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There are issues with the notion of deterrence in Northeast Asia (consisting of China, North Korea, South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan). This area is regarded by many to be one of the most dangerous geopolitical flashpoints existing in the world today. In the past two decades, China has embarked on its most ambitious military build-up in history particularly in its power projection components such as its navy, air force, and strategic rocket forces. Despite a lull in overt aggressive signalling during the past few years of the Covid-19 pandemic, North Korea has also recently returned to form with multiple ballistic missile tests and heightened rhetoric about its nuclear weapons pursuit. 1 In response, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan are all in the midst of their own military rearmament and modernisation programmes, conducted at a heightened tempo with increased urgency.2 3 4
As the primary non-Asian military power in Northeast Asia, the US has further entrenched itself within this strategic theatre with its recent escalation of commitment to Japan under their security treaty, naming China as their “greatest strategic challenge to regional security” and expanding its NATO-esque Article 5 clause of collective defense to include attacks “to, from, and within space”.5 This comes on the heels of multiple US defense officials warning that China is accelerating its military buildup for a sooner-than-anticipated future invasion of Taiwan in the second half of the 2020s.6
The Gordian Knot in Northeast Asian Defence Thinking
The fraught and increasingly unstable regional security situation in Northeast Asia illustrates the broken paradigm of deterrence in the region. There are several aspects, reasons, and implications of this statement, all of which are heavily intertwined and deeply rooted in historical grievances and memories. Together, these present a seemingly unbreakable Gordian Knot of bad-blooded escalating tensions, with the associated self-fulfilling rising risk of all-out war to do what Alexander The Great’s sword did to undo the original knot. It would be no exaggeration to describe Northeast Asia as increasingly resembling Western Europe prior to the outbreak of WWI, with each country in the region pursuing their own security goals and national interests with scant consideration of each other’s concerns and an escalating sense of relying on brute military power to backstop their positional rhetoric.
The fundamental concept of deterrence theory is in maintaining a stable balance of power between all parties involved in strategic conflict calculations. Such a balance of power is not just maintained through military means, but also heavily dependent on a common security understanding between individual states with compatible goals of security for their respective national interests. This requires a degree of trust by individual states’ political and military leaderships in their regional counterparts, something which has been seriously lacking in Northeast Asia due to the baggage of historical legacy from past conflicts (such as WWII and the Korean War) in the region.
The paradigm of deterrence in Northeast Asia is fundamentally unstable due to the pursuit of zero-sum individual security by all countries in the region, with little effort made to cooperate, build mutual trust, or come to collective compromise in the region. This is not just interfactional (China/North Korea vs Taiwan/South Korea/Japan/US), but also intrafactional in nature. Within the US-led Trilateral Alliance, there is still a dearth of trust and communication between South Korea and Japan, which negatively impacts on overall military cooperation and trust-building between both countries when they seek their own military power advancements. 7 Even the China-North Korea strategic alliance is not immune to such mutual distrust; there have been various scholarly discussions regarding the “bitter alliance” between the two nominally aligned but power-imbalanced countries in the past few years that posit North Korea as being just as threatening to China as they are to the rest of Northeast Asia. 8 9 10
This zero-sum mentality towards protecting individual national interests by Northeast Asian countries also has significant geographic roots. Contrary to Western ideas of deterrence being of a power-preservation nature (i.e. retaining the ability to fight a prolonged war with strategic reserve forces or second-strike nuclear capabilities), deterrence in Northeast Asia is more akin to the concept of pursuing “defense through offense”.11 This type of offensive deterrence relies almost exclusively on the pursuit of offensive power-projection weapons (such as variable-deployment long-range surface-attack missiles, naval aviation, submarines, and nuclear weapons) as opposed to defensive weapons (such as antiaircraft missiles and ABM technology).
The Role of Geography in Deterrence Thinking
Offensive deterrence as practiced in Northeast Asia stems from the lack of strategic geographical depth suffered by all countries in the region apart from Mainland China, which necessitates an even bigger emphasis on building deterrent capabilities based on ideas of inflicting overwhelming destruction on potential adversaries in a short, sharp war. In other words, deterrence in Northeast Asia is inherently unstable and easily broken due to its potentially-limitless escalatory nature triggering not the typical “sword vs shield” paradigm in arms races/developments (developing better defensive weapons to counter offensive ones for self-preservation), but a “sword vs bigger sword” paradigm (developing more powerful offensive weapons to ‘overmatch’ enemy offensive weapons in a first and possibly only strike). Northeast Asian countries are less heavyweight boxers who husband their energy for a long fight, and more glass cannons operating along the principle of “the best defence is a good offense” on steroids.
Geography also plays a fundamental role in influencing the mismatch in deterrent mindsets and perceived targets in the Northeast Asian theatre. China alone is larger in geographical and population size than all other Northeast Asian countries combined. In the face of such overwhelming geostrategic statistics, China’s military buildup in the past two decades is many times what is needed to pose an existential threat to both its explicit target of aggression in Northeast Asia (Taiwan), as well as its implicit targets of deterrence against active intervention by other regional states against such aggression (Japan/South Korea).
An Endless Cycle of Escalation
China sees its military buildup as a legitimate national pursuit of military and geopolitical power commensurate to its size and global status, as well as a necessity to deter against US military power in the region. However, this only serves to engender even more alarm and insecurity amongst US-allied Northeast Asian states who harbour only defensive interests for themselves and hopes of collective security through traditional balance of power deterrence in the region.
This becomes a self-fuelling escalation spiral of distrust, animosity, and arms race intensification in the region, as South Korea/Japan/Taiwan’s renewed motivation in seeking military rearmament is consequently seized upon by China and North Korea as evidence of aggressive intent by states they deem to be US pawns in Northeast Asia. This is the main reason behind China’s military buildup and nuclear modernisation, as well as its approval and support of the North Korean regime’s own pursuit of nuclear weapons capability. This brings us to the final piece in the deterrence paradigm’s collapse in Northeast Asia: the lack of nuclear parity between all parties.
“You get nukes, he gets nukes, everybody gets nukes!”
Northeast Asia is split between two blocs: one with actual nuclear weapons capability (China and North Korea) going up against the other with only conventional weapons and indigenous nuclear latency capability (Japan/South Korea/Taiwan). The latter bloc is currently being covered by the US nuclear umbrella, though always with varying levels of trust and security.12
This lack of indigenous nuclear parity between the two opposing Northeast Asian blocs drives the escalating conventional arms race between all parties, with the nuclear-latent bloc of South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan viewing potential outclassing in conventional warfare by the other nuclear-armed side as being even more threatening to their national interests and survival. Their resultant pursuit of increasing conventional offensive capabilities along the lines of granular balancing 13 against the nuclear bloc countries of China and North Korea will only fuel tit-for-tat military buildups from them, with no incentive for any restrictions in their efforts to build up further strategic/nuclear capabilities.
The Failure of “Traditional” Deterrence in Northeast Asia
What does this mean for efforts to deescalate tensions in Northeast Asia? Taken as a whole, it is safe to say that traditional methods of internationally mediated arms control talks will be ineffective in deescalating tensions or restoring a deterrent balance in the region. Without a commonly agreed baseline of trust and mutual understanding of collective security to build on between all five Northeast Asian countries, there can be no realistic hopes for arms control.
The broken paradigm of deterrence in Northeast Asia will necessitate the US increasing its security guarantees and military presence in the region to support its allies, so as to buy time for them to rearm conventionally. This however will not be sufficient to force a plateauing in tensions and impose a relatively mutual deterrent balance in the region: the only way to achieve this would be for the current nuclear-latent Northeast Asian states to go nuclear themselves and possess their own nuclear weapons. Mad as it might sound, this actually has solid historical basis: the Cold War bipolar nuclear deterrence theory of mutually assured destruction between the US and USSR was a key motivating factor for both parties to enter arms control negotiations, deescalate tensions, and improve crisis communications between both sides.
As it currently stands, China and North Korea have nothing to fear from South Korea, Taiwan, or Japan, as long as they think they can simply deter with their own nukes against the US nuclear umbrella extended over its allies in the region and hope for US incoherence in regional strategy (owing to regular democratic changes in US domestic leadership). The remaining years of the 2020s will prove to be increasingly turbulent, yet pivotal in shaping the future of a renewed deterrence paradigm in Northeast Asia, as regional non-nuclear countries see mounting public support and political will in pursuing more conventional power-projection offensive military capabilities 14and ultimately nuclear weapons.15
Andy Wong is a Joint (Hons) Politics and History graduate from the University of Hull. He specialises in Asia-Pacific history and international geopolitical issues, as well as maritime and naval strategy, with an interest in nuclear warfare. He is currently pursuing a Masters in International Security at the University of Bath.
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