If you want the clearest possible explanation of why America’s longstanding national security strategy in Asia is increasingly, jaw-droppingly, and – worst of all – needlessly dangerous, check out what China’s foreign minister just said about the growing North Korea nuclear missile threat Washington has been coping with, and then look at a map.
According to top China diplomat (at least by title) Wang Yi, the United States and North Korea “are like two accelerating trains” speeding toward “a head-on collision.” Pyongyang is developing ever more potent nuclear weapons that are ever more capable of hitting American territory. So that – along with the scarily erratic nature of the North Korean regime – explains the “dangerous” part. The map explains the “needless” part.
So take out (or look up) your atlases. You’ll see that the United States and North Korea – the countries on that collision course – are slightly less than 6,900 miles apart. Now look at some of the countries that Wang evidently believes aren’t on a collision course with North Korea leader Kim Jong Un. China itself is right next door. So is South Korea. And Russia. Japan is less than 800 miles away. Why are they, unlike geographically remote America, seemingly lumped into the bystander category?
The (intimately related) reasons: First, the United States has significant military forces stationed nearly along the Demilitarized Zone dividing North from South Korea, along with other major deployments in Japan. And don’t forget their family members! In other words, the Americans in Korea will be sitting right in the way if much stronger North Korean forces invade the south. And the Americans in Japan are exposed to Pyongyang’s missiles, as North Korea’s latest test launches have again made all too clear.
Shocked? You shouldn’t be. That’s the idea. If North Korean aggression kills large numbers of Americans, and showing signs of succeeding, a U.S. president will face strong pressure to respond by using nuclear weapons against Kim’s military and country.
As I’ve written repeatedly, until the last few years, this strategy was defensible. Not only were North Korea’s nuclear forces greatly inferior to America’s, but they lacked the means to hit the United States. So the threat of U.S. nuclear weapons use was, reasonably, judged to be a prudent policy that would deter any North Korean aggression in the first place, and thereby ensure the security of both South Korea and Japan without risk to the American homeland.
But as I’ve also written repeatedly, North Korea’s nuclear program is steadily moving toward being able to strike the United States. So the risks to Americans posed by this strategy are way up – and sure to rise even higher. Worse, the North Korean forces are thought to be increasingly survivable. That is, they’re either mobile and/or well hidden enough to prevent Washington from having much confidence of destroying them all either in a preemptive first strike, or an attack on North Korea launched in response to any invasion. As a result, even if America’s own nukes destroyed North Korea, whichever of the latter’s leaders escaped this fate could order a revenge attack.
And the second reason why the United States alone is (rightly) described as one of the two oncoming trains is that for decades, Washington has actively discouraged Japan and even South Korea from fielding the forces needed to deal with North Korea on their own for fear that one or both countries would build their own nuclear forces in response, and thereby “destabilize” the supposedly crucial East Asia-Pacific region still further. The United States also remains determined to prevent Japan from becoming a serious and independent conventional military power, too, which allegedly would increase the odds of it returning to its aggressive, militaristic past. So U.S. leaders have decided to bear the lion’s share of the burden and danger of keeping North Korea (and China) at bay.
Since this policy now means that protecting Asian allies could mean the annihilation of American cities, it’s clearly time for Washington to admit the danger, get out of the way, and let the region’s countries handle the North Korea problem. This goes double since Japan, South Korea, China, and Russia are amply capable economically and technologically of building the militaries that can get the job done.
Two closely linked objections that have been raised since this American strategy was born in the aftermath of World War II will surely be raised again. The first is that such a U.S. withdrawal could produce not only reasonable defense buildups by Asian powers, but – because so many have historically fought and mistrusted one another – heated conventional and nuclear arms races. The second is that such competitions would backfire big-time on the United States, largely because Asia is so economically critical to America.
What the stand-patters don’t seem to get, however, is that precisely because American policy looks so positively suicidal – and non-credible – to the allies in particular, a growing chorus in Japan and South Korea is urging nuclear-ization anyway. I’ve reported previously on such developments, and just yesterday came new calls for such capabilities. As the North Korea nuclear forces get better and better, expect further widening of this divide between America’s policy rationale on the one hand, and entirely understandable Asian mistrust on the other.
As for the economics, even if trade and investment with highly protectionist Asia were a winning proposition for the United States (and it’s not by a long shot), it’s going to get increasingly dicey for American leaders to keep insisting that it’s important to risk nuclear attack on the homeland to make sure that U.S. businesses can make some more money in the region.
In that vein, however, it remains troubling that even the most detailed reporting lately on the mounting North Korean threat keeps omitting the fact that the United States faces greater and greater dangers from Pyongyang not because it’s protecting itself. After all, existing U.S. policy of responding with nuclear arms to a direct nuclear attack from North Korea (or any country) on its own territory is as credible a deterrent as is possible (even against arguably lunatic enemies). Instead, the United States faces this nuclear dangers because it’s protecting allies that it’s been encouraging to free-ride on its defense guarantees.
Equally troubling – even though Donald Trump pointed out most of these Asia alliance-related problems during the campaign, he now seems determined to preserve the policy status quo. If I didn’t know better, I’d conclude there’s a conspiracy of silence.