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Belmont Club

The Ring Goes South

December 18th, 2010 - 1:08 pm

North Korea dared the South to go through with an artillery drill, saying they would strike back, but analysts believed Pyongyang would aim only at empty sea in a “face saving gesture”.  But offstage, the crisis on the peninsula was forcing the larger international actors to recalculate their strategies.

“They would have to be committing to a full-out war if they did that (struck again),” said Baek Seung-joo of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, an expert on North Korea’s military strategy.  “What’s likely is they will do something as a face-saving action, such as firing their own artillery near the disputed waters,” he said.

Despite that outward optimism, the powers were clearly worried. Bill Richardson gave Pyongyang “a series of proposals on Saturday in a meeting with the country’s chief nuclear negotiator” but did not say what they were. “My sense from the North Koreans is that they are trying to find ways to tamp things down.” Whether those proposals contained carrots is a matter of conjecture. But the stick was prominently displayed. South Korea was going to rerun the very activity which prompted the North to fire on an inhabited South Korean island and dare the South to do something about it.

The decision by the South to go-ahead with the live fire artillery drills was accompanied by a warning from Seoul’s chiefs of staffs that it “is ready to respond to any possible provocation.” The decision to postpone the drills due to bad weather may be an indication that Seoul wants to maximize its advantage in strike aircraft, should an incident occur.

The ambivalence within South Korea toward the brinksmanship was manifested in conflicting emotions toward the impending test of wills. On the one hand, North Koreans who had defected to Seoul released balloons carrying leaflets into winds wafting northward, an activity guaranteed to drive Pyongyang to a frenzy. Their defiance was in contrast to desires to avoid angering the North so southern civilian life could proceed normally.

“Honestly I don’t want our military to go ahead with the drill. It seems as if our government is watching the fire on the other side of the river,” a resident surnamed Ko said.

The rest of the world reacted to the ongoing crisis on the Korean peninsula through their individual strategic prisms. Russia had earlier advised the South against proceeding with the artillery drill possibly because, although they don’t mind tweaking the American nose, they were also afraid things might go too far just now.  “Russia, which shares a short border with North Korea, has put its forces in the country’s far east on alert because of the Korean tension.” But the most interesting response was from Tokyo. While the other countries were responding narrowly,  Japan on the other hand, signaled that it was pivoting its military power south directly towards China. Although Tokyo will maintain its missile defenses against the North Korean threat,  its focus is now clearly on the source of North Korea’s strategic strength: it’s patron, China.

The doctrine formally switches Japan’s post-Cold War emphasis on defending an attack on its northern border from Russia, to dealing with the rise of China.

As a result, Japan will shift forces from Hokkaido in the north to the Nansei Islands in the southwest, close to Taiwan and the Chinese coast. The exact location of the new deployments has not been specified, but media speculation in Japan has mentioned Yonaguni Island, close to Taiwan, as a likely base.

The changes will see Japan expand its Aegis-equipped destroyer fleet from four to six and build up its submarine fleet from 16 to 22.

The sudden activity on Yonaguni island, the westernmost island of Ryukyus, underscores the change. Located at the literal extremity of Japan, it formerly housed a garrison of a hundred troops. The Japan Times says the residents on of the island, only 110 kilometers from Taiwan, watched with mixed feelings as the Japanese Self Defense Forces started a buildup on their island. Ground troops will be be upped to 2,000. But it is the electronics and additional air capabilities moving into the area that is most striking.

The government will establish a Ground Self-Defense Force coastal monitoring unit with early warning radar and surface-to-ship missiles … The Air Self-Defense Force, meanwhile, will add a second squadron at the ASDF base in Naha, Okinawa Prefecture, the sources said. …

The government will set up a mobile early warning radar system in the Nansei Islands and, when needed, dispatch E-2C early warning patrol planes from its Misawa air base in Aomori Prefecture.

It will also increase the number of helicopter-carrying destroyers to quickly deploy troops in an emergency, the sources said.

In addition, the Maritime Self-Defense Force plans to deploy more submarines and conduct maneuver-deployment drills aimed at improving its defense capabilities, they said.

The GSDF will introduce 18 surface-to-ship guided missile launchers in fiscal 2011 and hike the figure to 100 or more during the five years of the midterm plan, with many deployed in the Nansei Islands.

Japanese redeployments were a recognition that the Pacific may no longer be a completely American lake. The Daily Yomiuri said “the United States is concerned about China boosting its capabilities to prevent the United States from deploying forces in the Pacific, and Japan’s new defense guidelines appear to have brought Tokyo into step with Washington concerning how the two countries perceive China’s military.” The waters between Japan and China have recently been the scene of a number of naval challenges between the two countries.

Georgraphically, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippine archipelago and the Malay barrier form an outer Asian coast which screens of the China seaboard from the wide pacific. The widest gap is through the Ryukyus.  Through the South and East China Seas pass the shipping going to and from the vast Chinese, Japanese and Korean ports. They are the portals to an immense industrial powerhouse and the routes through which the granaries of these teeming regions are filled.

In the event of any conflict, naval defenses centered around Taiwan and the southern Ryukyus would effectively divide China’s coastal waters, cutting off the South China Sea from the East China sea. Just how important the control of northern Luzon, Taiwan and the Ryukyus can be is shown on the map below. The strategic consequences of the North Korean provocation and China’s inability to control it, are spilling southward, slowly for now. But for how long?

Who Starves, Who Eats

As this study of seaborne transportation networks shows “communities of ports in three cargo ship subnetworks. The communities are groups of ports that maximize the number of links within the groups, as opposed to between the groups, in terms of the modularity Q (Leicht & Newman 2008). In each map, the colors represent the c distinct trading communities for the goods transported by (a) container ships, (b) bulk dry carriers, and (c) oil tankers.” As is evident from the chart, the South China and East China sea ports are highly connected to destinations in other parts of the world.


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