Even as the United States and its NATO allies pledged to supply more weapons systems to Ukraine, Asian geopolitics was eclipsing European geopolitics with reports of Xi Jinping’s October “war council,” the shooting down of what was believed to be a Chinese surveillance balloon, and reports that South Korea is considering developing its own nuclear deterrent. The 21st century is indeed shaping up to be the “Asian Century.”
The most worrisome of the three developments is Xi Jinping’s war council, which was revealed by the Hill on Jan. 28 and elaborated on by the Washington Times’ Bill Gertz on Feb. 2. Gertz reported that U.S. Air Force Gen. Michael Minihan’s memorandum stated that the war council includes top members of China’s Central Military Commission. Gertz describes China’s Central Military Commission as “the Chinese Communist Party’s most powerful institution.” And the subject of the war council was Taiwan. Minihan predicted in the memo that the United States should be prepared for war with China by 2025. This comes on the heels of U.S. Admiral Philip Davidson’s prediction in 2021 that war over Taiwan could come anytime within the next six years, the Navy’s Chief of Naval Operations’ warning that China may invade Taiwan before 2024, and recent Chinese military exercises around the island of Taiwan. Although the Pentagon distanced itself from Minihan’s prediction, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul agreed with Minihan’s assessment.
The October war council may very well have led to the launching of what many are calling the Chinese “spy” or “surveillance” balloon that was shot down by U.S. fighters near the South Carolina shore after it traveled from the Aleutian Islands across parts of Alaska, Canada, and the continental United States, including over U.S. ICBM fields. The best commentary on this development was written by James Holmes, a professor of strategy at the Naval War College and a fellow at the Center for Innovation and Future Warfare of the Marine Corps University, in the journal 19Fortyfive. Holmes believes that the Chinese balloon likely gathered intelligence but was mainly a “trial balloon” designed to “see whether it would elicit a response from the U.S. government and military, as well as from the American people.”
The balloon was, in other words, a psychological operation in keeping with what Holmes calls China’s “‘three warfares’ strategy,” which he defines as an “all-consuming effort to shape the political and strategic environment in its favor by deploying legal, media, and psychological means.” Holmes traces this strategy to both Mao Zedong, who instructed his comrades that peacetime is simply war without bloodshed, but war nonetheless, and Sun Tzu, who counseled that knowing your enemy is essential to victory in war. China’s concept of warfare involves more than the balance of military power; it also means “fathoming intangibles relating to [the enemies’] culture and society.” And the balloon episode may be China’s method of demonstrating to Americans that a war in the western Pacific could impact America’s heartland.
The third and most recent development in Asian geopolitics is South Korea’s increasing willingness to consider building and deploying its own nuclear deterrent force. The Washington Times reports that a prominent South Korean lawmaker (who previously defected from North Korea) has urged South Korea’s government to develop and deploy nuclear weapons to deter an attack by North Korea. Thae Yong-ho, who serves in the National Assembly, stated that the North Korean regime is convinced that the United States would not use nuclear weapons to defend South Korea if it meant the possibility of a North Korean strike on the U.S. homeland. Thae’s statement comes on the heels of South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s suggestion in January that his government may acquire its own nuclear weapons to offset North Korea’s threat. Ankit Panda in War on the Rocks writes that this development stems from “changes to its security environment and fundamental questions about the long-term reliability of the United States.”
None of these developments occurred in a vacuum. The Biden administration’s Asia policy began with a dressing-down from China at the first face-to-face meeting between high-level officials in Anchorage. That was followed by the disastrously mismanaged U.S. pullout from Afghanistan. Then China began ramping up pressure on Taiwan with strong rhetoric and military exercises. It was also revealed that China is engaged in a massive nuclear weapons build-up that threatens to undo U.S. nuclear superiority before 2030. Yet, the Biden administration in its nuclear posture review emphasized “arms control” instead of a U.S. nuclear build-up designed to maintain superiority over China for the long-term. Finally, Chinese leaders continue to support Russia in the Ukraine war, and may view the conflict as a useful strategic distraction that could inhibit the U.S. from focusing on China.
China’s war council, the balloon incident, and South Korea’s announced desire for its own nukes — in light of all that has gone in before — should focus the minds of our policymakers on implementing a real “pivot” to Asia where tough rhetoric is backed by force structure and strategy. That, and nothing less, may deter the gathering storm in the western Pacific.
Our Indo-Pacific Allies Signal That They Don’t Trust the Biden Administration’s Extended Deterrent