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By Eleisha Foon, RNZ Pacific senior journalist

Pacific nations and smaller states are being urged to unite to avoid being caught in the crossfire of a possible nuclear conflict between China and the US.

On the cusp of a new missile age in the Indo-Pacific, a nuclear policy specialist suggests countries at the centre of the brewing geopolitical storm must rely on diplomacy to hold the superpowers accountable.

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Ankit Panda said it was crucial smaller states and Pacific nations concerned about potential nuclear conflict “engage in meaningful risk reduction, arms control and broader diplomacy to reduce the possibility of war.”

“States [which] are not formally aligned with the United States or China were more powerful united,” and this “may create greater incentives for China and the United States to engage in these talks,” the think tank’s nuclear policy program Stanton senior fellow said.

North Korea and the United States have been increasing their inventories of short- to intermediate-range missile systems, he said.

“The stakes are potentially nuclear conflict between two major superpowers with existential consequences for humanity at large.”

The US military’s newest long-range hypersonic missile system, called the ‘Dark Eagle’, could soon be deployed to Guam, he said.

Caught in crossfire
A report issued by the Congressional Budget Office last year suggested the missile could potentially reach Taiwan, parts of mainland China, and the North Korean capital of Pyongyang if deployed to Guam, he said.

“Asia and Pacific countries need to put this on the agenda in the way that many European states that were caught in the crossfire between the United States and the Soviet Union were willing to do during the Cold War,” Panda said.

In 2022, North Korea confirmed it had test-launched an intermediate-range ballistic missile capable of reaching Guam.

Guam is a US Pacific territory with a population of at least 170,000 people and home to US military bases.

Guam’s unique position
Panda said it could be argued that Guam’s unique position and military use by the US as a nuclear weapons base makes it even more of a target to North Korea.

He said North Korea will likely intensify its run of missile tests ahead of America’s presidential election in November.

“If [President] Biden is re-elected, they will continue to engage with China in good faith on arms control.

“But if [Donald] Trump gets elected then we can expect the opposite. We’ll see an increase in militarism and a race-to-arms conflict in the Indo-Pacific,” he said.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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