Kim Jong Un Spurs Asian Race for Missile-Defense Systems

  • U.S. allies moving toward regional missile defense alliance
  • China, Russia to oppose ‘de facto mini-NATO in East Asia’

North Korea Isn't Backing Down

Kim Jong Un’s near-weekly rocket launches are spurring a push for missile-defense systems across Asia that risk sharpening divisions between China and U.S. allies in the region.

South Korea started deploying the U.S.-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system in March and Japan is considering purchasing its own missile shield. Australia’s senior defense planners have also started discussing options for fending off a North Korean attack. The Pentagon this week claimed success in intercepting a mock intercontinental ballistic missile.

An interceptor rocket is launched at Vandenberg Air Force base, California on May 30.

Photographer: Gene Blevins/AFP/Getty Images

The threat posed by Kim’s regime is likely to dominate talks when the region’s top defense and military officials, including U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, gather for the annual Shangri-La Dialogue security forum in Singapore starting on Friday. Earlier in the week, North Korea conducted its ninth ballistic missile test this year as Kim ramps up efforts to deliver a nuclear warhead as far as North America.

U.S. President Donald Trump has sought to pressure China, North Korea’s main ally and trading partner. Yet the concurrent military moves threaten to curtail cooperation, a realization of Hillary Clinton’s 2013 warning in a private speech -- included among hacked emails released by WikiLeaks last year -- that the U.S. would “ring China with missile defense” if it didn’t help stop North Korea.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has received support from Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in opposing the deployment of Thaad in South Korea. Both countries worry that its 2,000-kilometer (1,200-mile) radar range would be able to detect their missile activities and counter their ability to respond to an attack. They also fear that a November agreement between South Korea and Japan to share intelligence could morph into a U.S.-backed missile-defense cooperation pact.

“If the U.S., South Korea and Japan step up anti-missile cooperation, China and Russia are very likely to ramp up joint efforts to counterbalance the de facto mini-NATO in East Asia,” said Yue Gang, a retired colonel with the People’s Liberation Army who worked on the anti-satellite missile program. “It would be a big strategic threat for China due to connectivity of their military technologies and sharing of intelligence.”

South Korea and Japan last year managed to put aside decades of hostility to sign their agreement to share sensitive information on North Korea. The move represented a major breakthrough among American allies that still clash regularly over issues stemming from Japan’s more than three-decade occupation of South Korea.

Still, it remains to be seen if both countries can build on that to form what would amount to a regional missile-defense shield. Sharing information between different systems -- from Thaad to the land-and-sea-based Aegis -- would contribute to a layered defense that has a better chance of stopping a missile, according to Richard Bitzinger, who studies military modernization as a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

“It is not the technology, it is the political will that’s getting in the way of cooperation,” he said. “The need for missile defense increases every year -- at the very least because of what North Korea has been doing. But the Chinese missile problem is also one that’s expanding.”

Read: What’s Thaad and why does it bother China so much?

Xi elevated PLA’s rocket force to an equal branch alongside the army, navy and air force during a sweeping military reorganization in 2015. China has about 1,200 short-range ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan, and a growing arsenal of anti-ship missiles that could attack aircraft carriers in the Western Pacific. Its long-range ballistic missiles can deliver nuclear warheads to most of the continental U.S., according to the Pentagon’s 2016 report on China’s military.

China has sought to court South Korea’s newly elected president, Moon Jae-in, who favors better ties with Beijing and Pyongyang. Foreign Minister Wang Yi last month called on Moon’s administration “to take concrete action to pull out the thorn stuck in the throat of China-South Korea relations.”

This week, Moon ordered an investigation into how the final components of the missile shield arrived in the country without his knowledge. He has said he wants to review how the decision to deploy the system was made.

The threat from North Korea is constantly growing. The country has conducted nine ballistic missile tests this year, including a rocket on May 14 that it said could carry a “large-size, heavy nuclear warhead” over long distances, putting it within reach of U.S. military facilities on the island of Guam.

North Korea suggested in April that Australia could be a target because of the presence of U.S. troops near Darwin, which it saw as evidence that America was planning a nuclear war. Defense strategists in Australia, which has no missile defense system, are now discussing how to better protect itself.

‘Worthwhile Option’

Washington and Canberra are discussing an upgrade of Australia’s Jindalee over-the-horizon radar network, which is now used to detect aircraft but could be adapted to detect incoming missiles, according to Bitzinger. Australia is also planning to equip its three destroyers now under construction with the Aegis radar-and-combat system, which could be retrofitted for SM-3 missiles designed to take out medium-range ballistic missiles.

“Missile defense is a worthwhile option for Australia,” said Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra. “Our role in missile defense is more being a regional actor, a responsible partner to the U.S., to share burden and counter the regional threat against countries like Japan and South Korea.”

The Australian Department of Defense said in a statement Friday that its discussions with the U.S. on integrated air-and-missile defense were focused on protecting deployed forces from attacks. “A ballistic-missile defense system for Australia is not currently being considered,” the department said.

Japan and the U.S. already share intelligence on ballistic-missile defense and have established a joint operation coordination center at Yokota Air Base in Japan. Members of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling party recommended in March that Japan consider stepping up its capacity to intercept incoming missiles by introducing Thaad or a land-based Aegis system. Japan already has a two-stage missile-defense system, consisting of ship-borne SM-3 interceptors and ground-based PAC-3 missiles. Both are undergoing upgrades.

Despite opposition from China, Russia and among some political groups in South Korea and Japan, deeper missile-defense cooperation is inevitable because Asian nations aren’t likely to be able to credibly rid themselves of the North Korean threat, according to Patrick Cronin, director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.

“The reality is, that an unfettered North Korea will force its neighbors to take serious action to defend themselves,” Cronin said. “Missile defense remains a much more realistic means, especially in democracies, to reassure your public that you have at least a chance of surviving a missile launch.”

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