The US has announced plans to increase its West Coast missile defense force by 50%, citing the possibility of a mainland nuclear missile attack by North Korea. In particular, it plans to deploy another 14 ground-based interceptor missiles to Fort Greely, Alaska, by 2017 at a cost of one billion US dollars.
The missile defense (MD) system is being criticized as a waste of taxpayer money, raising questions about its effectiveness when tests have resulting in an interception success rate of only around 50%. The country’s aim, however, is to cement its comparative superiority at a time when many other countries have long-range ballistic missiles. This is why the US has spent such astronomical sums on its MD system, and why the development accounts for such a sizable chunk of the American defense industry.
The North Korean “threat” of hitting the mainland US with a nuclear weapon has already been laughed off by Washington. Its attention is focused less on the possibility of such a strike than on finding an excuse to beef up its MD budget. The big beneficiary is the defense industry. In other words, the North Korean nuclear missile threat is essentially a big gift to the American military-industrial complex. Meanwhile, South Korea has no small part in boosting this industry, as the world’s single biggest importer of US weaponry.
Now the US faces a new challenge in its international relations, namely the rise of China.
Since the Cold War ended, the US struggle for political hegemony with China has become unavoidable, with the two sides facing off in a cool relationship where neither is friend nor foe. Washington has maintained a “pivot to Asia” focus in its diplomatic policy, an idea articulated by President Barack Obama underscoring the new importance of the Asia Pacific region. The MD expansions represent a strategy to maintain military dominance in East Asia vis-a-vis China, while also serving as a safeguard for economic expansion in the region.
International relations experts called this a “strong message” from the US to China, which it hopes will use its leverage to encourage North Korea to give up its nuclear program. But this idea is also flawed. In the first place, the expansions show that Washington has no intention of pursuing a peaceful resolution with Pyongyang, but is instead looking out for the interests of defense companies.
Second, while China does place some importance on resolving the nuclear issue in its North Korea policy, it is focused more on preventing the regime in Pyongyang from collapsing, and it is not likely to compromise its own international prestige under military pressure from the US. Indeed, the new Chinese leadership under Xi Jinping is more likely to respond to this pressure by beefing up the country’s armaments and facing off against the US in the power battle. Third, even if the US does succeed in getting China to pressure North Korea, Pyongyang is not likely to give up its nuclear program without some guarantee of its own regime security. In short, all the MD reinforcements have done is to give China an excuse to face off against the US.
Under Xi, China is voicing a new slogan: the “great revival of the Chinese nation.” Pride in being Chinese is being emphasized like never before, as is the country’s new superpower standing. This links with the ambitions toward the rest of East Asia, which were in evidence not long after the Xi administration took over. The MD reinforcements from the US are a sign that the power battle between Washington and China is going to center around the Korean Peninsula.
In the bipolar era where the US and the Soviet Union reigned, Koreans spent a half-century enduring hardship and adversity. Now, they appear poised to be sucked back into the vortex of another battle for Asian hegemony, this one between the US and China. This could mean yet another crisis for an already much-abused peninsula.