Region has to ease up on military drills at times of uncertainty
With Washington, Seoul and Pyongyang increasingly using threats and provocations there must be room to negotiate to ensure greater understanding
Military exercises are necessary to test new equipment. But they are also a way of sending a message to rivals about power and strength. Thousands of aircraft and dozens of ships have been deployed over and on East Asian seas in recent months by China, Russia, the United States and South Korea. With regional tensions so high, the frequency, proximity to opposing sides and timing raise the risks of accidents or mishaps that could too easily escalate into armed conflict.
Provocative nuclear and missile tests by North Korea have been the focus of numerous exercises in northeast Asia. The launch of Pyongyang’s most powerful and sophisticated intercontinental ballistic missile last month prompted a flurry of joint military activity by the US and South Korea that was followed by air and seaborne deployments by China and Russia, some on routes never used before. Russia had earlier flown nuclear-capable strategic bombers around and near the Korean peninsula. China and Russia are allies of the North; the US and the South are still technically at war with Pyongyang, having never formally signed a peace treaty to end the 1950 to 1953 Korean conflict.
Chinese long-range bombers, fighter jets and surveillance and refuelling aircraft were recently sent on missions over the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and the Philippines and the Miyako Strait near the Japanese island of Okinawa. Patrols circled Taiwan, prompting protests from the island’s government and the dispatching of aircraft and ships to monitor activities. Beijing has been testing new transport planes over the disputed waters of the South China Sea, and five warplanes also flew through disputed airspace with South Korea, prompting the scrambling of fighter jets.
Drills are a matter of course with militaries; air, sea and ground forces need to be alert to threats. When properly managed, they can also ease tensions through use of transparency, each side being able to judge the risk of getting involved in a conflict by what they observe. But the US, South Korea and the North are increasingly locked in a dangerous game of testing each other’s limits through a show of brute force alone. Washington and Pyongyang are increasingly using threats and provocations, pushing the stakes to worrying levels.
South Korea has asked the US to postpone annual joint spring exercises until after the upcoming Winter Olympics for fear of further provoking the North. Washington should accept the request, but it should go further by scrapping the drills and showing a willingness to negotiate. But the region’s militaries also need to put in place protocols to ensure greater transparency, communication and understanding. There is too great a risk of a misstep.