Indo-Pacific Arms Race The U.S. and China Face Off in the Far East

Chinese warplanes over the Taiwan Strait, nuclear-powered submarines for Australia, hypersonic rockets in North Korea: Military posturing has turned the Far East into a dangerous place.
A late September airshow in the Chinese city of Zhuhai.

A late September airshow in the Chinese city of Zhuhai.

Foto: Alex Plavevski / epa

First come the strains of the "Internationale,” and then the roar of the fighter jets. Six warplanes circle above the southern Chinese port city of Zhuhai before individual fighters break off from the group. One climbs upwards and flips upside down, two others swoop below. With the red, yellow and blue smoke shooting out of their tails, they draw fantastic patterns in the sky, the thunder of their engines mixing with the military band and the shouts of onlookers.

On the roof of a building at the edge of the airfield sits a glass enclosure in the baking hot midday sun. Inside are two men in uniform talking about the show outside. Only Russia and the U.S., they say, possess comparable fighter jets of their own production. "It shows the power of a vast country,” one of them says.

It is October 1, China’s National Day. Normally, the Zhuhai Airshow takes place every two years, but because of the pandemic, last year’s show was postponed. The spectacle is a powerful demonstration of the achievements of China’s arms industry – the perfect stage for the message that China’s deputy air force commander, Wang Wei, wants to send. In Washington, he says, they claim they need to invest more money to "scare” China. Wang’s response from Zhuhai: "If they are not scared of us, let us meet in the sky.”

DER SPIEGEL 42/2021

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 42/2021 (October 16th, 2021) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

The Zhuhai airfield is right on the coast. Across the runway, there is a view of the South China Sea, part of the Western Pacific, which reaches from Hawaii to Singapore and from Kamchatka to Australia. Politicians and military leaders have taken to referring to the region as the Indo-Pacific, which also includes the Indian Ocean.

Indo-Pacific is a geo-strategic term. It defines a region that is home to more than half of humanity, that is extremely dynamic economically and through which a huge share of global trade is shipped. At the same time, it is a place where the interests of the two superpowers, China and the U.S., collide, along with the competing territorial claims of important regional powers and several unresolved conflicts.

No single country, no military alliance has ever exerted complete control over this entire region. The closest anyone has ever come was the Japanese Empire in World War II. But after defeating Japan in 1945, the U.S. was able to establish itself as the top power in the region, with lasting consequences: As part of Pax Americana, former war adversaries became allies, dictatorships transformed into democracies and once poverty-stricken nations have grown prosperous – from Japan and South Korea to Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore. Even Vietnam has friendly relations with the U.S. these days.

Washington would like to maintain this postwar state of affairs and its own role as a Pacific power. Currently, America’s approach to the region is primarily a military one, with naval patrols and an expanded troop presence. But the U.S. is also looking to strengthen political alliances, economic partnerships and technical cooperation.

Beijing, meanwhile, is seeking to change the status quo and keep America at arm’s length. On the economic front, China has already found some success, having become the most important trading partner for almost all its neighbors. But for at least the last 10 years, Beijing has also been expanding its military influence, by upgrading its navy and air force and transforming islands in the South China Sea – which are also claimed by other countries – into heavily armed outposts.

China’s pressure has encountered resistance. In mid-September, Australia, Britain and the U.S. established a new military alliance called AUKUS. As part of the deal, Washington and London will supply Canberra with nuclear-powered submarines, marking a meaningful shift in the strategic balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region.

But the AUKUS alliance – which resulted in the cancellation of a conventional submarine deal between France and Australia and raised disapproving eyebrows in Europe – is just one of many military projects in the region. Almost all countries that play a strategic role in the Indo-Pacific are investing in their militaries, including North and South Korea, India and Taiwan in addition to China and the U.S. And it is hard to foresee where the development might lead. It could result in the kind of Cold War balance of mutually assured destruction seen in postwar Europe. But the arms race in the Indo-Pacific could also drive this economically dynamic and politically fragile region of the world into a military confrontation.

What fears and ambitions are driving developments in this part of the globe? What strategic goals are being pursued by the countries involved?

Zhuhai, China

Space probes, rocket launchers, armored cars: The items on display at the Zhuhai exhibition run the full gamut. In Hangar 7, a father stands with his son in front of a metal cone that looks like an oversized, charred sugarloaf – the landing capsule of a Chinese spacecraft.

But the exhibition’s highlights are three aircraft that fly a bit closer to the ground. The first is the WZ-7 reconnaissance drone, which is similar to an American drone called "Global Hawk.” Then there is the PL-15E, an air-to-air rocket that can be fired from fighter jets and travels at four times the speed of sound. The hope is that the missile becomes a bestseller abroad – Pakistan has already placed an order. Then there is the J-20, a fifth-generation stealth jet presented in Zhuhai for the first time with a Chinese engine instead of a Russian one. China’s defense industry, which spent decades simply copying Soviet weaponry, now stands solidly on its own two feet.

As should be expected. China is responsible for 60 percent of global growth in defense spending since 1990. In the last 10 years, China’s arms expenditures have risen by 76 percent to $252 billion per year. Only the U.S. spends – significantly – more, at $778 billion.

Chinese recruits at a naval base in Qingdao

Chinese recruits at a naval base in Qingdao

Foto: STRINGER/CHINA / REUTERS

Beyond the absolute numbers, U.S. observers are concerned about how Beijing is investing its defense budget. With 360 warships, the Chinese navy is already larger than the – qualitatively superior – U.S. fleet.

China’s arsenal of ballistic missiles is also large. This summer, satellite images emerged showing fields of hundreds of newly built missile silos. China possesses only around 350 nuclear warheads, a fraction of the U.S. and Russian arsenals. But the expansion of missile silos could be an indication that China is interested in changing that.

Around half of China’s missiles are of the land-based, intermediate-range variety. And in that category, the U.S. is behind, because in contrast to China, Washington was bound until two years ago to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty signed with Moscow in 1987.

The fact that China has placed an emphasis on intermediate-range missiles is related to the country’s defense doctrine. Unlike Washington, Beijing has not thus far seemed interested in projecting its power globally, focusing instead on being able to hold off potential adversaries.

And China’s concerns about a potential attack turned acute a few months ago. According to U.S. intelligence information, Beijing was concerned that outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump was considering launching a military strike on China. Two days after the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley called his Chinese counterpart to reassure him: "I want to assure you that the American government is stable and everything is going to be OK,” he said. Last September, Milley confirmed that he did make such a phone call, which was first revealed by former Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward.

Still, the establishment of the AUKUS alliance will do nothing to calm Chinese nerves. Beijing-based nuclear weapons expert Zhao Tong says that he believes concerns about the dangers being posed to Chinese naval power have been "exaggerated.” Other observers in China, though, fear that Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines could one day prevent Chinese subs from being able to access the Western Pacific through the so-called "first island chain,” stretching between Japan and the Philippines. Like the other four nuclear powers and India, China possesses submarines armed with ballistic missiles, and they are a key element in Beijing’s nuclear strike capabilities.

Taipei, Taiwan

The same day that China’s aerial acrobats were showing off their skills in the skies above Zhuhai, a much larger fleet of Chinese warplanes was flying off on a much more serious mission. On Oct. 1, 38 jets and bombers penetrated the aerial surveillance zone of an island China’s leaders believe belongs to the People’s Republic, but which is governed – from their perspective – by separatists. An island that could ultimately determine whether the developing cold war between the U.S. and China will become a hot one. That island is Taiwan.

Chinese pilots flew 10 such missions in 2019. There were 380 of them in 2020, and by mid-October of this year, there have been 600 this year. Those numbers provide a clear illustration of the tensions currently gripping the Taiwan Strait. On Oct. 3, warships from the U.S., Japan, the UK, Canada, the Netherlands and New Zealand carried out naval exercises near Okinawa. One day later, Beijing sent out yet more warplanes.

Chinook helicopters flying the Taiwanese flag during final rehearsals ahead of National Day in Taipei.

Chinook helicopters flying the Taiwanese flag during final rehearsals ahead of National Day in Taipei.

Foto: Ritchie B. Tongo / epa

Of the many conflicts between the U.S. and China, Taiwan is by far the most dangerous. Since the 2016 election victory of the Beijing-critical Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, China has been heaping pressure on the democratically governed island nation. China has been carrying out military exercises with ever-increasing frequency to intimidate Taipei.

Just a few days ago, Taiwanese Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng told his country’s parliament: "The current situation is really the most dangerous I have seen in my more than 40 years in the military.” Taiwanese lawmakers are considering boosting their country’s defense budget by more than $8 billion.

Washington – which, like most countries of the world, does not recognize Taiwan as an independent nation, but which has armed the island for decades – finds itself facing a landmark decision. Some U.S. experts argue that the current "strategic ambiguity” be abandoned and Taiwan be offered an official protective alliance. Others propose arming the island "to the teeth.” Still others say that a war over Taiwan must be avoided at all costs.

In early August, Washington approved the sale of $750 million in howitzers and ammunition to Taiwan. In early October, it was revealed that U.S. Special Forces were in Taiwan to train the island’s military. The U.S. government is also pushing Taiwan to expand its defense budget and to arm itself against China just as China is arming itself against the U.S. – the so-called "porcupine strategy,” which is designed to make and attack so potentially costly that the opponent decides against it.

Pyeongtaek, South Korea

The route to Camp Humphreys leads past tractors, rice fields and trees beginning to put on their autumn show of colors. Only the warplanes thundering overhead – as in Zhuhai and off the coast of Taiwan – disturb the calm of a sunny October morning in the South Korean countryside.

Camp Humphreys lies 65 kilometers (40 miles) south of Seoul and, with 34,700 troops and civilians, is the largest of all American military bases overseas. "We are here to protect South Korea from any adversary or threat,” says Colonel Lee Peters, who receives his guests at headquarters. "Katchi Kapshida,” reads a carpet at the entrance: "We stick together.” At Camp Humphreys, the old adage that "if you want peace, prepare for war” is tangible. Chinook helicopters take off from the airfield, while missile defense systems, armored planes and tanker trucks can be seen nearby.

Previously, the deterrent posture was primarily intended for North Korea, which continues to develop its nuclear capability and missile program. In recent weeks, the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, has presented a hypersonic missile, a railway-borne missile launcher and a new line of cruise missiles.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visiting an arms show in Pyongyang. The undated photo was first published on Oct. 12, 2021.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visiting an arms show in Pyongyang. The undated photo was first published on Oct. 12, 2021.

Foto: KCNA / REUTERS

South Korea, too, is arming itself. Seoul is in the process of modernizing its army and developing its own warplanes while also investing in drones and military satellites. Some observers believe such activity is only partly meant as a deterrent to North Korea. Because, like all countries in the region, South Korea is caught squarely in the tensions between the U.S. and China.

"We Koreans are in the eye of a hurricane,” says S. Paul Choi, head of the StratWays Group, a security consultancy. "We yearn for peace and stability. We fear reprisal and retaliation.”

The fact that the U.S. has now armed Australia with nuclear-powered subs but has not yet done the same for South Korea has led many in Seoul to wonder where Washington’s priorities currently lie. South Korean President Moon Jae-in said during his campaign back in 2017 that his country needed such vessels.

S. Paul Choi forcefully rejects those who have voiced concern about South Korea’s participation in the regional arms race. "You need to stand in our shoes and see what is going on around us," he says. "North Korea is building a nuclear and missile capability increasingly capable of evading missile defenses and of challenging the credibility of US security commitments. China is also rapidly advancing its nuclear and conventional weapons. Concerns about South Korea's defense reform dismiss the reality in which South Korea lives.”

There are photographs from the Korean War hanging on the walls of headquarters at Camp Humphreys. That conflict ended in 1953 with an armistice, but it has never been formally ended. And just four years ago, it almost broke into violence again.

According to reporting from Bob Woodward, U.S. President Donald Trump apparently considered launching a strike against North Korea in 2017. A short time later, Trump prepared a tweet in which he intended to announce the withdrawal of family members of U.S. soldiers from South Korea. According to Woodward, he only backed off when it was made clear to him that North Korea would see such a step as preparation for war.

The Trump era also taught Europeans that America can no longer be completely relied upon. The South Koreans, meanwhile, have learned that war could be but a tweet away.

Honolulu, Hawaii

In May 2018, Washington renamed its Pacific Command, headquartered in the green hills above Honolulu, the Indo-Pacific Command. It was a clear indication of the Pentagon’s changing strategic focus: No longer the Atlantic region, but the other side of the globe.

This "pivot to Asia,” which the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama announced 10 years ago, goes far beyond the redeployment warships and troops to the Indo-Pacific. It is shifting the focus of U.S. alliance policy, potentially to the detriment of Europe – something that became clear with the establishment of the AUKUS pact and the concurrent snubbing of France.

U.S. troops during a military exercise on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.

U.S. troops during a military exercise on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.

Foto: U.S. Army / ZUMA PRESS / IMAGO

Since 2007, the U.S. has been meeting with a group of nations – including Australia, Japan and India – that view China’s rise with a fair degree of skepticism. For years, the so-called Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or QUAD, produced little more than pledges of solidarity. Recently, though, the group’s intentions have grown more concrete. Just days after the announcement of the AUKUS deal, U.S. President Joe Biden invited his partners to Washington. Officially, they didn’t mention China by name even once, but their message was clear: The Indo-Pacific, in the words of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, should be "free from coercion, where the sovereign rights of all nations are respected and where disputes are settled peacefully.”

The U.S. seems uncertain what role its European partners could play in the Indo-Pacific. Washington welcomes the fact that countries like Britain, France and Germany have sent warships to region. But U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin recently voiced doubts about this approach, saying he wonders if "there are areas that the UK can be more helpful in other parts of the world.” Austin seems to be thinking of a kind of division of duties: The U.S. will take care of China and the Indo-Pacific, with the Europeans focusing their attentions on Russia and the Atlantic.

But dividing up the world by such criteria is likely no longer appropriate either. In September, Austin’s top software expert Nicolas Chaillan resigned in protest over what he said was the slow pace of digitalization in the U.S. military. With China rapidly expanding its abilities in artificial intelligence and cyberwarfare, Chaillan said in an interview with The Financial Times, the U.S. won’t have "a fighting chance against China in 15 to 20 years.” It is, he said, "already a done deal. It is already over in my opinion.”

HMAS Stirling, Australia

Garden Island, located near Perth on Australia’s west coast, is covered with white beaches and enjoys plenty of sun. Fishing and surfing are allowed during the day, but visitors are prohibited from staying overnight. And a third of the island is off-limits.

The island, after all, is home to the HMAS Stirling military base, the home port of the six, diesel-powered Collins Class submarines of the Australian navy. The proud yet aging fleet is now to be replaced, not by the submarines initially ordered from Naval Group, a French company, but by subs produced by the UK and the U.S.

The details of the AUKUS pact are to be worked out in the next year and a half. But calling the deal historic is already accurate for several reasons. For one, it marks an about-face in U.S. policy. For another, it marks a significant strengthening of the Australian navy even as it makes it more dependent on its allies. But is also brings with it challenges in the most sensitive area of modern-day defense technology: nuclear weapons.

In contrast to the Collins Class subs and the subs the Australians had originally intended to buy from France, the eight submarines being provided to Australia as part of the AUKUS deal are not diesel powered. They are powered by highly enriched uranium, the same stuff used to build nuclear weapons.

French President Emmanuel Macron and then-Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in 2018 onboard an Australian submarine. In September 2021, Canberra cancelled an order for French submarines.

French President Emmanuel Macron and then-Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in 2018 onboard an Australian submarine. In September 2021, Canberra cancelled an order for French submarines.

Foto: Brendan Esposito / AP

Sébastien Philippe of Princeton University thus believes the submarine deal is a "terrible decision” for nuclear nonproliferation efforts. An expert on efforts to control the spread of nuclear weapons and a former adviser to the French Defense Ministry, Philippe isn’t the only one concerned about the AUKUS deal. U.S. disarmament expert James Acton has also concluded that the costs of the deal when it comes to controlling the spread of nuclear weapons technology far outweighs its military and strategic benefits.

The benefit of nuclear-powered submarines is that they can remain underwater for much longer and are faster than conventional subs. The cost, though, is that AUKUS could mark a precedent for the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.

Australia won’t have its own nuclear weapons but will be in possession of nuclear-powered submarines. Philippe says he isn’t concerned that Canberra will use fuel from the submarines to build its own nuclear weapon. His concerns have more to do with a provision in international law known as the "submarine loophole.” The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons requires countries that have no nuclear weapons of their own to place all highly enriched uranium under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). But there is an exception for submarines.

The exception has never been used. Iran, though, has played with the idea in the past. South Korea would also like to have nuclear-powered submarines, and Brazil is in the process of building one. The loophole is clearly an attractive one for countries interested in obtaining their own nuclear weapons: such a submarine program could allow a country to take steps toward acquiring the bomb without pesky surveillance from the IAEA.

AUKUS has informed the IAEA of its intention to involve the nuclear inspectors in the coming months. But Philippe notes that the UN inspectors have very little experience when it comes to nuclear-powered submarines. "It is also highly unlikely that the AUKUS partners will grant them sufficient access to this highly sensitive technology,” he says.

As such, he fears a submarine arms race in the region. "You can also expect Japan to show interest,” Philippe says. "You can also expect India’s and China’s submarine fleet to expand.”

In short, it doesn’t look as though the world has become a safer place in the last several weeks, neither in the Indo-Pacific region nor elsewhere. Neither above the waves nor below.

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