North Korea's test firing last week of two ballistic missiles, and the appointment by Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of a new hawkish foreign minister both come on top of China's disappointing recent dismissal of an international court's finding against its South China Sea claims . All reflect an ominous and incremental ratcheting up of aggressive posturing by regional states which is stoking local political tensions and dangerous military standoffs.
The war of words has been amplified by the anticipated approval last month by South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye of deployment in the country of a controversial US missile defence system – the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) – to protect it from North Korean threats. China and Russia have objected strenuously to what they see as a threat and a contributor to the regional tensions. The implication that the decision might have triggered the North’s tests was vigorously denied by US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power.
But it is an escalation as are the North Korean tests and its nuclear programme. One missile landed inside Japan's territorial waters, the closest to the mainland since 1998. Abe denounced it as a "serious threat" and Japan has already said it is also upgrading its missile defences ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games to counter more advanced North Korean weapons.
Regional increases in military spending and bellicose language are also reflected in the ongoing push by Abe to rewrite Japan's pacifist constitution to allow it to project military power. In naming hawkish Tomomi Inada as foreign minister, he has signalled he is in no mood to wind down tensions. Inada is a strong supporter of his constitutional project and a nationalist who has often visited shrines honouring Japan's war dead, a running sore in its relations with both China and South Korea. Last year she publicly questioned the findings of the Tokyo tribunal which convicted Japanese leaders of war crimes after the war.
Japan’s annual defence review, published last Tuesday, warned ominously of “unintended consequences” should China ignore the Hague court ruling on the islands in the South China Sea. Although it has not shown an inclination to directly confront Beijing’s island claims, seen as a threat to its shipping routes, Tokyo has been providing equipment and training to southeast Asian nations which are most opposed to China’s territorial ambitions.
Meanwhile, in a chilling reminder of the Cold War, Pyonyang has resumed short wave broadcasts of lists of random numbers, believed to be coded instructions to its agents in the South. In a recent episode an announcer read “a mathematics review assignment for investigative agent No. 27” engaged in a “distance learning” programme and continued to cite numbers for 14 minutes.