Earlier this year, the United States Studies Centre released an Outcomes Report from the inaugural 1.5 Track Australia-US Deterrence Dialogue held in December 2018. As the report shows, the dialogue’s discussions related primarily to deterring Chinese behaviour in Asia. However, the report does not mention an interesting and yet unanswered question raised toward the Dialogue’s conclusion and later put to myself and others on a Young Leaders panel on Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) at the Australian Institute of International Affairs (the conference report from that event is available here).
That question was whether or not a US strategy, which identifies China as America’s primary strategic competitor in Asia, adequately addresses the North Korea threat. To my mind, the answer is no. North Korea and the unrealistic goal of its complete denuclearisation has regularly eclipsed China and the IPS as the Trump administration’s top priority, which has contributed to the insulation of North Korea policy from questions of wider regional security strategy. Though negotiations have stalled recently, outcomes of future diplomatic breakthroughs could be particularly consequential for Washington when it comes to managing strategic competition with Beijing.
While North Korea has often featured in US IPS discourse, the Trump administration has seemingly been unable to decide whether Beijing or Pyongyang is the most urgent threat. The National Security Strategy addressed North Korea briefly under the document’s ‘Indo-Pacific’ subheading, but compared to the document’s emphasis on Great Power competition, North Korea plainly figured as a secondary issue. Yet President Trump has repeatedly demonstrated that North Korea is his primary foreign policy focus, and has shown little interest in competition with China beyond ‘winning’ a trade war. The President has essentially equated his ‘bromance’ with Chairman Kim Jong-un and an unofficial moratorium on weapons testing with a tangible threat reduction. He has gone so far as to claim that it is no longer a threat and has proven perfectly willing to trade away military readiness on the Korean Peninsula for positive domestic optics, sustaining diplomacy and saving “billions” of dollars.
For a while, Trump’s claims of a diminished threat were echoed by other key administration figures, though not necessarily for the wrong reasons. At APEC 2018, for example, Vice President Mike Pence reflected on the North Korea threat in past tense. He primarily used the occasion to ‘throw down the gauntlet’ to China in the Indo-Pacific, and announce a suite of US regional security and infrastructure initiatives to that end. At the time, it seemed that Washington was finally getting its regional priorities in order. However, such rose-tinted assessments of a diminished North Korean threat were later contradicted by the intelligence community, the heads of US Indo-Pacific Command and USFK respectively, and even Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Indeed, the collapse of the recent Hanoi Summit and evidence that Pyongyang has since reopened certain missile facilities only confirmed these assessments.
Even then, events last week offered fresh evidence that the Trump administration’s North Korea and Indo-Pacific policymaking respectively remained insulated from each other. Only days after Secretary Pompeo clarified the conditions under which the US-Philippines mutual defence treaty would be activated in the South China Sea, it was announced that several major US-South Korea military exercises would be suspended. Though the significance of the announcement was perhaps more in its timing than the actual cancellations themselves, it still made for poor optics in the context of broader US regional strategy. Essentially, the Trump administration had strengthened deterrence on one key front while weakening it on another.
US security posture on the Peninsula was always going to feature in negotiations with Pyongyang. Yet making unilateral strategic concessions in the hopeless pursuit of complete denuclearisation risks creating a negative strategic overlap with deterrence vis-à-vis Beijing. Were Trump to accede to more extreme “corresponding measures” for complete denuclearisation — downsizing USFK and/or retracting the nuclear security umbrella from over the Peninsula (and quite possibly Japan), for example — this would undermine security commitments to treaty allies and have an overall negative impact on US security posture towards Beijing. Normalising strategic concession-making could also foreclose other options to improve deterrence options toward Beijing. America’s recent withdrawal from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was justified in part on the grounds that ‘non-signatory states’ (read: China) were able to take advantage of Washington's self-imposed restraints. For the US to introduce formerly prohibited assets into Asia in order to better hold the Chinese mainland at risk would also conceivably unnerve North Korea and undercut diplomacy.
In order to balance diplomacy on the Peninsula with overall strategic posture in Asia, the Trump administration urgently needs to reassess the prospects and limitations for engagement with North Korea. Analysts have long suggested that Washington should learn to live with a nuclear North Korea and shift its focus to limiting rather than eliminating its capabilities. US Forces Korea’s General Abrahms has also pointed out that North Korea’s conventional forces would continue to justify a US military presence on and around the Korean Peninsula even if it denuclearised, and that these forces remain essential to deterring other states in East Asia from destabilising behaviour. As such, even if diplomacy advances, accepting North Korea as a long-term security risk - if not a threat - would justify a baseline security commitment to the Korean Peninsula that also supports broader regional strategy.
The contours of Great Power conflict in Asia cannot necessarily be predicted, but the Trump administration cannot afford to leave anything to chance.
Tom Corben is the Indo-Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.