Last month, when China marked its 70th national day with a civilian-military parade, it unveiled a new deadly weapon, the Dongfeng 41. It has a range that could reach farther than the most advanced intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) the United States has in its arsenal, threatening more major cities in the east coast, including the capital Washington, D.C.
US President Donald Trump’s decision earlier this year to walk away from a Cold War treaty with the former Soviet Union that banned land-based intermediate conventional and nuclear missiles with a range of more than 500 kilometers, could be right after all. China is not bound by the agreement and both the United States and now Russia were prevented from developing and deploying new long-range missiles.
China’s Dongfeng 41 has been in active service since 2017 but it was officially unveiled only during its 70th anniversary, announcing to Washington and Moscow that Beijing can hit their capitals. China’s warheads however are still smaller in numbers than those of the US and Russia, which have about 1,600 warheads each.
China still has a large number of short- and medium-range Dongfeng missiles that could target US interests in the Asia-Pacific region, including military bases in Japan and South Korea, as well as aircraft carriers on patrol in regional waters, particularly in the disputed South China Sea.
For the Philippines, there is a possibility the US co-located military bases in five Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) locations could be among China’s targets. Locations in Singapore, Australia and US territories in the Pacific, like Guam, are also likely targets.
The sudden demise of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty in August could re-ignite a nuclear arms race among the world’s major powers – the United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom and France as well as other nuclear weapons states, like India, Pakistan and North Korea. And it may even push other states, like Iran and Israel, to develop their own strategic weapons as a deterrent.
Thus, Southeast Asian countries must take a stronger stand against a nuclear weapons arms race, demanding from nuclear states, which are among the region’s dialogue partners, to honor and respect an agreement declaring this part of the world a nuclear-weapons-free zone. The agreement was signed in Bangkok in 1995 but it has failed to control the spread and proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region.
The United States has a policy of neither confirming nor denying the presence of nuclear weapons in ships and aircraft it rotates during regular port calls in the region. China has been silent on the matter, and the construction of military facilities on its seven artificial islands in the South China Sea has raised concerns over the possibility of nuclear weapons deployment there.
It is in the interest of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to force all major nuclear weapons states to recognize the nuclear weapons- free zone, using various mechanisms, including the annual Asean Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus and Asean Regional Forum (ARF), to obtain firm commitments from them.
Asean must invoke its centrality and leadership to protect Southeast Asia as China has set its ambitions to overtake the United States as the world’s dominant economic and military power in 2049. The year marks its 100 year anniversary as a sovereign state, free from any foreign influence after a century of humiliation at the hands of Western European powers.
After the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident, China started to gain influence in the region. Although it had assured its neighbors of a peaceful rise, it has expanded using soft power and calibrated force to dominate this part of the world. It has overtaken Japan as the world’s second largest economy and it has extended its hegemony over newer Asean members, like Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.
China’s influence on these three Southeast Asian states has threatened to divide Asean, as shown in 2012 when the bloc failed to produce a negotiated joint communique during the annual foreign ministers’ meeting. Cambodia objected to a Philippine proposal for a stronger statement on China’s activities in the South China Sea. At that time, China began its excessive land reclamation activities and prevented Filipinos from fishing and exploring oil and gas in its controlled waters, particularly in Scarborough Shoal and Mischief Reef.
China will not deploy its Dongfeng 41 to destroy puny Southeast Asian states. It will not waste its expensive nuclear warheads when it can co-opt political leaders in the region through soft loans, investments and official development assistance. But it can also overwhelm the region with its short-and medium-range tactical and conventional missiles as most Southeast Asian countries have smaller and weaker armies.
More than 50 years after Asean was organized to foster harmony, peace and progress in this part of the world, it now faces greater uncertainty as big power competition heats up in both trade and security.
Northeast and Southeast Asian countries now see Washington as an unreliable ally and partner. Trump has shown little interest in the Asia-Pacific, skipping the last Asean summit meetings in Bangkok and introducing a very vague “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy. It has also withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and its economic package is just a drop in the bucket compared with China’s “maritime silk road” under its Belt and Road Initiative.
The United States is already thinly spread throughout the world and China’s introduction of the Dongfeng 41 missile may force Washington to overspend on its research and development to develop and deploy a more lethal weapon. This could lead to another Cold War multi-polar rivalry.
There is an urgent need for Asean to unite, take the driver’s seat and force major nuclear power states to behave as responsible members of the international community. Nuclear states must agree to fresher missile control in the region, stop the development and deployment of strategic weapons, and temper China’s ambition to be the world’s number one superpower. It has become a more dangerous world.