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It’s no surprise that for US allies in Asia, “Top Gun: Maverick” is the most-watched US film of the year, topping the box office in South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. The simple story of US might and courage against a faceless diabolical adversary certainly resonates in a region facing growing threats.

But no one is betting that Tom Cruise and his young movie cohorts are coming to save the day. Northeast Asia is instead putting its faith and budget in building offensive and defensive missile capabilities to counter any potential spillover from China’s actions into Taiwan and continued provocations from North Korea.

This is an important change for Japan. The debate is no longer about missile defense, but about whether to strike enemy bases offensively. Fumio Kishida’s government is seeking to bolster its arsenal amid questions about its ability to counterattack – a controversial topic in a country whose constitution waives the “right of belligerence”.

Japan has not forgotten the North Korean missiles that flew over the country five years ago at the height of tensions between the administration of former US President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. Chinese projectiles launched over Taiwan landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone, while on Wednesday Taipei said it was stockpiling US-made weapons that Ukraine had used to hold off the Russian military to to deter Beijing. As Japan heads into a generational debate about whether to double its defense spending, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Tokyo fears that a North Korean “saturation” strategy of launching multiple missiles will mean any defensive shield could be overwhelmed, said Stephen Nagy, senior associate professor of international relations at Tokyo International Christian University. This led the security establishment to strike first. “Preemptive strike capabilities will give the Japanese the ability to threaten Pyongyang if it continues to engage in provocative behavior,” Nagy said, with that capability primarily aimed at North Korea, not China.

The legality of how and when Tokyo could use this ability under its pacifist constitution remains far from clear. New Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada, who took office in August, has nonetheless echoed those statements in recent days, pointing to the numerous ballistic missiles deployed by countries surrounding the island nation. Hamada said the world was entering a “new era of crisis”, describing it as the most difficult period since the end of World War II.

He wants all options, including the ability to counterattack, to be on the table. It’s one of the reasons his ministry is asking for a record 5.6 trillion yen ($40 billion) in next year’s budget, a figure that will once again increase the additional costs factored in. . Reports suggest Japan may be planning to deploy more than 1,000 missiles that would give it the ability to strike China as well as North Korea and Russia. These weapons would still be conventional, however, with Kishida sticking to the longstanding principle of rejecting the very possession of American nuclear weapons on Japanese soil.

In neighboring South Korea, the government has rejected calls to freeze the deployment of its American-made missile shield. Lockheed Martin Corp.’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System, or Thaad, was designed to help protect South Korea from attacks by North Korea; instead, he became the biggest obstacle to relations between Beijing and Seoul in decades when his deployment was announced in 2016.

Fearing the system would allow the United States to monitor its capabilities, China has declared Thaad a threat to the status quo. The system, which has no offensive strike capability, has led Beijing to declare an unofficial trade war against South Korea, hitting groups like Lotte Group with bogus business suspensions, squeezing the country’s revenue. tourism by suspending package tour sales in South Korea, and even harming the K-pop industry.

It was an extraordinary moment of Chinese brutality and should have been a warning to the United States about Beijing’s treatment of its neighbors. The compliant Moon Jae-in, who took office the following year, encouraged future deployments of this strategy only by acquiescing to Chinese demands with his “three no’s” policy: no additional Thaad deployments, no participation in a US-led missile defense. network and no involvement in a three-way alliance with the United States and Japan.

His successor Yoon Suk Yeol pledged to expand the Thaad system. There are no immediate signs of that happening, but Yoon’s administration dismissed all three noes and said the issue was “non-negotiable.”

Maybe there’s less at stake now: a Covid-free Beijing can’t really stop tourists from visiting South Korea this time around. But the threat from North Korea has not gone away, even as the rogue nation’s headline status has diminished since the days of “fire and fury”; Pyongyang has already fired more ballistic missiles in 2022 than any other year.

Even if Seoul doesn’t need reminders of the threat on its border, Yoon demonstrates a more lucid approach to Pyongyang’s provocations than Moon’s clumsy attempts at reunification. Polls show that more than 70% of South Koreans want the country to develop its own nuclear weapons, which it currently does not have. Likewise, after years of warning of the threat of Chinese expansion but doing little to contain it, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made it clear to Tokyo where she lives. After essentially abandoning diplomatic efforts to resolve a long-running territorial dispute with Russia. , Japan must be prepared for relations to become even more frosty.

How China’s leader Xi Jinping, once secured in his third term as leader, approaches the two nations — with either an attempt at reconciliation or new threats — is also crucial. Things are just heating up in the danger zone.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Ukraine is a wake-up call in faraway Japan: Gearoid Reidy

• China says Taiwan can be like Hong Kong: Matthew Brooker

• Pelosi Backlash shows Asia who China really is: Gearoid Reidy

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Gearoid Reidy is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Japan and the Koreas. He previously led the breaking news team in North Asia and was the deputy chief of the Tokyo bureau.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion


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