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On the Record

U.S. policy and East Asian security: Challenge and response

Evans J.R. Revere


Editor’s Note: On January 25-26, 2016, Evans Revere gave the following presentation at the 4th Korea Research Institute for National Strategy-Brookings Joint Conference on “Policy Directions of the ROK and the U.S. for Regional Stability in East Asia” in Seoul, Korea.

Summary

East Asia today faces a number of difficult challenges, beginning with that posed by a dynamic, militarily powerful China whose ambitions and intentions are far from clear. As U.S. policy makers deal with this challenge, their main task will be to try to accommodate a more activist China while simultaneously reassuring allies and partners that Beijing will not be allowed to become the regional hegemon or to supplant the United States as the region’s preeminent actor.

The challenge of China has major implications for the region’s economic and trade institutions, as well as East Asia’s military balance. The military dimension is particularly important, since Beijing has demonstrated that it is prepared to use military muscle to enforce its territorial claims. China’s actions have serious implications for the United States, which is committed to ensuring freedom of navigation and commerce in these vital waters and to supporting its regional allies and partners.

Regional concerns about China are being exacerbated by Beijing’s ongoing crackdown on human rights and individual freedoms, as well as its campaign to perpetuate the rule of an increasingly authoritarian Communist Party. For all these reasons, U.S.-China relations are certain to remain highly complex, difficult, and sensitive for the foreseeable future, even as U.S. policy makers seek a modus vivendi with China based on managing major differences and expanding areas of cooperation with Beijing.

North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them is an increasingly urgent regional challenge. Years of exhaustive diplomatic efforts by the United States and others have failed to prevent North Korea from becoming a de facto nuclear-weapons state. North Korea is today on the brink of being able to threaten the region, and U.S. territory, with nuclear weapons delivered by ballistic missiles. The January 6 nuclear test shows Pyongyang is making important strides in achieving this capability. Once it does, it will fundamentally alter security dynamics in East Asia and elevate regional concerns about peace and stability to a new level. Unless a way can be found to end North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, Pyongyang’s nuclear threat could be here to stay, fulfilling North Korea’s goal of becoming a permanent nuclear power.

Faced with this challenge, U.S. policy makers are looking at a range of difficult options as they try to thwart North Korea’s ambitions. They are likely to settle on an approach that greatly increases pressure on the Pyongyang regime, threatens the North’s economic viability, intensifies the DPRK’s isolation, and makes the regime’s choices as stark as possible – all in order to compel Pyongyang to resume carrying out its denuclearization commitments. Such an approach is long overdue, but it should also provide North Korea with an “off ramp” if the regime shows an interest in a diplomatic solution.

Until now, U. S. policy makers have put off making tough decisions to deal with the threat of a nuclear-armed North Korea in the hope that patience and quiet determination could solve the problem. The result has been an increasingly nuclear-armed North Korea and a rising threat to the region. The time for urgent action has now arrived.

Introduction

East Asia is undergoing a dynamic transformation. Propelled by a risen China, power relationships among regional actors are shifting, creating anxiety among China’s neighbors, as well as in the United States. The intentions and ambitions of a strong, revitalized, and militarily powerful China remain unclear, contributing to these concerns and providing a rationale for worst-case planning by the United States and others.

Meanwhile, North Korea’s determined pursuit of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them has introduced a major, perhaps game-changing, factor into regional security calculations. Today there is a real prospect that, unless a new mechanism can be found to denuclearize North Korea, Pyongyang’s nuclear threat will be here to stay — a reality that would fundamentally alter the region’s security environment.

These challenges exist in a region that is famously plagued by territorial disputes and the weighty legacy of colonial occupation, conflict, and tragic history. These factors contribute to lingering intra-regional animosity and resentment and could someday provide fuel for confrontation. Meanwhile, regional political developments, for example the outcome of Taiwan’s presidential election, remind us that we cannot assume that past flashpoints will not erupt again.

At a time of rising security concerns, it is no surprise that regional actors are increasingly uncertain about the future. Also no surprise is the fact that the demand signal emanating from America’s allies and partners for U.S. engagement, activism, and leadership is stronger than ever.

The so-called “rebalance” — the elevated diplomatic and military profile that the United States has adopted in Asia during the Obama Administration — has provided valuable reassurance of America’s commitment to friends and allies. But as regional threat perceptions evolve, and as the region’s political, diplomatic, and security dynamics shift, calls for an enhanced policy response to ease rising regional concerns by this and the next U.S. administration are bound to increase.

The ongoing U.S. presidential campaign has thus far seen little considered focus on the concerns mentioned here. This is unsurprising, since much of the foreign policy rhetoric in the campaign is aimed at scoring points and appealing to political bases, not advancing serious solutions to serious issues.

But soon the campaign sloganeering, rhetorical bombast, and one-upsmanship will be over, and a new U.S. president will have to deal with the reality of a transforming East Asia — a region filled with nervous allies and partners.

Among the many challenges facing the region and the new president, this paper will focus on two — China and North Korea — and outline the major policy tasks and priorities facing the current administration, and to which a new administration will necessarily devote its attention. This paper will also suggest new approaches for policy makers to consider as they face the task of responding to the challenges of a region in flux.

The China challenge

Without question, the preeminent geo-strategic challenge facing the United States in East Asia is the one posed by an economically and military powerful China eager to establish itself as a dominant — perhaps the predominant — actor in the region. For U.S. policy makers, the main task in responding to this challenge is trying to accommodate China’s determination to play a greater role while simultaneously reassuring allies and partners that Beijing will not be allowed to become the regional hegemon. In doing so, Washington must also tackle the challenge of keeping U.S. relations with China on a positive plane and establishing a modus vivendi with a Beijing whose intentions are opaque, whose ambitions are multi-dimensional, and whose ideological underpinnings run counter to core U.S. values.

China seeks a central role in regional institution building and intends to bring its considerable economic power to bear to ensure its voice is heard. Beijing’s establishment of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and its “One Belt, One Road” initiative, together with its activist membership in Asia’s Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), reflect both its ambitions and its increasing clout.

As long as these efforts remain transparent and open to broad participation, and as long as they adhere to globally accepted standards and do not undercut the role of existing institutions, they are to be welcomed. After all, the United States has long urged China to be a “responsible stakeholder,” and it is to be expected that a more economically powerful China would want to have a say in making the rules and shaping the institutions in which it participates.

But as China’s power and influence grow, U.S. policy makers are increasingly focused on how to ensure that China does not rewrite the rules of the regional economic and political order in a way that damages the status quo or enables Beijing to dominate regional institutions to the detriment of the United States and its interests — and to the consternation of America’s allies and partners.

Washington’s response to China thus far in this area has been problematic. U.S. rejection of AIIB membership sent the wrong signal to Beijing about U.S. willingness to cooperate with a more activist China. It also appeared to contradict Washington’s longstanding “stakeholder” argument. Washington’s decision not to join meant that the United States would not be a part of the decision-making fabric of the organization — preventing the United States from exercising leverage and from helping to shape the organization’s development. One task for future policy makers will be to revisit this ill-advised decision.[i]

Similarly, the U.S. argument that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is aimed at preventing China from “making the rules” on trade in the Asia-Pacific region has served to cast the TPP in a negative, anti-China light in the eyes of the PRC.[ii] Such an approach should be reconsidered and replaced by one that stresses that the door to membership will be open to China if and when Beijing is able to meet the TPP’s high standards. And it goes without saying that U.S. ratification of the TPP would be a major geopolitical and economic step forward for the United States and would send a strong signal of U.S. leadership to the region.

A much more problematic policy challenge is that being posed by China’s growing military power.

China is rapidly developing the capacity to advance its regional interests using its armed forces. Some of those interests do not correspond with those of its neighbors. At the same time, the speed and scope of China’s military buildup has raised questions about whether China’s ultimate goal is to achieve military dominance over the region and replace the United States as the leading military power in East Asia.[iii]

Chinese leaders regularly declare that their intention is not to supplant the United States or to push America out of the region. They frequently assure the United States that the Pacific is “big enough” for both powers.[iv] But the double-digit growth of China’s defense budgets, the acquisition of sophisticated systems that could offset longstanding U.S. military advantages in the Asian littoral, the development of a blue-water navy, and China’s focus on an anti-access/area-denial strategy on its periphery suggest that, at a minimum, the PRC intends to keep its options open.

The planned major reduction in the size of the PLA underscores China’s determination to improve its ability to engage in modern warfare. By streamlining regional military commands, shifting the center of gravity of the military from ground forces to higher-tech air and naval capabilities, by emphasizing joint command structures, and by moving the savings gained by demobilizing ground troops into improving combat technology and systems, China is building a military based on the U.S. model — a model that has shown considerable success in power projection and conducting offensive military operations.

China’s attention to a more modernized military reflects in part a legitimate desire to defend its territory, sovereignty, and interests. As China has become an increasingly prominent actor on the world stage, the range of these interests has naturally expanded, requiring corresponding attention to the means to defend them.

But China’s approach to its interests includes a vigorous assertion of territorial claims that has put the PRC at odds with many of its neighbors, including U.S. allies like Japan and the Philippines, and also contributed to an escalation of tensions in the region.

China’s claims in the South China Sea raise particular concerns. Some of these claims contravene or exceed what is permitted under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). And because China often uses military and paramilitary assets to enforce or assert its claims, they pose a potential threat to freedom of navigation and access in these strategically important waters.[v]

Meanwhile, China’s use of its naval, air, and Coast Guard assets around the disputed Senkaku Islands (called “Diaoyu” by the Chinese) has heightened Japanese concerns about China’s intentions. In a new development, the PRC has begun to send armed warships into the waters near the Japanese-controlled islands, increasing tensions and creating the possibility of a miscalculation or accidental confrontation.[vi]

While experts frequently argue whether China’s military growth and modernization will ever pose a serious threat to the United States, whose military capabilities are hardly declining, China’s actual use of military assets in dealing with several of its neighbors shows that Beijing’s threat is hardly a theoretical one. This challenge is made all the greater by China’s ongoing land reclamation and island-building in the South China Sea and the militarization of newly created land — steps that will inevitably give China new power projection capabilities in these sensitive waters.

The Obama Administration has responded to this situation with increasing intensity, using a range of policy tools, including:

• Vigorously asserting freedom of navigation rights in the South China Sea and the importance of maintaining the full range of customary high seas freedoms provided for under UNCLOS.
• Conducting freedom-of-navigation operations to challenge some of China’s (and others’) territorial claims and assertions where these do not comport with international law.
• Working with like-minded countries like Japan and Australia to build naval and air surveillance capacity to allow affected states to better monitor their waters and air space.
• Calling on all parties to resolve disputes peacefully and in accordance with relevant international law.
• Urging the adoption of a concrete code of conduct among disputants.

And with respect to the East China Sea, the United States has assured its Japanese ally that the U.S.-Japan Mutual Security Treaty covers the Japanese-administered islands.

The United States’ unambiguous support for its Japanese ally and Washington’s high-profile operations in the South China Sea have sent clear messages to Beijing. But if Chinese land reclamation and island building continue, or if there is further militarization of these islands or more Chinese military challenges to its neighbors, the United States will be compelled to take additional steps. These could include an expanded U.S. military presence in the waters and airspace of the South China Sea, more challenges to China’s territorial assertions, and further support for efforts by regional claimants to boost their military capabilities.

It remains to be seen whether Beijing will moderate its behavior in light of the current U.S. approach, or in response to the increased willingness of the countries on its littoral to push back when challenged. In the meantime, barring new developments, the waters of the East and South China Seas can be expected to remain areas of contention, possible miscalculation, or even confrontation. It is in this context that U.S.-China relations are expected to remain complex, difficult, and sensitive for the foreseeable future.

No less problematic for U.S.-PRC relations are internal developments in China.  Domestically, China is cracking down on intellectuals, NGOs, lawyers, and human rights advocates. The ongoing crackdown in China also threatens the vast educational, cultural, and people-to-people exchanges that serve as important ballast for U.S.-PRC relations.

In China, there has been a significant tightening of controls on the Internet and suppression of dissent and criticism, all in support of a major effort to revitalize the leading role of the Party. Even the Party itself, including its elites, are being targeted by a rigorous campaign led by Xi Jinping to stifle dissent and prevent “factionalism,” among other sins.[vii] These trends bear witness to a growing trend towards illiberalism in China.

Longstanding expectations in the United States that reform, opening, and the incorporation of China into the world order would transform China’s authoritarian political system into something more benign have not panned out. This has led to growing concern, even among some long-time American China hands, about China’s prospects, about the limits of reform, and the impact of a more authoritarian domestic approach on U.S.-China relations.

These developments highlight the fundamental differences between today’s PRC and the liberal international order advocated by the United States. Some experts have even predicted that China’s more authoritarian trajectory, coupled with its rising military and economic power, portend inevitable confrontation or conflict with the United States.[viii]

Chinese and American leaders have rejected this notion, emphasizing instead their determination to build a more cooperative relationship and to work together in dealing a range of bilateral and global issues. The September 2015 summit between President Obama and President Xi produced a number of agreements, including on the cessation of cyber-theft of intellectual property and an understanding that could lead to new rules of the road for conduct in cyberspace. The summit also saw progress on a bilateral investment treaty, climate change cooperation, and enhanced military-to-military communication.

But even a quick glance at the two leaders’ remarks at the summit’s concluding press conference found frank references to problematic issues that continue to plague bilateral relations, including human rights, the South China Sea, and cyber warfare.[ix] Nevertheless, the act of highlighting the gaps was a useful acknowledgement of the reality that there are important differences that require serious attention and hard work by the two governments.

Going forward, a key task of U.S. policy makers will be to develop a mechanism for managing relations with China in a way that advances cooperation and prevents differences from damaging ties. Towards this end, several principles may be helpful in guiding U.S. policy makers (and their Chinese counterparts) as they seek to develop a more cooperative relationship:

• First, the two countries should continue to acknowledge their differences, including those of fundamental values and ideology, and accept the fact that some of these differences may be irreconcilable, although they may be able to be managed.
• Second, the U.S. and China should acknowledge areas where their respective interests and goals create the potential for strategic rivalry and should seek to prevent these from negatively affecting areas of ongoing or potential cooperation. However, the United States should make clear its determination to abide by its principles, including by vigorously and coherently defending freedom of navigation.
• Third, both countries should make avoidance of military confrontation between them a central goal of their relationship and agree that a confrontation between the two would be disastrous and difficult to control.
• Fourth, Washington and Beijing should increase military transparency through exchanges, dialogue, and cooperation. Such cooperation should include a formal, high-level dialogue on nuclear weapons and strategic stability.
• Fifth, expanding the zone of cooperation between the U.S. and China should be a core goal of the relationship, and both sides should identify a range of issues on which they see real potential for enhanced bilateral cooperation.
• Sixth, the two sides should identify one or more areas that are particularly ripe for cooperation and use upcoming summits or other high-level leadership meetings as action-forcing events to energize their respective bureaucracies to develop plans for cooperation.

On the last point, the U.S. insistence that the cyber issue needed to be addressed at the September 2015 summit resulted in an unprecedented bilateral understanding on this sensitive issue. Needless to say, the proof of the value of this understanding will be in insuring that it is fully and faithfully implemented. Building on this experience, a valuable issue for future high-level focus should be the challenge posed by North Korea, which is today greater than it has ever been.

The North Korea challenge

North Korea is an urgent and dangerous problem for the United States and East Asia. It is the main challenge to regional peace and stability today.

Perhaps no regional foreign policy or security challenge has absorbed as much attention and effort as North Korea in recent years. The United States and like-minded countries have tried diplomacy, economic and political sanctions, informal dialogue, isolation, threats, and accommodation as they have sought to end North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. All these efforts have failed, and the danger posed by North Korea is growing.

It is now seven years since the Six-Party Talks — the multilateral forum designed to achieve North Korea’s denuclearization — last met. It is more than a decade since the conclusion of the September 19, 2005 agreement — the Six-Party agreement in which North Korea explicitly committed itself to denuclearization in return for an array of benefits and a fundamental transformation of relations with the United States and the international community.

Today, the Six-Party Talks and the September 19 agreement seem like distant memories as the region watches North Korea developing its nuclear and missile programs to newer and more sophisticated levels, virtually unrestrained by anything other than its own resources and ambitions. And the North’s ambition to become a credible nuclear power is on its way to being achieved. Pyongyang made this point suddenly and dramatically when it conducted its fourth nuclear weapons test on January 6, 2016.

While the test may have been of a fission bomb, not the fusion weapon that Pyongyang claimed, the successful test of a nuclear weapon by Pyongyang and the strong North Korean statement that announced it demonstrated that the North Korean regime has not slowed in its determined pursuit of nuclear weapons.[x]

North Korea has perfected two paths to fissile material production for nuclear weapons – uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing. By now, the North Korean regime may have new uranium enrichment capabilities in addition to the known facility at Yongbyon. Pyongyang is building a light-water reactor that would give it additional capacity to produce fissile material.

North Korea has also has developed intermediate-range, road-mobile missiles that, when deployed, would give it the ability to strike a range of regional targets, including targets on U.S. soil, with nuclear warheads. Senior U.S. experts have stated that North Korea has probably succeeded in developing miniaturized and shielded nuclear warheads — a key requirement if Pyongyang is to be able to attack targets as far away as the United States.[xi] The test on January 6 could have been of such a warhead.

Nuclear weapons constitute, together with economic modernization, the twin pillars of the North’s byungjin national development policy. Reliance on nuclear weapons is the centerpiece of North Korea’s plan for regime survival in the face of what Pyongyang perceives to be a “hostile” international environment and the “threat” posed by the United States. These points were explicit in the January 6 statement.

We should also not underestimate the degree to which nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles have become symbols of the regime’s power and prestige as Pyongyang tries to gain the respect and attention of the international community.

For Kim Jong Un, who came to power four years ago with a need to demonstrate both that he was up to the task of ruling North Korea and that he was a force to be reckoned with, nuclear weapons have become a valuable, even indispensable, tool.  And as Kim prepares to chair the first Korean Workers’ Party Congress in 35 years this spring, he will be able to point to nuclear weapons development as one of the successes of his leadership.

North Korea has declared itself a nuclear weapons state. This principle is now enshrined in its constitution. Pyongyang’s rhetoric and actions today treat its nuclear capabilities as a “given” — not a subject for concession or negotiation. While the United States and its partners may declare that they “will not accept North Korea as a nuclear state,” the reality is that the regime is well on its way to becoming just that.[xii]

It came as no surprise that an important overture by President Obama to engage North Korea in a dialogue on denuclearization was ignored by Pyongyang.[xiii] Instead, Pyongyang proposed “peace talks” and the conclusion of a peace treaty with the United States. This proposal is consistent with a pattern of North Korean rhetoric that seeks to change the subject of any future dialogue with the United States from denuclearization to peace talks and “arms reduction”, the latter a now-familiar euphemism for the end of the U.S.-ROK alliance, the removal of U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula, and the end of the U.S. nuclear umbrella over Korea and Japan.

For decades, U.S. efforts to engage North Korea sought to test Pyongyang’s sincerity and its interest in denuclearization. North Korea has failed this test. As a result, the United States and the international community face tough choices ahead as they deal with the reality of a North Korea that has no intention of giving up what it sees as the key to its survival.

After all that has been offered to Pyongyang over the years to convince it to denuclearize, it is hard to imagine what else might be used to induce the regime to give up its nuclear program. Experience has taught us that it not overly cynical to think that any renewed negotiations to end Pyongyang’s nuclear pursuit would have little chance of succeeding.

This dismal situation faces the current U.S. administration and will confront the next team of U.S. policy makers as they contemplate how to deal with the challenge of a nuclear North Korea. And as they weigh their options, they are likely to come to the same conclusions many non-government U.S. experts have, including that:

• Reliance on conventional diplomacy and existing sanctions is unlikely to compel the North Korean regime to resume implementing its denuclearization commitments or stop its nuclear program.
• Military action or forcible regime change are likely to remain unacceptable or unrealizable means for achieving the denuclearization of North Korea.
• A nuclear-armed North Korea with the ability to strike or threaten regional targets with nuclear warheads will generate profound concern among U.S. regional allies and partners, particularly Japan and the Republic of Korea;

• It will raise questions about the U.S. commitment to defend its allies using its strategic arsenal;
• It will create demands for more explicit U.S. commitments and extended deterrence assurances by the United States;
• And it and will fundamentally alter security dynamics in the East Asia region.

• Additional U.S. steps to reassure and defend its allies, particularly new deployments of missile-related defenses and the designation of additional military assets to deal with Pyongyang’s threat are likely to complicate relations with the PRC, which will see these steps as devaluing China’s own strategic arsenal.

U.S. policy makers will probably also conclude that Pyongyang would not use its nuclear arsenal for fear of massive retaliation by the United States. For the United States, the greatest danger in the coming years may not be that North Korea would use nuclear weapons against these targets, even though Pyongyang has said that it would. Nevertheless, policy makers would be deeply remiss in not taking into account the possibility that North Korea might miscalculate and do what it has promised to do.

In addition, North Korea’s possession of deliverable nuclear weapons would enable it to engage in nuclear blackmail in the event of a regional crisis. It would increase significantly the possibility of proliferation by the North and could prompt North Korea’s non-nuclear neighbors to consider developing their own nuclear deterrent.  Op-Ed writers and some political leaders in South Korea are already calling for this.

As they look to the rising challenge posed by North Korea, American policy makers are certain to conduct a reassessment of U.S. policy. Their review will be necessitated by the realization that the North’s acquisition of nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems is creating a new and dangerous situation in East Asia.

The policy choices that grow out of this review should be driven by the conclusion that only by escalating pressure on North Korea, narrowing the regime’s choices, and enhancing regional and international cooperation to deal with the threat can the United States hope to convince Pyongyang to reconsider its development of nuclear weapons. Policy makers may also conclude that only by threatening what the North Korean regime holds most dear — the stability and survival of its system — can the United States hope to change Pyongyang’s policy and priorities.

The tool kit that the United States could d

raw on to carry out such an approach might consist of some or all of the following:

• Tougher, targeted economic sanctions, including on the North Korean banking system and on financial flows that sustain the regime.
• Economic and financial measures, implemented with the support of North Korea’s trading partners, designed to limit Pyongyang’s access to foreign exchange, fuel, and other essential commodities.
• Enhanced deterrence steps, including the deployment of missile defense assets to the region, increased force deployments to counter the North’s nuclear and conventional threats, more explicit public warnings to the North, and high-profile public statements of assurance to U.S. regional allies.
• An increase in the tempo and scope of joint and combined military exercises on and around the Korean Peninsula.
• Expanded efforts to interdict North Korean ships and aircraft suspected of sanctions violations or trafficking in WMD.
• An increased focus on the North’s dismal human rights record in the United Nations and other international fora.
• More efforts to increase the flow of information into North Korea by radio broadcasts, DVDs, and other means.
• Covert steps designed to undermine North Korea’s ability to support financially its WMD-related programs.

At the same time, U.S. policy makers might conclude that such an approach should usefully be accompanied by a renewed emphasis on diplomacy to give the North Korean regime an “off-ramp” to re-engage in dialogue.[xiv]

Policy makers will also recognize that securing Chinese cooperation will be critical if increased pressure is to succeed. A single-minded focus on pressure alone is unlikely to win Chinese support. However, if combined with a serious effort to restart bilateral (U.S.-DPRK) and multilateral dialogue, Beijing’s support might be obtained, although we should not underestimate how difficult this will be.

The PRC’s relationship with North Korea has become increasingly complex and difficult. In the past, Beijing’s approach to dealing with Pyongyang was driven by a desire to maintain stability on the peninsula and avoid conflict on its Northeast border. Other concerns, even those created by Pyongyang’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, have usually been subordinated to the priority of stability.

However, with North Korea’s continued military provocations, threats to use nuclear weapons, and with Pyongyang approaching the point at which it will pose a credible nuclear threat to its neighbors, Beijing may be inclined to reconsider the wisdom of its past approach.

The January 6 nuclear test was nothing if not a slap at China, which had tried to improve relations with the DPRK in late 2015 and dispatched a senior member of the CCP Politburo to Pyongyang with the understanding that North Korea would forego provocations, including nuclear and missile tests. Beijing was almost certainly stunned and humiliated when North Korea began 2016 with a nuclear weapons test near the Chinese border.

But despite China’s ire, we should not expect China would abandon its only treaty ally. Importantly, many in China remain convinced that the United States bears as much responsibility as North Korea for the current situation.

Despite China’s reluctance to increase pressure on North Korea, concerns are rising in China about North Korean behavior. It remains to be seen whether the recent nuclear test will prompt Beijing to work with the United States and others in developing a strong common response to this latest provocation.

But if the latest nuclear test and the insult it conveyed to China do not convince Beijing that the time has come to use its leverage against North Korea, than nothing is likely to do so. Should China not be prepared to cooperate in putting in place additional sanctions and other measures to deal with the emerging North Korean threat, the United States and its partners must be prepared to work without Beijing’s support, but leave the door open to Chinese participation if the PRC reconsiders its position.

Meanwhile, Beijing understands that North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems provide a powerful rationale and justification for U.S. military deployments and exercises on and around the Korean Peninsula — with implications for China’s own security. If anything, the recent test increases the likelihood that the United States will ramp up its military posture on and around the Korean Peninsula.

Quiet, official, high-level dialogue between the United States and China (a dialogue that should also bring in the Republic of Korea) will be crucial to the development of a common approach to deal with the emerging threat from North Korea. Importantly, Chinese experts are increasingly willing to acknowledge privately that Beijing’s policy approach has also failed and is in need of reassessment. And with the North’s nuclear weapons and missiles on the verge of changing security dynamics in the region, China has an incentive to reconsider its traditional support for the North.

American policymakers should encourage such a reassessment and underscore U.S. preparedness to work more closely with China, together with the ROK, in shaping the future of the Korean Peninsula in ways that would eliminate a source of regional instability and accord with the aspirations of the Korean people, as well as with the interests of both the United States and the PRC.

Towards this end, U.S.-PRC-ROK discussions should ultimately include frank and quiet dialogue about issues connected with Korea’s eventual reunification, including the status of U.S. troops in a reunified Korea, a united Korea’s military capability, the management of refugees, and the disposition of the North’s nuclear weapons and other WMD. The resolution of these issues could provide important reassurances to China about the future of the Korean Peninsula.

In the absence of Chinese willingness to be more cooperative in applying pressure on the North Korean regime, dealing effectively with the North will be difficult.  Pyongyang understands this and is likely to seek to manage relations with China, as it has in the past, in a way that ensures continued PRC tolerance for its behavior and support for its existence.

If Pyongyang succeeds in doing so, the regime will continue to make significant strides in developing nuclear weapons and missiles, and pose an even greater challenge to the United States and like-minded countries. The current U.S. administration has been able to defer making the tough decisions to deal with the regional implications of a nuclear-armed North Korea. The recent nuclear test has now made clear that putting off these decisions is no longer an acceptable option.

A Final Word – “Wildcards”

China and North Korea may be the most prominent policy challenges facing the United States, but they are by no means the only ones. U.S. policy makers face the prospect of sudden developments — “wildcards” — that could roil the region and increase regional tensions.

One of these is Taiwan, where a victory by the opposition, pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the January 16, 2016 presidential election has unsettled the PRC. How will Mainland China respond to the DPP victory? Will Beijing continue to think that time is on its side and that eventual unification is in the cards, despite the DPP victory, growing Taiwan identity, and increasing mistrust of the Mainland in Taiwan?

Will China’s leaders accept an alternative to the “1992 Consensus” – the artfully ambiguous one-China formula that has bridged cross-Taiwan Strait differences, but which is not accepted by DPP leader and President-elect Tsai Ing-wen? Could growing economic and social difficulties in the PRC prompt Xi Jinping to distract a restive population by using nationalistic fervor over Taiwan? The answers to these questions will determine whether Taiwan once again becomes a flashpoint in East Asia.

Elsewhere in East Asia, what about Japan-Korea relations? Will they continue to improve, building on the recent breakthrough agreement on the “comfort women” issue? Or will either Seoul or Tokyo retreat from their commitments in the agreement and cause this emotional issue to once again damage bilateral ties and undermine trilateral cooperation with the United States?

And what of Japan-China ties and their dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands?  Does China’s military challenge to Japan’s control over the islands and Japan’s determination not to yield on sovereignty mean that the two powers are inevitably headed for confrontation? Or will the fact that the two sides have been taking halting steps to improve ties lead to an agreement to disagree on the islands and a reduction in tensions?

For East Asia, a region being transformed, the issues addressed in this paper represent formidable concerns. For U.S. policy makers, they are important challenges, the successful management of which will provide an opportunity to demonstrate American leadership in a region eager to see America play the role that only it can.


[i] For a useful summary of concerns about the U.S. position on AIIB, see:  Stephen S. Roach, Zha Daojiong, Scott Kennedy, and Patrick Chovanec, “Washington’s Big China Screw-Up,” Foreign Policy, March 26, 2015, available at: http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/03/26/washingtons-big-china-screw-up-aiib-asia-infrastructure-investment-bank-china-containment-chinafile/

[ii] “Statement by the President on the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” The White House, October 5, 2015, available at: https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/10/05/statement-president-trans-pacific-partnership

[iii] For a skeptical/critical view of China’s intentions, see John J. Mearsheimer, “The Gathering Storm: China’s Challenge to US Power in Asia,” The Chinese Journal of International Politics, Volume 3, Issue 4, 2010, pp. 381-396.  Available at: http://cjip.oxfordjournals.org/content/3/4/381.full.  For a more benign view and a more positive assessment of the prospects for continued U.S. pre-eminence, see Joseph S. Nye, Jr.,  “The China Challenge,” Boston Globe, April 3, 2015, available at: https://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2015/04/03/the-china-challenge/fCvYDdIwhtSjBctl0nfn3J/story.html

[iv] See, for example, Sang-won Yoon, “Xi Tells Kerry China and U.S. Can Both Be Pacific Powers,” Bloomberg Business, May 17, 2015, available at: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-05-17/xi-sees-room-for-both-china-u-s-as-powers-in-pacific-region

[v] For an overview of China’s claims, the relevance of UNCLOS, and a discussion of regional tensions and U.S. interests, see: Jeffrey Bader, Kenneth Lieberthal, and Michael McDevitt, “Keeping the South China Sea in Perspective,” Brookings Policy Brief, August 2014, available at: http://www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2014/08/south-china-sea-perspective-bader-lieberthal-mcdevitt

[vi] James Mayger and Yuji Nakamura, “Japan Protests Intrusion of Armed Chinese Vessel Into Its Waters,” Bloomberg Business, December 26, 2015, available at: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-12-26/japan-coast-guard-says-three-chinese-ships-near-senkaku-islands

[vii] See, for example, Jun Mai, “All the President’s Men: Xi Jinping tells Communist Party’s top echelon to unite behind him in thought and action,” South China Morning Post, January 9, 2016, available at: http://www.scmp.com/news/china/policies-politics/article/1899546/all-fall-chinas-president-tells-communist-partys-top?page=all, Laura Zhou, “Some questions should not be asked, China’s President Xi Jinping tells Communist Party members,” South China Morning Post, January 3, 2016, available at:  http://www.scmp.com/news/china/policies-politics/article/1897837/some-questions-should-not-be-asked-chinas-president-xi, and Simon Denyer, “China’s Xi tells grumbling party cadres: ‘Don’t talk back,’” Washington Post, December 29, 2015, available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/chinas-xi-tells-grumbling-party-cadres-dont-talk-back/2015/12/27/a6b25d2c-a446-11e5-8318-bd8caed8c588_story.html

[viii] Robert D. Blackwill and Ashley J. Tellis, “Revising U.S. Grand Strategy Toward China,” Council on Foreign Relations, Council Special Report No. 72, April 2015, available at:   http://www.cfr.org/china/revising-us-grand-strategy-toward-china/p36371

[ix] “Remarks by President Obama and President Xi of the People’s Republic of China in Joint Press Conference,” The White House, September 25, 2015, available at: https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/09/25/remarks-president-obama-and-president-xi-peoples-republic-china-joint

[x] English translation of the statement can be found in: “North Korea’s Hydrogen-Bomb Statement, Wall Street Journal, January 6, 2016, available at: http://www.wsj.com/articles/north-koreas-hydrogen-bomb-statement-1452060894

[xi] Elizabeth Shim, “U.S. Commander: North Korea has capacity to miniaturize nuclear warheads,” UPI, October 9, 2015, available at: http://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2015/10/09/US-commander-North-Korea-has-capacity-to-miniaturize-nuclear-warheads/9831444398424/

[xii] Pamela Dockins, “Analysts: Broad Response Need to N. Korea Test,” Voice of America, January 6, 2016, available at: http://www.voanews.com/content/analysts-broad-response-needed-to-north-korea-test/3134027.html

[xiii] Associated Press, “Obama: If North Korea is serious about no nukes, we’ll talk,” New York Post, October 16, 2015, available at: http://nypost.com/2015/10/16/obama-if-north-korea-is-serious-on-denuclearization-well-talk/

[xiv] For additional details on measures that could be taken and a discussion of diplomatic options, see: Evans J.R. Revere, “Re-Engaging North Korea After Kim Jong-il’s Death: Last, Best Hope or Dialogue to Nowhere?”, Brookings, Policy Paper No. 29, January 2012, available at:  http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/papers/2012/1/11-north-korea-revere/0111_north_korea_revere.pdf,

Evans J.R. Revere, “Facing the Facts: Towards a New U.S. North Korea Policy,” Brookings, Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies (CNAPS), CNAPS Working Paper, October 2013, available at:  http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/papers/2013/10/16-north-korea-denuclearization-revere/16-north-korea-denuclearization-revere-paper.pdf,

Evans J.R. Revere, “United States-Republic of Korea Relations in President Obama’s Second Term: Managing Challenge and Change,” Brookings, CNAPS Working Paper, February 2013, available at: http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/Research/Files/Papers/2013/02/us-south-korea-relations-revere/us-south-korea-relations-revere.pdf?la=en,

And also, Bruce Klingner, “Time to get North Korea Sanctions Right,” The Heritage Foundation, Backgrounder No. 2850 on Asia and the Pacific, November 4, 2013, available at: http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2013/11/time-to-get-north-korean-sanctions-right

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