The World This Year

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The World This Year
East Asia in 2023: Big Power Politics and New Defence Strategies

  Abhishek Ranjan
Abhishek Ranjan is a PhD student at the Korean Studies,  Centre for East Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

East Asia is of vital strategic importance where the interests of four major powers - China, Japan, Russia and the US - converge and collide. The Cold War never ended in East Asia, and the recent regional developments have sparked fears of a new Cold War 2.0. Two flashpoints that could trigger a confrontation between the US and China are Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula, which are divided by historical and ideological conflicts.

The year saw active assertion of the US in East Asia as it held a trilateral summit along with Japan and South Korea at Camp David and also facilitated the formation of Chip 4 alliance, a group of four countries - the US, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan - that aim to challenge China's dominance in the semiconductor industry. On the other hand, Japan has adopted a new defence policy that allows it to exercise collective self-defence and expand its military role in the region. Meanwhile, South Korea has unveiled its own Indo-Pacific strategy that seeks to balance its relations with the US and China and enhance its cooperation with other regional partners. Subsequently, the tension around Taiwan has further escalated this year.

Major Developments in 2023

A new defence push by Japan
2023 dawned with escalating tensions and changing dynamics. Japan announced the National Security Strategy (NSS), the National Defense Strategy (NDS), and the Defense Buildup Program (DBP) in December 2022. Japan seeks possession and potential offensive capabilities, including counterstrike capabilities against enemy missile bases in the event of an armed attack. Japan is contemplating creating ten or more different types of missiles as part of this strategic pivot. These include missiles with glide and hypersonic capabilities that can be fired from land, sea, or air platforms. By 2027, Japan intends to acquire up to 500 Tomahawk cruise missiles manufactured in the United States. Additionally, Japan intends to build roughly 130 additional ammo depots. The primary purpose of these depots is to hold long-range standoff missiles for counterstrike purposes. In addition, Japan plans to deploy 50 tiny satellites into orbit to facilitate these counterattacks. Finally, the Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) is forming a new unit.

The above highlights Japan's commitment to strengthening its offensive defence capabilities. Japan had also pledged to increase the defence budget to 2 per cent of its GDP by 2027.

China has been identified for the first time as the main security challenge, which has led to a further escalation of tension in the region. Subsequently, Japan's changed security approach has received mixed responses from the other stakeholders of the region. It has received wide criticism from Japan and North Korea, with mixed reactions from South Korea and a few ASEAN countries.

South Korea's new Indo-Pacific strategy
In December 2023, South Korea also developed a policy document highlighting its Indo-Pacific strategy for the first time to increase its influence and position in the region and beyond with this all-encompassing and ambitious vision. The four pillars of the strategy are cooperation, inclusiveness, prosperity, and peace. South Korea has done various noteworthy actions in light of this strategy, such as hosting a pan-government symposium to evaluate its Indo-Pacific strategy and discuss its next responsibilities on its first anniversary. During this year, the 2023–2026 South Korea–NATO Individually Tailored Partnership Programme was also signed, marking a significant step towards bridging the Indo-Pacific and Euro-Atlantic regions' US allies' capabilities. Additionally, it has made moves to strengthen military ties with the US and Japan, particularly in joint exercises, intelligence sharing, and missile defence. To boost military ties with Japan and the US, South Korea first restored the General Security of Military Information Agreement (Gsomia), the military intelligence-sharing with Japan that it had suspended in 2019. Besides, the leaders of both countries also hosted the bilateral summit for the first time in more than a decade to revive their diplomatic ties.

The US in East Asia
The growing ties between South Korea and Japan, along with the changing approach of these countries, were further facilitated by the United States. First, the US hosted the trilateral summit with Japan and South Korea at Camp David, their first joint summit at Camp David. In August, the summit unveiled the Camp David

Principles, commonly known as the JAROKUS security pact, which represents a commitment by the three countries to a series of agreements to cooperate trilaterally and push their shared ambition to a new horizon, across domains and the Indo-Pacific and beyond. The leaders condemned China's approach towards the region as "dangerous and aggressive behaviour". This summit not only proposed to strengthen economic and national security interests but also attempted to overcome the tense past between South Korea and Japan. The summit was criticized by China; its Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said: "Attempts to cobble together various exclusionary groupings and bring bloc confrontation and military blocs into the Asia-Pacific are not going to get support and will only be met with vigilance and opposition from regional countries."

In February 2023, the first meeting of the Chip 4 alliance was convened. Earlier, in March 2022, the US had proposed the Chip 4 alliance, also known as the Fab 4 alliance (United States, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan), to enhance the security and resilience of the semiconductor supply chain. The aim was also to thwart China's challenge to the Chip industries in these countries. The member countries of this alliance control 70 per cent of the global semiconductor industry. However, in recent years, China has tried to challenge the US leadership in this sector and has tried to be seen as a regulator of the technology supply chain instead of  world's contract manufacturer. China has also been accused of stealing intellectual property from American and Western companies. This alliance has been established to lessen global dependence on chips produced in China while improving the "security" and "resilience" of semiconductor supply chains. The alliance is still in its preliminary phase, but at the same time, it is unfolding a new dimension of confrontation, termed the 'Chip War'.

Taiwan and regional tensions
Taiwan also experienced the effects of escalating conflict between the big powers. The Chinese aggression that had intensified in 2022 continued in 2003. According to the Taiwan Ministry of National Defense, China violated Taiwan's air defence zone 1610 times this year till November 2023. The year also witnessed the highest number of ADIZ violations on September 2023, when 103 PLA aircraft entered Taiwanese airspace. Besides, Taiwan has also raised complaints of sea zone violations and Chinese spy balloons in Taiwanese airspace.

The US increased military assistance to USD 345 million in 2023 and approved weapon sales to Taiwan in 2023. There were also media reports suggesting that the US is planning to increase the number of American soldiers training Taiwanese troops, suggesting an escalation of the US-China tension in the region.

Looking ahead
Given the changing nature of the defence and security approaches of the countries in the region, the likelihood of escalation seems higher. Japan's changed approach to acquiring offensive capabilities, which has already announced that it will increase its defence budget to 2 per cent of its GDP by 2027 and has already proposed a record increased budget for the next year, has been perceived as a provocation rather than a balance by China.

With a conservative president in power, South Korea is more likely to seek reconciliation with Japan and closer ties with the US while also dealing harshly with North Korea, unlike its predecessors. The Camp David agreement between the US, Japan and South Korea has re-established the American position in the region and recognized China as a challenger and its behaviour as aggressive.

The escalating tension in the region will further witness a newer dimension of the conflict in the form of a 'Chip War' with the formation of the Chip 4 alliance aimed at lessening global dependence on Chinese-made chips.

Taiwan has become a hotbed of escalating tension in the region; the hegemon, the US, and the challenger, China, are directly facing each other in Taiwan; this will worsen. The slim chance of a de-escalation that existed during the Biden-Xi meeting in San Francisco in December 2023 has also vanished, as state officials were quoted in media reports indicating that tensions around Taiwan have increased and that Xi is pressing Biden to back Taiwan's unification with mainland China. However, the upcoming presidential election in Taiwan and the US will be another key factor shaping the future of cross-strait relations.

In sum, East Asia seems to be entering the Thucydides Trap, leading to a more tense environment.

About the Author
Abhishek Ranjan is a PhD student at the Korean Studies,  Centre for East Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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