The COVID-19 crisis accelerated the confrontation between the U.S. and People’s Republic of China. So far the challenge is more economic and political than military, though the U.S. Navy recently sent two aircraft carriers into the South China Sea in an attempt to intimidate Beijing. The PRC, however, hopes to develop anti-access/area denial capabilities to prevent America from using such vessels in the future to coerce China in its own neighborhood.
Washington continues to possess the larger and more capable armed forces. But present doctrine, which presumes that America will continue to dominate every nation on every continent, no longer is realistic. The cost of extending military power is far greater than that of deterring intervention. America was running a trillion-dollar annual deficit before COVID-19. Now that number should exceed $4 trillion in 2020. Next year the deficit will be over $2 trillion, and perhaps much more after Congress approves a third bailout. Washington must set priorities.
Current policy has perverse consequences. Rather like gun control, it ensures that only bad guys in East Asia are armed: North Korea, China, and Russia.
The simplest and smartest strategy would be to expect allied and friendly states in the region to create their own deterrent forces. The PRC is surrounded by countries with which it has been at war: Russia, India, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. All but the first are at least friendly to Washington, sharing its concern over Beijing’s ambitions. And rapprochement by the U.S. to Moscow could dampen the latter’s burgeoning partnership with the People’s Republic of China.
Moreover, East Asia is filled with states capable of constraining Chinese adventurism. Japan has assembled capable armed forces, called a “self-defense force” for constitutional purposes, despite limiting military expenditures to 1 percent of GDP. South Korea could handle defense against North Korea and contribute to regional security. Australia and Singapore possess competent militaries. Indonesia and Vietnam have significant potential. Even before India’s recent border flare-up with China, New Delhi was increasing its regional involvement, also promoting a peaceful balance of power.
There is one further step the U.S. should take, however, to encourage greater regional capabilities. Reconsider Washington’s commitment to nonproliferation.
Admittedly, such a change would send shock waves through Washington’s foreign policy-making community. And it would be a dramatic change. Yet today’s policy, reflexively backed by liberal internationalists and conservative war hawks alike, should be viewed suspiciously.
Proliferation creates additional risks for conflict and leakage, both of which could prove dangerous. Yet the nuclear age is more than 75 years old and has proved to be remarkably stable. No country has used nuclear weapons since World War II, no nuclear powers have gone to war against each other, despite persistent concern over India and Pakistan, and no great power has attacked another great power or a weaker state that possessed nukes, despite occasional threats, such as by Washington against North Korea. This result is evidence of the stabilizing impact of nuclear weapons.
Still, the U.S. might reasonably prefer to resist proliferation, except for the problem of extended deterrence. That is, many if not most of America’s allies expect the U.S. to risk its homeland on their behalf. Which in most cases makes no strategic sense for America. Few of these relationships warrant taking that kind of risk.
During the Cold War, Washington’s nuclear guarantee for Europe had some credibility. War-ravaged Europe was vulnerable to the victorious Red Army. Moreover, Soviet domination of Eurasia would present America with a threatening international environment. The U.S. had intervened in Europe twice in little more than two decades to prevent a hegemonic power from conquering that continent and left a garrison to defend its allies at the second conflict’s end. To thereafter test the U.S. would entail unacceptable risks for the Soviet Union, which had no compelling reason to invade its distant neighbors.
But none of these factors apply today. The Europeans are well able to arm themselves. Russia is not poised for European let alone global dominion. The PRC cannot easily dominate Asia, let alone Eurasia. The Korean peninsula has lost much of its strategic significance for America — it no longer fits within a larger global struggle, such as the Cold War. The stakes simply are not worth the potential destruction of American cities.
Still, it is in Washington’s interest to preserve the independence and freedom of China’s neighbors, which individually look small compared to the emerging colossus. If the U.S. is not prepared to guarantee nuclear deterrence for others, then it could stop objecting to proposals that they develop their own arsenals.
Current policy has perverse consequences. Rather like gun control, it ensures that only bad guys in East Asia are armed: North Korea, China, and Russia. In response, Washington has put the American homeland at risk in confronting all three. Yet friendly states are interested in developing countervailing nuclear arsenals.
For instance, polls indicate that a majority of South Koreans favor creating their own deterrent. The political class, including President Moon Jae-in, is less enthused, but the DPRK’s continued development of its arsenal might shift opinions. The issue is more difficult for Japan, but in his prior premiership Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seemed open to the idea. Abe already has pushed to increase Tokyo’s military role in response to a growing threat from both China and North Korea. And if the ROK moved to develop nukes, Tokyo would be forced to debate the issue.
Other possible nuclear states are Taiwan and Australia. The former genuinely needs nukes, though acquiring nuclear weapons would dramatically exacerbate tensions with the PRC. Beijing would be tempted to preempt any Taiwanese attempt to exercise the nuclear option. Direct transfer from the U.S. would be an admittedly highly controversial option. Canberra is dependent on China economically yet has challenged Beijing on the latter’s role in COVID-19 and crackdown in Hong Kong. With increasing uncertainty over America’s long-term commitment to Australia and the region, nuclear weapons might eventually look attractive Down Under.
Merely broaching the possibility would have geopolitical value: faced with the possibility of multiple potentially hostile nuclear powers, the PRC might press North Korea harder to limit or eliminate its program. Although the two governments are not close, their relationship improved once the Trump–Kim summit loomed. As negotiations with the U.S. have stalled, China’s role in the North has grown.
Washington and Beijing have no intrinsic conflicts that warrant war. Threatening a major geopolitical clash is the seemingly inevitable confrontation between a much stronger PRC determined to assert a Monroe Doctrine with Chinese characteristics and prevent U.S. coercion along its borders, and a still powerful but increasingly financially strapped America attempting to retain the ability to dictate to China, like every other nation, in its own region.
Rather than place such a burden on the American people, Washington should shift defense responsibilities to those with the most at stake in limiting Chinese dominance in East Asia and adjoining waters. And the most cost-effective way for them to do so is to develop their own nuclear deterrents. They might reject such an option. But it is time to confront the issue directly, instead of foreclosing the policy due to inertia, allowing the dead hand of past policymakers to set American security policy in the future.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of several books, including Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World and co-author of The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea.