Written by Flynt L. Leverett.
North Korea’s missile launches last week are an early warning that the Trump administration’s Asia strategy could end up triggering the world’s next major war.
Spurred by the launches, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is touring Japan, South Korea and China this week. But Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile activities are not Trump’s priority in Asia.
For Trump and “inner circle” advisers like Steve Bannon, the top concern is economic. Trump and his team see U.S. trade deficits, concentrated in Asia, as draining America’s wealth and threatening its national security. Trump claims he is out to redefine U.S. economic ties to Asia’s major economies.
Whatever this goal’s merits, from my experience at the National Security Council, on the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff and as a visiting scholar at Peking University, I believe it is dangerously flawed as a basis for U.S. Asia strategy. Asia today is more economically interdependent than any other part of the world. It also has serious security challenges. Besides competitive posturing on the Korean peninsula, these challenges include escalating disputes in the East and South China seas.
Yet there is no mechanism bringing America and its Asian allies together with China to manage these problems through multilateral diplomacy.
This raises risks that regional security challenges will turn into armed conflicts. The devastation that such conflicts would wreak on global welfare makes it imperative that Washington and major regional players create an effective security framework. I’m concerned that Trump’s strategy ignores this imperative.
Trump and Asia’s diplomacy deficit
Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs highlight the dangers flowing from Asia’s lack of a regional security mechanism. North Korea is chronically concerned that its security is at risk. Consequently, it takes steps to develop nuclear and missile capabilities that, from Pyongyang’s vantage, might keep America and its allies at bay. But Pyongyang’s quest for deterrence also raises risks that conventional conflict in Korea escalates to nuclear war.
In my assessment, Trump does not view conflict prevention in Korea as an urgent focus. Trumpian rhetoric emphasizes “radical Islam” and illegal immigration as immediate threats to Americans. Through this prism, war in Asia seems less directly dangerous. North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear-armed missiles could even be a useful lever to advance Trump’s real regional goals.
North Korean nuclear and missile tests give Trump openings to “reassure” Japan and South Korea, in more fulsome terms than his campaign rhetoric suggested, of U.S. commitment to their security. He has already done so directly and through Defense Secretary James Mattis. Last week, Trump deployed the first Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) units to South Korea, which can purportedly intercept North Korean warheads.
To this end, Trump seeks to increase pressure on China by expanding America’s regional military posture. Pyongyang’s weapons tests create openings to do so. Already, Beijing worries that THAAD deployments to Asia could ultimately threaten China’s defensive and deterrent capabilities.
But Trump’s strategy offers no solution to security problems associated with North Korea’s nuclear and missile development.
Solving the North Korea problem
As previous U.S. administrations have learned, there is no preventive military option against Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile capabilities. Attacking them will trigger Seoul’s destruction by North Korean conventional artillery.
Saying the problem is China’s to solve won’t work, either.
Beijing is increasingly displeased with North Korea’s nuclear and missile displays. But there are 30,000 U.S. soldiers in South Korea today. In such a setting, Beijing will not accept U.S.-allied South Korea’s effective extension to China’s border. This could enable deployment of tens of thousands of U.S. troops to that border. Thus, Beijing will never press Pyongyang in ways that bring North Korea to the verge of collapse, no matter how much Washington wants it to.
If Trump wanted to solve the Korea problem, he would pursue what China proposed last week: dual track diplomacy aimed at “denuclearizing the peninsula on the one hand and establishing a peace mechanism on the other.” Initially, this would entail “suspension for suspension.” Pyongyang would halt its weapons tests; Washington and Seoul would stop joint military exercises.
Parties could then negotiate more comprehensively. America and its allies would seek a Korea without nuclear weapons. For Pyongyang and Beijing, denuclearization would be joined with a regional “peace mechanism” and a U.S.-North Korean peace treaty.
But the dual track would commit America to a cooperative approach to Asian security. And that would not help Trump pursue his economic goals. In a stable Asia, how would Trump leverage military power to extract economic concessions from allies or from China?
Barring major changes in Trump’s Asia strategy, North Korea will likely keep developing its strategic deterrent. This will continue raising risks that conventional conflict on the Korean peninsula escalates rapidly to nuclear war.
China is reacting deliberately to what it sees as provocative U.S. policies. President Xi wants a summit with Trump before July’s G20 summit. Chinese officials and analysts also say Xi wants to keep Sino-U.S. relations on a relatively even keel through this fall’s 19th Party Congress. The Congress will approve Xi’s second term as China’s top leader. Xi wants to be seen as a steady steward of Chinese interests in a global order still significantly influenced by Washington.
Meanwhile, China may not mind if Trump renegotiates America’s economic relationships in Asia – especially to the extent this happens at the expense of U.S. allies. But if Trump keeps building what China sees as a more robust and ultimately offensive regional military posture, Beijing will respond.
China will leverage its own economic and political ties to U.S. allies in Asia to constrain and undermine Trump’s strategy. Recently impeached South Korean President Park Geun-hye will probably be replaced by a progressive figure espousing engagement with Pyongyang and more multilateral regional security approaches. This could position Beijing to contain and ultimately reverse U.S. THAAD deployments.
Overall, Trump’s Asia strategy is unlikely to boost Sino-U.S. cooperation on regional security. Instead, it will almost certainly intensify Sino-U.S. security competition.