This post is authored by Michael F. Oppenheimer, clinical professor at New York University's Center for Global Affairs. Oppenheimer responds here to an article by Peter Huessy, director of strategic deterrent studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies and president of GeoStrategic Analysis. The below discussion is part of a project conducted by the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, supported by the Smith Richardson Foundation and Korea Foundation. This series of posts addresses the U.S. nuclear posture in Northeast Asia, implications of North Korean nuclear and missile programs for U.S. extended deterrence commitments, operational and tactical dimensions of deterrence on the peninsula, and regional dimensions of stability.
In his blog post “The Chinese Obstacle to a Nuclear Deal with North Korea,” Peter Huessy correctly observes that China has historically abetted North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, and remains ambivalent at best about exerting its considerable leverage to achieve denuclearization. I hold a different opinion from him, however, on China’s motivation and the prospects for its success. China would certainly welcome further North Korean nuclear weapons development as a means of dividing the United States from South Korea, but its limited cooperation on sanctions should be seen in the broader context of its long-term strategic calculations, which are entirely rational from the Chinese point of view.
The Chinese view an expanding North Korean nuclear program, and particularly an extended range for its nuclear tipped missiles, as hastening the erosion of American credibility throughout Asia, and eventually contributing to China’s assumption of the role of regional security guarantor. China has significant leverage over North Korea, but will take the risk exercising this leverage entails—instability on its border—only to promote its own regional hegemony, not to help the United States serve as regional peacemaker. China will pretend to cooperate on sanctions, doing just enough to avoid blame for their failure, while waiting for the United States to acknowledge the obvious: that deterrence is the only answer to North Korean nuclear weapons development, and extended deterrence in the face of increasing Chinese power will prove less persuasive to America’s allies than a China-centric security architecture, with the additional economic benefits that entails.
I believe this strategy has a fair chance of success over the long term, reinforced as it is by America’s chaotic retrenchment and ham-handed diplomacy throughout the region, higher U.S. risk associated with maintaining credible security guarantees given China’s growing relative power, and the deepening economic and financial interdependence between China and America’s Asian allies. While China may overplay its hand and the United States may rediscover diplomacy, this power transition is well under way. The transition is driven by a well-conceived Chinese strategy that will learn, over time, where and why to exert power or restraint, and by a U.S. retrenchment that represents the best policy fit to its decline in relative power (hopefully implemented with greater skill than currently).
American observers have been tempted to view China as encircling itself, as its growing assertiveness generates increased demand for American power in the region. American hegemony in this view is ‘built in’ to the structure of Asian power relations, and Chinese efforts to aggressively extend its influence are self-limiting. There is some of this thinking in Huessy’s post. For this logic to prevail however, the United States would have to be prepared to maintain credible extended deterrence (not just for itself, but for its Asian allies as well) in the face of growing Chinese power and North Korean nuclear developments. It also requires that our allies, as they think about the future of their security in China’s lengthening shadow, continue to view close security ties with the United States as entailing more benefit than risk.
Today, these calculations are changing to our detriment. America’s Asian allies find themselves in a complex and perilous position, dependent on China for economic growth and on the United States for security. As this economic dependence grows alongside Chinese power and ambition, America will have to meet the challenge of China’s drive for regional hegemony without forcing its allies to compromise their economic, financial, and technological ties with China, or to risk becoming collateral damage in a great power war. If the United States fails to do so, Chinese assertiveness will produce diminishing demand for U.S. power and create multiple opportunities for expanded Chinese influence. U.S. strategy for Asia must incorporate the conflicting trends of Asian economic interdependence and strategic rivalry, both of which are deepening. This is a far more complex task than we faced during the Cold War, and we are not navigating these complexities well. China’s implicit encouragement of North Korean nuclear development represents a bet that the regional insecurities generated by these developments will be viewed in Asia as mitigated most credibly by a Chinese-authored ‘regional security framework.’
There are, of course, risks for China in this scenario. Further North Korean nuclear advancement cuts both ways: it produces insecurity that could generate demand for Chinese power as U.S. credibility diminishes, but it could also deter any Chinese efforts to curb North Korean brinkmanship. The regional insecurity it generates could produce a nationalization of defense and promote nuclear proliferation, especially in South Korea and Japan. Huessy suggests that these potential effects, reinforced by American military deployment in the region, should be sufficient to incentivize China to opt for a U.S.-China constructed security framework. Empirical evidence is not decisively in favor of either of these scenarios, but I believe the structure of this problem favors the scenario I’ve proposed, and that future events will confirm this. China, a state with rising power and ambition facing a declining power suffering from political polarization and strategic chaos, will seize every opportunity to promote its regional hegemony. It will view the risks cited by Huessy as manageable, and well worth taking.
What, from an American perspective, to do? Broadly speaking, abandon wishful thinking. China does not view the world the way we would like it to, and does not prioritize ‘stability’ in Asia unless that stability is guaranteed by Chinese power. Stop investing precious diplomatic capital in the long shot of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and accept more limited goals to manage, and take advantage of, the inevitable insecurities that will emerge as the North Korean program progresses. Focus on making extended deterrence work by reinforcing our military posture in Asia and at home, while not forcing our Asian allies to make choices between ourselves and China. Use our clout to mediate the growing confrontation between two of our most important allies, Japan and South Korea (as we egregiously failed to do with BREXIT). Confront Chinese economic aggrandizement collectively, with our Asian and European allies, to exert more leverage on China and decrease U.S. exposure to risk.
Such approaches, implemented through effective diplomacy, may impede the rise of Chinese power but will not halt it. Doing less will leave gaps for Chinese power to fill. Tying to recoup lost ground post-Trump will invite an intensification of conflict, possibly leading to war, while our allies seek safety in neutrality or by bandwagoning with China. These unpalatable consequences are ‘built in’ to the future of the U.S.-China relationship.
Peter Huessy Response:
I agree with Oppenheimer’s commentary that China’s ambition is to supplant the United States in the Pacific, but disagree with his characterization of current U.S. policy and the chances that Chinese hegemonic goals can be thwarted. There is nothing inevitable about the rise of Chinese power. China faces severe challenges ahead, including an approaching demographic cliff, a debt they cannot manage, internal disunity, and a growing U.S. coalition in Asia that challenges China’s hegemonic objectives both economically and militarily. U.S. policy today faces a big challenge indeed, but seeing U.S. decline as inevitable—as we did post-Vietnam with the foolish adoption of détente—will only hasten the rise of authoritarian Chinese power, and is not what Americans would support.
If the United States maintains a strong presence in Asia and remains staunchly opposed to Chinese and North Korean goals, Chinese ambition may crumble in the face of its failure to induce an American retreat. In 1981, Reagan rejected the idea that the best we could do in the face of increasing Soviet strength was to passively, but gracefully, withdraw. Today, too, the United States and its allies will overcome advancing totalitarianism. My faith is in America to succeed.