China’s military buildup threatens to turn Asia into a powder keg

As an Asian diplomat put it recently, “The threat from North Korea has subsided, but China’s threat to bring chaos to the region hasn’t diminished.”

The worry is about China’s rapidly expanding military in the region as well as Beijing’s aggressive posture over territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The commander of the Pacific Command, Adm. Phil Davidson, testified in July to the Senate Armed Services Committee that China’s defense budget, “while only beginning to approach full-scale military capacity, appears to be increasingly lethal,”

Asia’s quiet militarization threatens to turn the region into a powder keg, with countries jockeying for position in the contest for assets and power, there to stay when there is conflict.

Ng Han Guan / AP Chinese missiles flying over the South China Sea to its bases in South China Sea. Chinese missiles flying over the South China Sea to its bases in South China Sea. (Ng Han Guan / AP)

Today, there are 239 military bases in 22 countries in the Asia-Pacific region. And China’s buildup to a quarter-million troops is ongoing. From August 2017 to August 2018, it doubled the number of its navy, increased its aircraft carriers by two from three, and their crew by 300.

China’s claim to more than 80 percent of the South China Sea has vexed the United States and its allies in the region for years. However, when Chinese jets carried out exercises within the Philippines’ borders in March, tensions between the United States and China in the region rose to the highest level in years.

Although China should not be surprised by the reaction of the Philippines to its aircraft flights, it should be concerned that Washington’s friendship with the Philippines has long been close, even as it has guarded its territory against China’s fliers.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned last month that the United States would “continue to build our force presence in the Asia-Pacific and seek out new allies.” The joint Chinese-Russian air exercise in August was conducted in an area that Beijing calls its “new continental space.”

Over in India, despite sharing the longest border in the world with China, the India-China-Russia trilateral was revived last year and continues to be a source of concern. Trump has said he wants to engage China more in trade but in reality, Beijing views Washington as increasingly aggressive. Its currency manipulation puts Beijing in a strong position to pressure Washington as the two countries negotiate a trade deal. Beijing’s ultimate goal is to force the United States to enter a one-way, unconditional trade relationship.

China’s ultimate goal is to force the United States to enter a one-way, unconditional trade relationship. Beijing’s ultimate goal is to force the United States to enter a one-way, unconditional trade relationship.

In Japan, the United States is involved in a debate over whether to rebuild the missile defense system in the country. Japan and the United States are currently negotiating a revision of their defense agreement. Will the agreement call for a major shift in U.S. military role in Japan toward a bigger international role?

North Korea won’t go away either. South Korea has replaced Kim Jong Un with Moon Jae-in and the North-South summit next month is expected to be similar to the June inter-Korean summit. Kim still has a huge incentive to maintain diplomacy.

However, the United States has a weak hand in negotiations with North Korea because the North hasn’t demonstrated that it will denuclearize. Trump has resorted to hardline policies on North Korea in the hope of guaranteeing U.S. security and to show greater strength to China in order to secure its more cooperative position.

These confrontations in the Asia-Pacific region can’t end soon. With the most populous military in the world, China’s commitment to protecting its economic interests remains high. The United States is vulnerable to China’s growing challenge as it seeks international trading partners without being beholden to Japan, South Korea and the European Union.

Richard J. Moore, an assistant professor of international relations at American University, wrote this column for The Washington Post.

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