand the Chinese psyche is something that every negotiator should also consider. China has always aspired to realize the “Chinese Dream” – a grand process of national resurgence that will return China to the position of global centrality it enjoyed before it suffered from a “century of humiliation” at the hands of the West and Japan. It views Asia as its Region and will always try to assert itself as the main regional power in Asia. 

It will be very difficult for the US to force its ideology on China given “historical hurts” and current regional ambitions. The best recourse is therefore to endeavor to open up official dialogues and mitigate the problem of asymmetric information. This will help prevent militarization of the Region and minimize the likelihood of “accidents” that can de-escalate the current situation into a full-blown crisis and confrontation. It is in the interest not only of the two countries for such talks to exist, but also the rest of the players, big and small, whose very existence might be placed in jeopardy because of competition between the US and China, who both ironically, claim to be the main arbiter of peace and security in Asia and the Indo-Pacific.

Andrea Caymo (PH) is the Vice Consul and Economic Officer of the Philippine Consulate General in Honolulu.

Disclaimer: All opinions in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent any organization.