2016 election, alliances, Asia, China, deterrence, Following Up, foreign policy, Hillary Clinton, Japan, Kim Jong Un, national security, North Korea, Northeast Asia, nuclear weapons, Obama. Donald Trump, South Korea, Stratfor, submarines, The Guardian
President Obama has grown fond of insinuating that presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is largely responsible for much of the turmoil or instability spreading throughout major world regions. And as recent Asia-related events keep demonstrating, it’s Trump that has a much better handle on these challenges than a president whose response is little more than whistling in the dark.
Mr. Obama has just continued his attacks on Trump’s foreign policy remarks at a press conference held at a summit in Japan of the leaders of seven of the world’s largest economies, telling reporters that world leaders are “rattled” by Trump, “and for good reason….a lot of the proposals that he’s made display either ignorance of world affairs or a cavalier attitude or an interest in getting tweets and headlines instead of actually thinking through what is required to keep America safe.”
Given the Asian setting, the president – and those world leaders expressing these fears – surely had in mind Trump’s indication that the United States might be better off letting America’s allies in the region (namely Japan and South) provide for their own security, even if that entails developing nuclear weapons.
As I’ve repeatedly written, if implemented, Trump’s suggestion would indeed represent a sea-change in a regional and global strategy pursued by the United States since the end of World War II. But as I’ve also repeatedly written, for all the alarm they’ve expressed about Trump’s comments, Japan and South Korea are already showing signs of determination to develop their own nuclear forces.
The reason? Because Chinese and North Korean nuclear capabilities have become so formidable, that American promises to defend Asian allies with nuclear weapons if necessary now create the risk of exposing the U.S. homeland to nuclear attack. And as a result, the Asians have understandably lost a lot of faith in these American commitments.
Luckily, Mr. Obama will be in office only a few months more, because these developments and dangers seem to be news to him. But recent events are reminding once again that America can’t afford its next leader to be this clueless. For signs keep multiplying that Washington is rapidly losing the ability to solve this problem by knocking out these Chinese and North Korean nuclear weapons in a preemptive strike.
For example, even as the president was trashing Trump, Britain’s Guardian newspaper was reporting that China – as the U.S. Defense Department has long expected – is on the verge of sending its nuclear missile submarines sailing throughout the vast Pacific Ocean. This matters tremendously because submarine-launched missiles represent a country’s best bet for a secure nuclear deterrent – i.e., nuclear weapons that an enemy can’t knock out before they’re launched or at any point during a nuclear conflict. As a result, they present that enemy with a virtual guarantee that initial nuclear attacks (like those Washington is pledged to launch to protect its Asian allies) will provoke equally destructive retaliation, and therefore make those initial attacks much less likely.
Submarine-launched missile capability per se is nothing new for China. But so far, its effectiveness apparently has been hamstrung by the fact that Chinese subs operate noisily enough for the United States to track them, and by the limited ranges of these vessels, which have made their discovery even less challenging. Moreover, the nuclear-tipped missiles carried by China’s subs still can’t fly far enough to hit American targets unless fired from mid-Pacific locations.
It seems that these problems haven’t been completely solved, but according to The Guardian, Beijing feels that enough progress has been made to be actively planning deep ocean voyages for the subs sooner rather than later. And whatever ongoing and future advances are made on vessel range, missile range, and noise will mean that China’s nuclear submarine force will have more and more of the vast Pacific to hide in and attack from. So an American president believing that nuclear threats can keep China at bay in, say, a South China Sea confrontation, may wind up having his or her bluff called.
North Korea’s nuclear forces may have passed a critical threshold, too, according to an analysis by the consulting firm Stratfor – which is bad news for the United States and all of Northeast Asia given major questions about the rationality of its leader, Kim Jong Un. Stratfor recently examined the question of whether U.S. Military forces could destroy Pyongyang’s nuclear force if need be, and contended that the requisite American firepower certainly exists. But it also pointed to two crucial complications:
“First, we simply do not have a comprehensive or precise picture of the North Korean nuclear program, especially when it comes to the number of weapons and delivery vehicles — we do not know for sure where they are located or how well they are protected.
“Second, we have no way of knowing just how good the U.S. intelligence picture really is when it comes to the North Korean nuclear program. Predicting the likelihood of a U.S. strike is difficult to do when the decision to carry out an attack would depend heavily on the degree of confidence the United States places in its intelligence.”
Stratfor’s overall conclusion: Because the North’s forces are likely to grow in numbers and sophistication, unless U.S. leaders use their own nuclear forces in an strike, “the United States and its allies are already at a point where they cannot guarantee the complete removal of the threat of a North Korean nuclear attack.” And as a result, Washington can no longer guarantee that American territory will remain unscathed if a conflict with the North goes nuclear.
President Obama seems determined to pretend that the dangers created by these developments for U.S. national security simply don’t and can’t ever exist. Judging by her dismissive comments, likely Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton – his former Secretary of State – seems to agree, Trump is facing up to this news and its full implications. And he’s the dangerous one?