November 20, 2022

The New Cold War Endangers The People of Northeast Asia

Vijay Prashad

ON November 13, 2022, US President Joe Biden met with Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The focus of their public remarks was North Korea. ‘For years’, Biden said, ‘our countries have been engaged in a trilateral cooperation out of a shared concern for the nuclear and missile threats North Korea poses to our people’. Kishida concurred, worrying that the tension in the Sea of Japan would continue. It is true that over the course of this year the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) or North Korea has tested eighty-six missiles, the largest number in years. Two weeks ago, on one day, the DPRK fired twenty-three missiles, one of them landing only sixty kilometres from the shoreline of South Korea. Biden, Kishida, and Yoon warned that the DPRK might conduct its seventh nuclear test, although they provide no evidence for this claim.

The DPRK’s leader Kim Jong-un says that his country did not initiate the new tensions. It has only responded to the dangerous manoeuvres by Japan, South Korea, and the United States. These include war games off the coast of the DPRK and comments by President Yoon that he would welcome US tactical nuclear weapons on South Korean soil. In November, US defence secretary Lloyd Austin and South Korea’s minister of national defence Leen Jong-sup said at a joint press conference that if the DPRK used any nuclear weapons, then it would ‘result in the end of the Kim Jong-un regime by the overwhelming and decisive response of the alliance’. These words from defence minister Leen, while couched in a posture of retaliation, came during an aggressive war game called Vigilant Storm, with 240 military aircraft sending a message to Pyongyang that the US and South Korea are prepared to bomb the north once again. The DPRK called Vigilant Storm a ‘terrible mistake’.

Vigilant Storm was part of a range of expanded aggressive military exercises in the Sea of Japan. In September 2022, armed forces from Japan, South Korea, and the United States held trilateral military drills off the Korean peninsula. These drills, in a much smaller form, had been an annual feature till they were called off by the previous South Korean governments that had been engaged in a process of rapprochement called the Sunshine Policy (started by President Kim Dae-jung in 1998 and brought to the centre of his administration by President Moon Jae-in from 2017 to May 2022). President Yoon, a man of the far right, suspended this policy and restarted an aggressive posture toward the DPRK. The resumption of the September military drills is part of this newly aggressive move by the South.


In October, Japan’s self-defence force joined the US armed forces for Resolute Dragon 2022, which the US marines call the ‘largest bilateral training exercise of the year’. Major General Jay Bargeron of the US 3rd Marine Division said at the start of the exercise that the United States is ‘ready to fight and win if called upon’. Japan’s army provided 1400 people, who operated alongside 1600 US marines and a range of equipment and weaponry (including US anti-tank Javelin missiles and high mobility artillery rocket systems that have been provided to the Ukrainian military).

The Constitution of Japan (1947) forbids the country from building up an aggressive military force. Two years after Article 9 was inserted into the constitution at the urging of the US occupation, the Chinese Revolution succeeded, and the United States began to reassess the disarmament of Japan. Discussions about the revocation of Article 9 began at the start of the Korean War in 1950, with the US government putting pressure on Japanese prime minister Shigeru Yoshida to build up the army and militarise the national police reserve; in fact, the Ashida Amendment to Article 9 weakened Japan’s commitment to demilitarisation and left open the door to full-scale rearmament.

Public opinion in Japan is against the formal removal of Article 9. Nonetheless, Japan has continued to build up its military capacity. In early November, Kishida went aboard Japan’s destroyer JS Izumo and said, ‘We must be prepared for the emergence of an entity that disturbs the peace and security of other countries by force or threat without honouring the rules’. While there is a lack of appetite in Japan to revise the constitution, 80 per cent of those elected to the National Diet – the country’s parliament – said that they would increase spending for Japan’s armed forces. In the 2021 budget, Japan added $7 billion (7.3 per cent) to spend $54.1 billion on its military, ‘the highest annual increase since 1972’, notes the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. In September 2022, Japan’s defence minister Yasukazu Hamada said that his country would ‘radically strengthen the defence capabilities we need….To protect Japan, it’s important for us to have not only hardware such as aircrafts and ships, but also enough ammunition for them’. Japan has indicated that it would increase its military budget by 11 per cent a year from now till 2024. In December, Japan will release a new national security strategy, the first since 2014. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told the Financial Times, ‘We will be fully prepared to respond to any possible scenario in east Asia to protect the lives and livelihoods of our people’.


At the ASEAN meeting, Biden pledged to invest more US funds in the bloc as well as re-engage with countries in the region ever since the US walked out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement in 2017. For many countries in the region, this is an idealistic statement since many of them are now integrated into the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (2020), developed by ASEAN with China as a major partner. China is the major trading partner with both Japan and South Korea, largely due to this process of Asian integration. Biden’s attempt to pressure Chinese chip manufacturing and export from China has raised eyebrows in South Korea and Japan. South Korea’s SK Hynix, which makes memory chips in China, among other places, says that adherence to the new US pressure would lead it to shut down its largest chip manufacturing plant based in Chongqing, China. Even Yoon, whose belligerent rhetoric has been alarming, has called for talks between China, Japan, and South Korea without the presence of the United States.

The military manoeuvres in the Sea of Japan over the past several months have certainly raised the tensions in the area. These tensions have not been focused on the DPRK alone, which has certainly felt them and responded with its missile tests, but on China. The most recent US national security strategy identifies China as the ‘only competitor’ of the United States in the world, and therefore in need of being constrained by the United States and its allies. This US posture comes despite repeated denials by China – including by foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian on November 1 – that China ‘will never seek hegemony or engage in expansionism’.

Biden’s tough talk at ASEAN and at the G20 about China suggests that the US is not prepared to dial-back its rhetoric and behaviour of confrontation against China. The bilateral three-hour meeting between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Bali, Indonesia on November 14 allowed the two leaders to speak about the tensions. Biden left the meeting, saying that it was positive: ‘I’m not suggesting this is kumbaya’, he said, ‘but I do not believe there’s a need for concern, as one of you raised a legitimate question, a New Cold War’. Biden’s words reset the conversation between Beijing and Washington, but after the immense military build-up and the provocative visits by US lawmakers to Taiwan, words will not be sufficient. If President Yoon of South Korea is able to organise a summit between President Xi of China and Prime Minister Kishida of Japan, this would be a way forward, and if the US begins its de-escalation in the region – including ending its illegal ‘freedom of navigation’ exercises in contested Chinese waters – then there might be less ‘concern’ – as Biden put it – about the New Cold War.