Foreign Relations & International Law

Water Wars: 'We’ve Seen This Movie Before': U.S. Suspicious of Beijing’s Motives in Solomon Islands

Teresa Chen, Alana Nance, Han-ah Sumner
Thursday, June 30, 2022, 8:01 AM

Biden’s ASEAN summit reinvigorates UNCLOS ratification debate, Beijing fails to gain support for Pacific Islands regional security agreement but finalizes controversial pact with the Solomon Islands, and more.

Arleigh Burke-Class guided missile destroyer USS Benfold (DDG 65) launches an SM-6 missile as part of the coordinated multi-domain, multi-axis, long-range maritime strikes against EX-USS Vandegrift during Valiant Shield 2022. Source: U.S. Navy 7th Fleet

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U.S. Focus on the Indo-Pacific Drives Resurgence of UNCLOS Ratification Effort

Earlier this year, a group of Democratic members of Congress introduced an amendment to the America COMPETES Act, a bill aimed at boosting U.S. manufacturing and technology capabilities in order to compete with China. The amendment consisted of a “sense of Congress,” which asserts that “it is in the national interest for the United States to become a formal signatory of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).” It further states that ratification of UNCLOS remains a top priority of the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard, “the importance of which was most recently underscored by the strategic challenges the United States faces in the Asia-Pacific, the Arctic, and the Black Sea regions.” In February, the amendment passed the lower chamber.

This declaratory resolution is the latest salvo in a decades-long debate over whether the United States should join the 168 parties that have ratified the law of the sea convention since it was first opened for signature in 1982. Since that time, the United States has acted largely in accordance with UNCLOS, accepting it as generally reflective of customary international law despite resistance to formal ratification. Those who oppose ratification argue that it “would provide no benefits not already available to the U.S., while creating unnecessary burdens and risks.” They contend that the United States can best protect its interests by maintaining a strong navy and entering into bilateral agreements with neighboring nations rather than by acceding to the convention. Oppositionists also strongly disfavor the Article 82 requirement for UNCLOS parties to pay royalties generated from resource exploitation on the extended continental shelf to the International Seabed Authority. They argue that the funds would be redistributed to developing, “corrupt,” and “undemocratic” nations. 

However, heightened focus on the Indo-Pacific has reinvigorated efforts by ratification proponents. They believe that were the United States to ratify the convention, it would gain more leverage in pressuring other nations—namely China, which ratified the convention in 1996—to abide by its terms. By refraining from acceding to the convention—they claim—the United States allows itself to remain open to criticism from China and loses moral ground to dispute their actions in the South China Sea. President Biden’s recent ASEAN summit highlighted the importance of demonstrating commitment to partnerships with other Southeast Asian nations. Ratification would supposedly assure them that the United States offers more than “empty promises and geopolitical rhetoric.”  

UNCLOS ratification would also allow the United States to bring complaints to an international dispute resolution body; a move that proponents believe would lessen the likelihood of direct confrontation with Chinese naval forces. However, China has openly disregarded unfavorable rulings by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in the recent past, so opponents remain skeptical that international organizations are actually capable of influencing China’s conduct.

The amended America Competes Act has yet to be reconciled with the Senate’s version, the United States Innovation and Competition Act of 2021. The reconciliation process could result in the UNCLOS language being changed or even removed entirely. Even if the final version of the legislation retains the language, UNCLOS ratification would require both presidential support and 67 votes in the Senate. While focus on the Indo-Pacific seems to have reinvigorated the long-standing debate, the fight for ratification is still an uphill battle. 

China-Pacific Islands Regional Security Pact Fails to Launch

China recently sought a regional security cooperation agreement with 10 Pacific Island nations that would encompass domestic policing, security, trade, data networks, and cybersecurity. Known as the China-Pacific Island Countries Common Development Vision, the proposed agreement sought to “strengthen exchanges and cooperation in the fields of traditional and non-traditional national security.” Earlier this month, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with his island nation counterparts in Fiji to discuss the proposed arrangement as part of a diplomatic visit to eight Pacific Island nations. In a media briefing in Beijing, Wang stated that his visit aimed to “consolidate mutual political trust, expand practical cooperation, deepen people-to-people ties and jointly build a closer community of destiny among China’s Pacific Island countries.”

Despite the People’s Republic of China (PRC)’s vision, the proposed agreement secured little support and sparked some backlash among the Pacific Island nations. In a letter addressed to 21 Pacific Island leaders, the president of the Federated States of Micronesia argued that China’s proposal should be rejected due to fears that it could spark a “new Cold War” between China and the West. 

The United States also spoke in opposition to the proposed agreement. State Department Spokesman Ned Price expressed skepticism that importing security forces and methods from the PRC would actually benefit any Pacific Island country. “Doing so can only seek to fuel regional and international tension and increase concerns over Beijing’s expansion of its internal apparatus to the Pacific,” Price warned. He added that the United States respects the ability of regional countries to make decisions in their best interests but cautioned that the PRC “has a pattern of offering shadowy, vague deals with little transparency or regional consultation.” 

Xie Feng, another senior PRC Foreign Ministry official who visited the Pacific Islands earlier this month, responded by alleging the United States’ “long-term neglect” of Pacific Island nations, and their use as “raw material suppliers, commodity dumping grounds, nuclear waste dumping grounds, and frontier island chain bases.” He claimed that regional leaders “praised China from the bottom of their hearts as a good partner and true friend, promised to adhere to the one-China principle, and firmly believed that developing relations with China would help them stand on the right side of history.” He warned against treating the South Pacific as a “boxing ring for zero-sum games.” PRC Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhao Lijian cautioned the United States to promote peace and cooperation rather than engaging in bloc confrontations in the region. 

Solomon Islands Agreement Fuels Concerns Over Militarization

Although China failed to secure endorsement from the Pacific Island nations for its proposed regional agreement this month, it successfully finalized a controversial bilateral security pact with the Solomon Islands in May. The pact reportedly allows the deployment of Chinese police and docking of Chinese ships in the islands. The agreement first sparked backlash when an unsigned document was leaked on Twitter back in March. The leak caused concern among the United States, Japan, and Australia that the agreement would lead to the establishment of a Chinese military installation in the Solomon Islands. Considering the United States and its allies’ opposition to a Chinese foothold in the South Pacific, the agreement is a significant diplomatic victory for Beijing. Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said that he looks forward to “productive engagement with Beijing … an important development partner at a very critical time in our history.” The Solomon Islands has given assurances that the deal does not invite China to establish a military base, but Washington remains unconvinced. Rep. Joe Courtney, a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, expressed doubts about China’s objectives in the Solomon Islands. “I think we’ve seen this movie before, when China promised President Obama in 2015 that the island-building was not going to result in a militarized presence,” he said. “They’ve obviously completely broken that promise. … [B]ecause of that experience, the West should be extremely skeptical.” In response to the pact, the United States has vowed to reestablish its embassy in Honiara—which has been closed since 1993—and claimed that it would “respond accordingly” to any steps taken by Beijing to establish a permanent military presence in the Solomon Islands. 

Japan also responded to the finalized agreement by increasing diplomatic efforts. Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Kentaro Uesugi made a three-day visit to the Solomon Islands in April to express Japan’s concern about the new security pact. Japan believes that the deal could negatively affect the security of the entire Asia-Pacific region. 

Australia’s opposition Labor Party described the success of the China-Solomon Islands pact as “the worst failure of Australian foreign policy in the Pacific since the end of World War II.” Then-Prime Minister of Australia Scott Morrison called a Chinese military base in the Solomon Islands a “red line” for his government. But Australia has not yet articulated what its response would be if China were to cross that line. Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng denounced talk of a base on the Solomon Islands as “fake news.” He then criticized Australia for infringement on another country’s sovereignty, interference in their internal affairs, coercion, intimidation, and obsession with colonialist myths, and asked on what grounds Australia could draw such a “red line” for China and the Solomon Islands.

China Expands and Modernizes Its Navy, Conducts Drills to Counter United States

China Launches Its Third and Most Advanced Aircraft Carrier

On June 17, China launched its third aircraft carrier. It was named “Fujian” after the Chinese coastal province, which houses the Eastern Theatre Command of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and sits directly across the strait separating mainland China from Taiwan. A photo from the launch ceremony taken from China’s state broadcaster CCTV shows the carrier draped with brightly colored streamers and wreathed by water cannons and colored smoke as it prepared to exit drydock for sea trials.

The Fujian is the first aircraft carrier domestically designed and manufactured in China. The Liaoning—the oldest of China’s three carriers—is a repurposed Soviet ship purchased from Ukraine in 1998. The country’s second carrier, the Shandong, was built in China using a Soviet design. Unlike the earlier carriers, the Fujian employs an electromagnetic catapult aircraft launching system similar to the EMALS system developed and employed by the U.S. Navy in the Ford-class aircraft carriers. The electromagnetic catapult puts less stress on aircraft than the older steam-type catapult launching systems and allows the carrier to launch a wider array of aircraft carrying heavier payloads of weaponry. With the launch of the Fujian, China joins the United States as the only two nations that currently have electromagnetic launch capability, with France and India exploring similar systems.

China’s navy is already numerically the largest in the world. Growth and modernization of its carrier fleet signifies intent to extend its operational reach and is a significant step toward developing a “blue water” navy capable of projecting power globally. China plans to develop six carrier strike groups by 2035. With the Fujian, China will soon be capable of fielding three carrier strike groups, matching the typical U.S. naval presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

While the Fujian is a conventional diesel-powered aircraft carrier, some analysts expect China’s fourth carrier to be nuclear powered. However, others express doubt that China’s nuclear reactor technology will have advanced enough to support an aircraft carrier by the time China expects to launch its fourth carrier (reportedly between 2025 and 2027). With 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, the U.S. Navy is the current world leader in this sphere.

The Shandong, which is currently undergoing scheduled maintenance and refurbishment, also appears to have been outfitted with drones for the first time. A video released by the PLA Navy seems to show a glimpse of the Shandong’s flight deck, on which a number of unmanned aerial vehicles are visible. But China is not the only nation modernizing its carrier fleet. Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force is updating its carriers JS Izumo and JS Kaga to be compatible with the F-35B fighter jet by the late 2020s. Japan has been closely monitoring the PLA Navy’s activities, especially since the Chinese carrier Liaoning conducted extensive flight operations in waters near Okinawa last month.

PLA Navy Conducts “Realistic Combat” Exercises

The launch of the Fujian coincided with the completion of the United States’ 12-day exercise Valiant Shield, which included air, sea, land, and cyber drills in Guam and the Northern Marianas. On Wednesday, the United States and 25 partner nations will begin the biennial Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise in and around Hawaii and southern California. According to the U.S. Navy, RIMPAC 2022 will exercise “a wide range of capabilities” ranging from “disaster relief and maritime security operations to sea control and complex warfighting.”

The PLA Navy has been active ahead of RIMPAC 2022. In addition to conducting carrier flight operations near Japan, China closed off a 100 square kilometer area south of Hainan Island to maritime traffic to hold naval exercises at the end of May. Two weeks earlier, a PLA destroyer and three corvettes carried out several days of anti-ship, anti-submarine, and air-defense exercises in the Yellow Sea. At the beginning of May, the PLA also engaged in “realistic combat” exercises in the vicinity of Taiwan. Chinese state-run media outlet the Global Times described the exercises as “effectively surrounding and enclosing the island under the watch of U.S. and Japanese aircraft carriers.” The Global Times called the U.S. and Japanese naval ships in the area “perfect practice partners” for the PLA Navy, as they could be the real opponents the PLA may one day have to face in the region.

Ballistic Missiles Take Aim at Full-Scale U.S. Naval Targets in Desert of Northwest China

Around the same time as the PLA naval exercises, the U.S. Naval Institute reported that a series of full-scale naval targets have been constructed in the Taklimakan Desert region of northwest China. The targets appear to represent port facilities, U.S. Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers, and U.S. Ford-class aircraft carriers. One of the images shows a destroyer-shaped target with what appears to be a missile impact in its center. The series of targets indicates that China is testing its ability to hit U.S. ships and installations with long-range ballistic missiles. A former lieutenant commander in Taiwan’s navy speculated that the configuration of the port facility target most closely resembles the Suao Naval Base in Taiwan, though it also has some similarity to Subic Bay in the Philippines and U.S. installations in Sasebo and Yokosuka, Japan.

Biden’s East Asia Trip Strengthens Regional Alliances, Focuses on China

United States Announces Long-Awaited Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity 

President Biden launched the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF) on May 23 in Tokyo with a dozen initial partners: Australia, Brunei, India, Indonesia, Japan, Republic of Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. The IPEF comes five years after the United States withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The framework aims to reestablish U.S. economic leadership in the region, which would provide a U.S.-led alternative to China’s economic partnerships and initiatives in the region.

Though the IPEF is not a multilateral trade agreement, the initiative focuses on four policy pillars, each led by an individual agency: Connected Economy, led by the U.S. Trade Representative, which covers trade; Resilient Economy, led by the Department of Commerce, which oversees supply chain resilience; Clean Economy, led by the Department of Commerce, which covers infrastructure, clean energy, and decarbonization; and Fair Economy, also led by the Department of Commerce, which covers tax and anti-corruption.

China responded to the IPEF announcement during a regular press conference with Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin. Wang called the initiative “an Asia-Pacific version of NATO” created to “wage a new Cold War in the Asia-Pacific region.” U.S. leaders, however, were optimistic about the initiative. During a press briefing on the IPEF, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan asserted that the initiative was “foundational” to U.S. efforts in the region, and described the IPEF as a “21st century economic arrangement designed to tackle 21st century economic challenges.”

As for next steps, IPEF partners will select the pillars on which they will enter negotiations. The Biden administration hopes to conclude negotiations within 12 to 18 months, and secure wins on topics regarding trade and supply chain issues.  

Quad Leaders Announce New Initiatives During Tokyo Summit 

On May 24, the leaders of the Quad nations—Australia, India, Japan, and the United States—met in Tokyo to advance the Quad’s commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific. The leaders announced a number of updates and new initiatives to provide the region with public goods, which is a key purpose of the Quad.

One of the largest initiatives announced at the summit was the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA). The IPMDA is a major maritime initiative that will offer “a near-real time, integrated, and cost-effective maritime domain awareness picture.” According to the Quad’s fact sheet about the summit, the IPMDA will connect three critical regions in the Indo-Pacific—the Pacific Islands, Southeast Asia, and the Indian Ocean region—and will allow partners in the region to monitor the waters on their shores, including tracking of “dark shipping,” rendezvous at sea, and illegal fishing. Such information sharing will be achieved by using commercially available data of existing Automatic Identification System and radio-frequency technologies, and by extending support to existing regional fusion centers. Analysts such as Zach Cooper and Gregory Poling from War on the Rocks are optimistic about the IPMDA, stating that the initiative could be a “flagship project for demonstrating the Quad’s value to regional countries” and would build on the Quad’s strengths in security cooperation and capacity building.

Other initiatives announced at the summit include the Quad Fellowship, which will sponsor 100 American, Australian, Indian, and Japanese students to study in the United States each year for graduate degrees in STEM fields; the Quad Infrastructure Coordination Group, which will further collaboration on connectivity and transportation infrastructure; and the Quad Humanitarian and Disaster Relief Mechanism, which will allow Quad partners to coordinate and mobilize disaster assistance efforts. The Quad also provided updates on actions taken in the cybersecurity, space, and climate areas.

On the day of the summit, China and Russia conducted a joint drill to express their displeasure. Six Chinese and Russian strategic bombers—accompanied by surveillance aircraft—flew over Japanese territory, including the Sea of Japan, the East China Sea, and the Pacific. In response to questions about the Quad summit during a regular press conference, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin stated, “Building small cliques and stoking bloc confrontation is the real threat to a peaceful, stable, and cooperative maritime order.”

Support for the Quad among members remains strong, even after new prime ministers have taken office in Australia and Japan since the first leaders’ summit in March 2021. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida welcomed Quad partners to Tokyo, and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese attended the summit immediately after being sworn into office. Albanese will host his Quad partners in Australia for next year’s summit.

Australian Military Surveillance Plane Intercepted by Chinese Fighter Aircraft

On June 5, a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) P-8 maritime surveillance aircraft was intercepted by a Chinese J-16 fighter aircraft during routine maritime surveillance activity in international airspace in the South China Sea region.

In its report, the Australian Department of Defense stated that the intercept was a “dangerous manoeuvre which posed a safety threat” to the Australian aircraft and its crew. In a televised interview, Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles said that the Chinese J-16 flew close to the RAAF aircraft, before releasing flares and chaff containing small strips of aluminum or zinc, which entered the Australian aircraft’s engine. According to Peter Layton, a former Australian Air Force officer, chaff ingested by an aircraft can be dangerous because it can damage a jet’s engine and in extreme instances can shut it down, forcing the aircraft to return to base and end its patrol.

Under the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea and the 1944 Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation, to which both Australia and China are parties, Australian aircraft have a right to fly in international airspace. Thus, China’s interference with the aircraft is a breach of international law. As Donald Rothwell, an international law professor at the Australian National University, stated, “Australia’s conduct in areas beyond the 12 nautical mile territorial sea—that is, whether it was surveillance or not—is irrelevant.”

China responded to Australia’s statement about the interception in a press conference held by Senior Colonel Tan Kefei, a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of National Defense, confirming the incident. Tan said that the Australian P-8 approached China’s airspace near the disputed Paracel (Xisha) Islands despite repeated warnings from the Chinese military. He also said that the Australian aircraft “seriously threatened China’s sovereignty and security,” and that the countermeasures taken by the Chinese military were “professional, safe, reasonable, and legitimate.”

The interception is not an isolated incident. On June 2, the Canadian military accused Chinese air force pilots of unprofessional and dangerous behavior during encounters with a Royal Canadian Air Force CP-140 Aurora aircraft in international airspace. This occurred as Canadian aircraft were enforcing U.N. sanctions against North Korea by monitoring activity in the East China Sea. In a statement, the Canadian Armed Forces said that in some instances, the Chinese aircraft flew so close to the CP-140 that the Canadian crew had to quickly change their flight path to avoid a potential collision. China again defended its actions, with China’s Ministry of National Defense spokesperson Senior Colonel Wu Qian calling Canada’s actions “provocative behavior,” and asserting that the Chinese military took “reasonable, effective, safe, and professional actions.”

The Australian interception incident is the latest of a string of incidents indicating strained relations between Australia and China. In May, Australia voiced concern over a Chinese intelligence ship tracked off Australia’s west coast within 50 miles of a sensitive defense facility, which is used by Australian, U.S., and allied submarines. And in February, Australia confronted China after an Australian Defence Force P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft was lased by Chinese PLA Navy warships, in what Australia asserts was a dangerous incident.

Tensions Around Taiwan Simmer After Biden Gaffe

President Biden pledged on May 23 that the United States would use military force to defend Taiwan if it were ever attacked by China. Biden’s statement suggested a departure from Washington’s long-standing policy of strategic ambiguity, prompting analysts to speculate about whether or not U.S. foreign policy around Taiwan had shifted.

The comment, made at a press conference during Biden’s trip to Japan, was quickly walked back by the White House and other advisers. In a statement sent to reporters, the White House said, “As the president said, our policy has not changed. He reiterated our One China Policy and our commitment to peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. He also reiterated our commitment under the Taiwan Relations Act to provide Taiwan with the military means to defend itself.” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made similar comments during a press conference, asserting that Biden’s comment “highlighted our commitment under the Taiwan Relations Act to help provide Taiwan the means to defend itself.”

This was not Biden’s first time publicly committing the United States to using force to help defend Taiwan if China were to invade. The State Department’s Taiwan fact sheet also changed during this time to reflect confusing signals from Washington after Biden’s statement. On May 5, the State Department deleted a declaration that the United States “does not support Taiwan independence,” which had been in place since 2018. A section recognizing China as the sole legal government of China was also deleted. On May 28, the line around Taiwan independence was reinstated in an updated version.

Despite attempts by the White House to correct Biden’s statement, China directly rejected Biden’s comments. During a press conference on May 23, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin stated that “China expresses strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition to the remarks by the US side. … On issues concerning China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and other core interests, China has no room for compromise or concession.” China’s PLA on May 25 described organizing combat drills in the waters and airspace around Taiwan as a response to Biden’s comment, but it was unclear whether the drills had taken place already or were to come.

Taiwan was one of the main topics on the agenda at the annual Shang-gri La Dialogue in Singapore a few weeks later. At the dialogue, Secretary Austin spoke with Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Wei Fenghe and attempted to further clarify Washington’s positions and ease tensions over Taiwan. According to Chinese Defense Ministry Spokesman Wu Qian, “[T]he meeting wasn’t long, but the effect was positive.” Both the United States and China emphasized open lines of communication to prevent crises. Additionally, in a public speech at the conference, Wei reinforced China’s position on Taiwan, stating: “Let me make this clear, if anyone dares to secede Taiwan from China, we would not hesitate to fight, we will fight at all costs and we will fight to the very end, this is the only choice for China.”

China has increased its military activity around Taiwan over the past year, as previous Water Wars columns have detailed. In May, on Biden’s first day in Asia, China flew 14 aircraft into the island’s air defense zone. As recently as June 21, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported that China sent its third-largest sortie of warplanes into its air defense identification zone (ADIZ). This incursion came after the United States rejected Chinese claims over the Taiwan Strait and reports of arms sales discussions between Taipei and Washington. The 29 Chinese aircraft—including six H-6 bombers and an electronic intelligence gathering plane—was the largest deployment of warplanes since May 30, when 30 PLA aircraft entered Taiwan’s ADIZ following Sen. Tammy Duckworth’s trip to the island.

Indonesia May Turn the Natuna Islands Into an SEZ 

Indonesia may convert the Natuna Islands in the South China Sea into a special economic zone (SEZ) to create its 19th SEZ. Earlier this year, Indonesian President Joko Widodo signed a presidential regulation to expand defense capabilities and economic development in the Islands. A primary goal of the Natuna Islands SEZ would be to reinforce maritime security and prevent China from strengthening its economic foothold near the islands.

However, Indonesia appears to be prioritizing defending itself against security challenges around the Natunas before converting the islands into an SEZ. The country intends to strengthen its defense and security around the islands, whose waters overlap with China’s self-proclaimed “nine-dash line” that denotes Beijing’s contested territorial claim over 90 percent of the South China Sea. By establishing a defense and security zone, Indonesia will be better able to carry out military and coast guard drills in the area. A senior palace official noted that such moves reflect the country’s desire to protect its territorial integrity, potentially in response to China’s transformation of three reefs in the Spratly Islands into military bases among other recent moves by China to lay claim to oil and gas resources in the Natuna area. To defend the Natuna Islands from China, Indonesia is planning to increase its military budget by 13 percent to fund defense equipment. 

North Korea Inches Closer to Its Seventh Nuclear Test

On June 5, a day after the United States and South Korea completed a three-day joint naval exercise, North Korea launched eight short-range ballistic missiles toward the waters off its east coast. In response, the U.S. and South Korean militaries fired eight surface-to-surface missiles from South Korea, and Japan and the United States conducted a joint ballistic missile exercise. The most recent launch followed North Korea’s launch of three ballistic missiles—likely including an intercontinental ballistic missile—while President Biden was returning to Washington after visiting Seoul and Tokyo. In response to that test, the United States and South Korea launched land-to-land missiles and 30 South Korean F-15K fighter jets performed an elephant walk on the tarmac, fully loaded with weapons. 

Recent developments suggest that North Korea may be gearing up for its seventh nuclear test. In April, leader Kim Jong-un vowed to expand Pyongyang’s arsenal of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles “at the fastest possible speed.” John Plumb, U.S. assistant secretary of defense for space policy, stated that North Korea’s expansion of its nuclear missile capabilities “pos[es] an increasing risk to the U.S. homeland and U.S. forces, allies, and partners in the region.” Indeed, North Korea has carried out 18 weapons tests in 2022, which is more than in 2020 and 2021 combined. These tests have included six long-range ballistic missiles, one medium-range Hwasong-12 missile, and 26 short-range missiles, including KN-23 Iskander missiles. Moreover, South Korean officials report that the North has developed an underground testing site in northeast North Korea and has been testing components of its ICBM under the guise of a satellite launch. On March 24, North Korea conducted an ICBM test, launching a missile capable of reaching the mainland United States, breaching its self-imposed moratorium.

The North’s aggression has sparked collaboration among the United States, South Korea, and Japan. The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command noted the North Korean weapons program’s “destabilizing impact,” and South Korea called the tests a “grave threat” to peace, calling for stronger enforcement of sanctions. In a joint press conference with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin affirmed that North Korean nuclear provocations would be met “with a united and firm response from ... the international community.” Blinken added that the United States is prepared to make both “short- and long-term adjustments” to U.S. military posture as appropriate to respond to threats from the North. On June 11, the United States, South Korea, and Japan agreed to regularize trilateral missile defense exercises and other trilateral actions to deter North Korea’s ballistic missile threats.

Russia and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution proposing tougher sanctions on North Korea after the country’s ballistic missile tests. The vetoes mark the first split in the Security Council in its actions to pressure North Korea since 2006. Deputy to the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Jeffrey Prescott noted that the vote “means North Korea will feel more free to take further escalatory actions.” China’s envoy to the U.N., by contrast, warned of the proposed sanctions’ “negative effects and escalation of confrontation.”


A War on the Rocks article by Mike Pietrucha analyzed factors impacting the likelihood of China’s successful invasion of Taiwan. Pietrucha argues that the Chinese military does not have the naval assets or auxiliary forces necessary to execute a successful amphibious assault operation. When counting every amphibious ship in operation or under construction as well as naval troop-carrying auxiliaries, China has 128 ships. However, the ships’ aggregate cargo and vehicle capacity amount to less than half that of the older World War II vessels. The author doubts that China has the logistical capabilities to move and support a large force ashore, especially given the Chinese military’s lack of combat experience. If China intends to invade Taiwan, it will need to make a “massive investment in amphibious capability” that “dwarfs” its current capacity.

The Heritage Foundation’s Brent Sadler characterizes the conflict over the South China Sea as a competition over whose vision of maritime order—Washington’s or Beijing’s—will control the region. According to Sadler, the lack of U.S. strategic attention and naval presence since the early 1990s has left a “maritime governance vacancy” that China has gradually filled. Sadler argues that the United States could counter China by deploying a visible naval presence around areas of economic importance at which conflicts involving China recur, such as Vietnam’s southern exclusive economic zone. While recognizing that preventing China’s domination of the maritime order in the South China Sea requires more than an enhanced U.S. naval presence, Sadler argues a greater American presence is a necessary first step.

Liu Pengyu, spokesperson for China’s embassy in the United States, said that “China opposes the creation of block-antagonism or separatist confrontation in the Asia-Pacific region.” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated on a call with Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi that it was “of concern and vigilance” that “the so-called Japan-U.S. joint effort to confront China ha[d] been rampant” before Biden visited Tokyo last month. While Biden aims to encourage greater collaboration between South Korea and Japan, former U.S. ambassador to Japan and current Sen. Bill Hagerty is “not overly optimistic” given the ease of reviving tensions to further domestic political goals. Former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs James A. Kelly noted that increasing South Korea’s involvement with the Quad, even short of full membership, would improve relations between the two countries.

In May, the National Bureau of Asian Research published a special report authored by Andrew Chubb cataloging how the South China Sea dispute has evolved over time using a dataset of assertive moves by China, the Philippines, and Vietnam from 1970 to 2015. The report makes several recommendations, including suggesting that deterrence strategy should focus on economic measures rather than military escalation and that ASEAN countries should prioritize resolving dormant intra-ASEAN disputes in the South China Sea.

1945’s James Holmes argued that the Marine Force’s Design 2030 is not mainly about constructing a barrier to maritime movement for China’s navy and air force and reducing China’s growing island influence in the South China Sea.

The Diplomat’s Jong Eun Lee weighed in on the growing North Korean nuclear threat, suggesting a “positive symmetry” approach to achieving a security balance in Northeast Asia. This approach would involve updating defense treaties with South Korea and Japan to include explicit provisions for extended nuclear deterrence; more integrated trilateral security cooperation and joint military exercises between the U.S., South Korea, and Japan; and diplomacy with North Korea focused on minimizing provocations and missile tests.

Teresa Chen is a J.D. student at Harvard Law School. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Global Affairs from Yale University.
Alana Nance is a J.D. student at Harvard Law School. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Chinese from the U.S. Naval Academy and served as an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Han-ah Sumner is a second-year J.D. student at Harvard Law School. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Ethics, Politics and Economics from Yale University.

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