Both at this week’s region-wide Asia summit and bilateral meetings in Beijing with China’s leader Xi Jinping and others, President Obama will be lacking the kind of crucial military leverage his successors could count on: escalation dominance. And its accelerating loss is undercutting the wisdom not only of his policy of reemphasizing the Asia-Pacific region in America’s global grand strategy, but of the fundamental approach to Asian allies and rivals pursued by Washington since the end of World War II.
Put simply, escalation dominance is the capacity to deter a prospective adversary from challenging major interests, and has been enjoyed by the United States in East Asia due to its superiority in nuclear weapons. America’s military strategy for protecting Korea, Japan, and others has utilized conventional forces as well. But given the conventional military power of China and North Korea in particular, it’s been nuclear weapons that have mainly and continually forced Beijing and Pyongyang to think long and hard before threatening or moving against their neighbors. After all, defying Washington ultimately could unleash a U.S. nuclear attack to which adversaries had no comparable response.
It’s true that China has possessed nuclear weapons for decades, and North Korea successfully tested its first nuclear device in 2006. But although the U.S. edge has narrowed steadily, in terms of quantity and quality, these Asian nuclear forces have remained positively dwarfed by America’s.
In just the last month, however, the U.S. Defense Department has reported important moves by North Korea and China that spell big trouble for America’s nuclear lead and the policies it undergirds. In late October, the commander of American forces in Korea told reporters that the North can now build a miniaturized nuclear missile warhead. Pyongyang had already claimed (but there’s no confirmation yet) to have missiles with ranges long enough to hit the United States. But creating a nuclear explosive small enough actually to be carried by such a missile remained a formidable technological challenge – apparently until now.
U.S. strategy has relied heavily on the threat of a nuclear response to prevent North Korean aggression both because Pyongyang’s conventional forces have stacked up well against their combined American and South Korean counterparts, and because Washington could be confident that the North could not retaliate in kind on the peninsula, much less against American territory. Any significant North Korean intercontinental nuclear missile force would dramatically upset these calculations, and bolster the North’s confidence that any war it launched against the south would stay conventional – and thus succeed. America could face the terrible dilemma of sacrificing (name any U.S. City) to save Seoul.
Unconfirmed press accounts have just reported an even more stunning possible North Korean nuclear arms advance: a submarine that can fire ballistic missiles. This accomplishment would give Pyongyang a nuclear force that is not only powerful, but able to survive an initial exchange. That is, submarine-launched missiles could escape detection, and thus either preemptive or retaliatory strikes from the United States.
Defense experts seem to agree that this North Korean capability is years from actually appearing. (Mobile land-based North Korean nuclear missiles will probably be developed much sooner.) But the Pentagon believes that China will develop a nuclear missile sub much sooner – possibly by New Year’s. China recently demonstrated that its nuclear-powered attack submarines can now venture far beyond Asian coastal seas and into the Persian Gulf as well as the waters off Hawaii.
But the Pentagon believes that soon Beijing will launch a submarine that can carry nuclear-tipped missiles far enough into the Pacific to hit the continental United States. Even if these vessels stay in East Asia, their weapons could reach Alaska and Hawaii.
When its navy passes this milestone, China could feel much freer to press its recent spate of territorial claims against Asian neighbors without worrying about facing the U.S. Seventh Fleet. For Washington’s commitments to defend even treaty allies like Japan and Korea – much less the small, uninhabited islands and even energy-rich seas currently being contested – would have become much more dangerous. Supporting non-allies like Vietnam and the Philippines would look far more problematic, as would acting to preserve the independence of former Chinese province Taiwan.
These emerging North Korean and Chinese nuclear capabilities would not completely defang the United States in Asia. But as was the case with Cold War Europe after the Soviet Union built the Bomb and then reached nuclear parity – and possibly today in the Age of Putin – they present Washington with a set of wholly new and much more fateful set of choices.
For example, President Obama could decide to strengthen America’s own non-nuclear forces in East Asia, its own nuclear deterrent, or both. He could urge America’s Asian allies and other regional powers to beef up their own militaries instead of, or in conjunction with, a U.S. buildup. Conversely, the president could retrench, and rely on America’s role as the leading market for Asia’s export goods can ensure its essential interests in Asia – which arguably are economic.
Depending on the President’s other foreign and domestic priorities, and America’s national finances, any of these choices, along with other alternatives, is perfectly defensible. What’s now indefensible is assuming that nothing fundamental on the East Asian strategic scene has changed, and that Washington can still stare down foes in a showdown. Nothing would be likelier to boost the odds of a disastrous miscalculation in a region of steadily rising tensions.