TINIAN, Northern Mariana Islands: The tiny island of Tinian was the launch point for U.S. planes carrying atomic bombs to Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Now a new runway is being carved from the jungle, just south of World War II ruins.
And on a blustery February morning, a few hundred yards away at Tinian’s civilian airport, American airmen refuelled Japanese fighter jets during a military exercise using more airstrips, islands and Japanese planes than the two enemies-turned-allies have ever mustered for drills in the North Pacific.
Asia and the Pacific are steering into an anxious, well-armed moment with echoes of old conflicts and immediate risks. Rattled by China’s military build-up and territorial threats — along with Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine and doubts about US resolve — nations across the region are bolstering defence budgets, joint training, weapons manufacturing and combat-ready infrastructure.
For decades, Asia’s rise made it an economic engine for the world, tying China and other regional manufacturing hubs to Europe and America. The focus was trade. Now fear is setting in, with China and the United States locked in a volatile strategic contest and with diplomatic relations at their worst point in 50 years.
This past week’s meeting in Moscow between China’s leader, Xi Jinping, and President Vladimir Putin of Russia pointed to the powerful forces lining up against the West.
Xi has made his intentions clear. He aims to achieve a “national rejuvenation” that would include displacing the United States as the dominant rule-setter in the region, controlling access to the South China Sea, and bringing Taiwan — a self-governing island that China sees as lost territory — under Beijing’s control.
In response, many of China’s neighbours — and the United States — are turning to hard power, accelerating the most significant arms race in Asia since World War II.
On March 13, North Korea launched cruise missiles from a submarine for the first time. The same day, Australia unveiled a $200 billion plan to build nuclear-propelled submarines with America and Britain.
Japanese pilots refuel an F-15 fighter jet at the Tinian airport, on Feb 17, 2023. (The New York Times)
Japan, after decades of pacifism, is also gaining offensive capabilities unmatched since the 1940s with US Tomahawk missiles. India has conducted training with Japan and Vietnam. Malaysia is buying South Korean combat aircraft. US officials are trying to amass a giant weapons stockpile in Taiwan to head off a Chinese invasion, and the Philippines is planning for expanded runways and ports to host its largest US military presence in decades.
None of this may be enough to match China. Its own surging arsenal now includes “monster” coast guard cutters along with a rapidly increasing supply of missiles and nuclear warheads.
In flashpoint after flashpoint over the past year, China’s military has also engaged in provocative or dangerous behaviour: deploying a record number of military aircraft to threaten Taiwan and firing missiles into the waters of Japan’s exclusive economic zone for the first time; sending soldiers with spiked batons to dislodge an Indian army outpost, escalating battles over the border between the two countries; and temporarily blinding the crew of a Filipino patrol boat with a laser and flying dangerously close to a US Navy plane, part of its aggressive push to claim authority in the South China Sea.
Many countries hope that stronger militaries will discourage China from going any further, but the build-up also reflects declining confidence in the United States. The war in Ukraine has drawn down US political capital and material support.
Asia’s security calculations ultimately point to an unsettled and ill-tempered global order, shaped by one-man rule in a more militarized China with slowing economic growth, polarized politics in a heavily indebted America, bolder aggression from Russia and North Korea, and demands for greater influence from the still-developing giants of Indonesia and India.
China’s military transformation
In 2000, military spending in Asia and the Pacific accounted for 17.5% of worldwide defence expenditures, according to SIPRI, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. In 2021, it accounted for 27.7% (with North Korea excluded, making it an undercount), and since then, spending has shot up further.
China’s growth has been a major driver of that increase. It now spends about $300 billion a year on its military, according to SIPRI, up from $22 billion in 2000, adjusted for inflation — an expenditure second only to the $800 billion defence budget of the United States. And while US military spending covers a global network, China has focused on Asia, rolling out hardware to project power and intimidate its neighbours.
China’s navy has already outstripped the US Navy, reaching 360 battle force ships in 2020, compared with the US total of 297, according to the US Office of Naval Intelligence. In 2021, China fired off 135 ballistic missiles for testing, more than the rest of the world combined outside war zones, according to the US Defense Department.
The Guam Remote Ground Terminal at Andersen Air Force Base, on Feb 17, 2023. (The New York Times)
Beijing’s nuclear arsenal is smaller than those of the United States and Russia, but here, too, the gap is starting to narrow. By 2030, the Defense Department has estimated, China’s supply of more than 400 nuclear warheads is likely to expand to 1,000. It already has more land-based launchers than the United States, leading some to call for the Pentagon not just to modernize its own technology but also to add to its nuclear stockpile of 3,708 available warheads.
Beyond raw capacity, Xi’s willingness to brandish the People’s Liberation Army on disputed borderlands has magnified anxieties, as has China’s new naval base in Cambodia and recent security agreement with the Solomon Islands.
Many countries have concluded that to restrain the Chinese Communist Party and gain leverage with the United States or other nations, they must show they can and will counterattack if needed.
In 2006, Japan and India started sharing security assessments over concerns about China’s efforts to expand airstrips and ports across South and East Asia, an effort that would later include building military bases on islands and reefs that other nations claim as their own.
India and Japan have since signed several agreements that typify the region’s interlocking defence plans. One deal granted access to each other’s bases for supplies and services; another eased regulations to encourage cooperation in military manufacturing. So far this year, the two countries have conducted naval training together and their first-ever joint fighter exercise.
Now that many kinds of missiles from China and North Korea can hit US bases in nearby Japan and in Guam, every US service branch has begun aiming for a dispersed approach in the Indo-Pacific — “the priority theatre” for global security, according to the Defense Department, which has stationed 300,000 troops in the region.
To minimise risk and maximise deterrence, US officials have been hunting for real estate. The Philippines, Japan, Australia, Palau, Papua New Guinea and US territories across the Pacific are all working with Defense Department officials on expanding military access and facilities, often with the US proposing investments in shared infrastructure.
US officials acknowledge that tensions across the region are rising alongside military budgets. But they say they believe the glue of shared distress about China will hold.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.