“Something of historic importance is happening in North Asia,” Phillip Bobbitt writes. “Our present enervation, the sense of inertia in U.S. policy, arises in part because we lack the imaginative ideas commensurate with the radical change in the strategic situation.”
He’s right. North Korea’s development of a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile with the range to hit the U.S. homeland—an intercontinental ballistic missile or ICBM—really does change everything. Daring proposals are needed to deal with the threat, and Bobbitt’s proposed “Helsinki Conference for Asia” is more imaginative and substantial than much that has come out of the foreign-policy community. Stripped to its essentials, Bobbitt proposes a peace treaty that would end the Korean War by formally recognizing the current border and the North Korean regime. North Korea would agree to surrender its nuclear weapons and instead accept an offer of extended nuclear deterrence from China, much as the U.S. provides extended deterrence to Japan and South Korea.
Yet Bobbitt’s proposal may not be bold enough in at least two respects—and in one respect, be too bold. The idea that the U.S. could withdraw its forces from South Korea has been met with skepticism and even alarm, not least within the Trump administration. But if North Korea is willing to give up its ICBM program, a U.S. troop withdrawal offers a viable way out of a dilemma that threatens not just America’s position on the Korean peninsula but its seven-decade strategic leadership of Asia.
In what sense is Bobbitt’s proposal too bold? In that it is so reliant on the emergence of new technology to overcome the logic of deterrence, while underestimating North Korea’s ability to maintain deterrence against a technologically sophisticated adversary. Bobbitt places great weight on new U.S. technology that will put North Korea’s small nuclear arsenal at risk from a disarming first strike, arguing that this will be enough to persuade Pyongyang that its deterrent will erode, and therefore that it should instead rely on an extended Chinese nuclear umbrella. To make his case, he points to Kier A. Lieber and Daryl Press’s argument that technological advances in targeting and surveillance capability are making nuclear forces, particularly of small countries like North Korea, more vulnerable to a disarming first strike.
But it is not inevitable that such advances will incentivize North Korea to accept a Chinese offer of extended deterrence. Even if North Korea’s deep historical suspicion of China could be overcome, the country has other options in responding to these technological changes. It could, for instance, substantially increase the size of its arsenal in order to complicate U.S. targeting. Or Pyongyang could develop a doctrine that would see it use nuclear weapons at the first hint of a U.S. strike (a so-called “launch on warning” posture), on the grounds that deterrence can be maintained if North Korea is committed to using its arsenal before losing it.
Bobbitt himself acknowledges that the development of improved guidance, communications and surveillance technology might provoke nuclear-armed countries to develop launch-on-warning protocols. And Lieber and Press say “potential victims of disarming strikes will seek to escape their vulnerability, thereby possibly triggering arms racing and incentives to strike pre-emptively.” But why Bobbitt believes North Korea would prefer to rely on China rather than take such steps is unclear.
Even if this objection could be overcome, there is still the question of what Beijing gets out of Bobbitt’s proposal. Why would it offer extended deterrence to North Korea? Here I think Bobbitt is not radical enough, because he understates the importance of China in Asia’s strategic architecture and understates Beijing’s ambitions. Bobbitt is right to argue that Beijing would like to see its influence extended throughout the Korean peninsula and to have its great-power status formally recognized through an agreement with the United States. But China’s desire for status may actually lead it to resist the kind of agreement Bobbitt proposes. Rather, Beijing may assess that its position in Asia is now so advantageous, and America’s so uncertain, that there is no need to reach such a compromise.
China’s overriding and quite natural ambition is to become the leading strategic power in Asia. The Australian Government’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper forecasts that by 2030, China’s economy will be worth $42 trillion, versus $24 trillion for the U.S. It is impossible to imagine that a nation of that size will continue to settle for subordinate strategic status in its own backyard. That means China will want to push the U.S. out of Asia, or at the very least convince it to share leadership.
If this assessment is correct, then North Korea’s nuclear program, and particularly the ICBM program, serve China’s purpose. As Bobbitt says, ICBMs encourage decoupling of America’s alliances: South Korea and Japan may begin to doubt that America will defend them if the cost of that commitment includes the loss of one or more cities on the U.S. mainland. We may already be seeing this effect: The fact that Trump jumped so readily at the chance to negotiate personally with Kim Jong Un suggests that North Korea’s ICBM has changed American perceptions of the North Korea threat. So why would China intervene now in a way that cements America’s alliance with South Korea when there is every chance that, if China does little, the alliance will continue to weaken? China would benefit from the kind of agreement Bobbitt proposes, but it would benefit even more from a deal which formalises U.S.-South Korea decoupling.
It is worth pausing here to consider why it will be harder for the U.S. to overcome the decoupling problem in this instance than when the Soviet Union developed ICBMs in the early 1960s. The difference is that the Soviet Union was America’s core ideological, economic and military foe, the enemy around which America’s foreign and defence policy was centered. As Damir Marusic recently put it, “[T]hroughout the Cold War the United States was broadly pulling in one direction. Its strategic choices were framed by a consensus that broadly articulated both positive values (‘democracy’, ‘freedom’), and an enemy that embodied their opposite (the Soviet Union).” America’s assurances to its NATO allies that it would, if necessary, sacrifice New York or Washington protect them were credible, because its entire national security structure and even its political culture were defined by the Cold War battle against the global force that was Soviet-led communism. Backward and impoverished North Korea presents nothing like that kind of threat to America’s values or interests—so allies will naturally wonder whether the U.S. really would be prepared to defend them if the cost includes, as a recent North Korean statement put it, making the U.S. “taste an appalling tragedy it has neither experienced nor even imagined up to now.”
China therefore has excellent reason to think that decoupling will erode America’s alliance with South Korea and perhaps Japan. Its best course of action may simply be to wait for that decoupling to take effect.
Were the U.S. ever to leave the Korean peninsula, China’s incentives would change. From Beijing’s perspective, North Korea’s nuclear arsenal would then cease to be useful leverage against the United States and would instead become a serious irritant to China, which may no longer want an independent nuclear power on its doorstep. At that point, China’s behaviour could begin to change—it may start to really pressure North Korea economically through its shared border, which the U.S. has always demanded but China has always resisted. But China may also be content to leave Pyongyang to its nuclear devices, given that North Korea is otherwise no threat to China. Indeed, the opposite is true: China poses a constant existential threat to North Korea by serving as its single economic lifeline; Beijing can tighten that noose at will, or even cut North Korea off entirely.
All in all, China’s position is secure. It would probably have preferred that North Korea had not gone nuclear in the first place, but it also could have done a great deal more to stop Pyongyang’s nuclear program. Clearly Beijing has never felt its interests to be so threatened by Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile efforts as to warrant that kind of action.
There is, however, one possible exception to the judgment that China does not have a strong interest in intervening in the way Bobbitt recommends. Bobbitt argues that North Korea’s development of an ICBM is so threatening to the U.S. that, unless negotiations bring about complete North Korean disarmament, Washington will take military action to stop the nuclear program or even topple the regime.
Bobbitt is surely right that China would strongly prefer to avoid U.S. military action against North Korea. If such action succeeded, it would have enormously prejudicial consequences for China’s interests on the peninsula, including the possibility of U.S .troops moving close to China’s border under a newly reunified Korean government based in Seoul. This is not to mention the possibility that, if the conflict escalated, China could face the possibility of U.S. nuclear weapons detonating near its border.
Bobbitt evidently believes that the U.S. regards North Korea’s ICBMs as so threatening that it would be prepared to risk nuclear escalation in order to disarm Pyongyang. Why? Because the ICBMs threaten America’s alliance structure and its leadership position in Asia, which Bobbitt regards as sacrosanct:
The failure to achieve a denuclearized Korean peninsula would be a serious defeat for U.S. policy. North Korean nuclear capability would deter the United States from protecting its regional allies were they threatened, extorted, or attacked by North Korea. This result would risk dissolution of the American northern Pacific alliance and the unravelling of our strategic position in Asia.
His Helsinki proposal is premised on the idea that this unravelling must be prevented.
Bobbitt encourages Americans not to forget “the fundamental point of why we are in the region in the first place”:
… to stabilize a world order committed to the rule of law, the peaceful settlement of international disputes, and—above all—the freedom of peoples to pursue their own national destinies without intimidation from their neighbors. Institutions were created and supported that encouraged free markets and open trading arrangements, government by representation, and security cooperation because we believed these were means to achieve our ends. Indeed, to secure these freedoms in Asia and in Europe, the United States ran really dreadful risks to its homeland.
A simpler answer to the question of why the U.S. is in South Korea and Japan is that the U.S. presence is a vestige of the Cold War. When that long conflict was won, the U.S. stayed not so much because it was needed but because there was nothing to push it out. North Korea entered a sustained post-Soviet decline which led to a famine, and although its withdrawal from the the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 1993 marked an alarming escalation of its nuclear-weapons ambitions, it posed little threat of invasion to a wealthy and well-armed South; China, meanwhile, was on good terms with the U.S. and had barely begun its economic ascent. America was wealthy, so there was no pressing economic reason to pull back. It was also strategically ascendant—the world’s sole hyperpower—so the risks of maintaining a military presence in Asia were negligible.
Those days are clearly over. Bobbitt writes that the United States is “concerned about North Korea’s threats to America because we are committed to the security and peace of South Korea.” True, but that commitment has never been a blank check, and the costs are escalating rapidly. Firstly, of course, there is North Korea’s ICBM. As Bobbitt points out, the U.S. must now face the possibility that meeting its commitments to South Korea’s defence might lead to the destruction of one or more major U.S. cities, which would cause appalling casualties and could have long-lasting consequences for America’s system of government and way of life.
That’s grim enough, but as I have written elsewhere, the U.S. faces two challenges to its leadership in Asia—and North Korea is merely the smaller one. The big one, of course, is China. It looks very much as if China aspires to become Asia’s undisputed leader, and to do that, it will need to push the U.S. out of Asia or at least coerce it into accepting a lesser role. So when Bobbitt recommends a policy designed to maintain America’s alliances with South Korea and Japan, he is making an argument with implications that go much further than the Korean peninsula. Ultimately, he is calling for the U.S. to maintain its regional leadership and therefore resist China’s claims to that status.
However, if America’s position is to oppose China’s leadership ambitions, then maintaining its alliances with South Korea and Japan won’t be enough. As already noted, China is likely to have a much larger economy than the U.S. in coming decades, and with economic power will come strategic and military power, as China’s dramatic military modernisation program is already showing. China will also be able to concentrate a greater proportion of that power in one region because it has no evident ambitions to challenge America’s global military status. So just to maintain the status quo in Asia, the U.S. will have to make enormous investments in its Asian presence—so big that they are likely to be economically and politically unattractive.
What policy would all this investment ultimately serve? Certainly it would bolster America’s alliances, but alliances are not an end in themselves. If China was an implacable and resolute foe of America’s political ideals and had committed itself to imposing communist ideology throughout the world, this question would be easier to answer. But China is not the Soviet Union. In Asia, China wants leadership, and for the rest of the region that will mean paying obeisance to Chinese interests, but for the moment at least there is no evidence Beijing is looking to forcefully export its ideology as the Soviet Union did. Nor, on present evidence, does China seek global revolution or to threaten America’s values at home and among its European allies. Yet China is economically far larger than the USSR was, and China is building maritime forces that present a formidable threat to U.S. strategic leadership in Asia. It is also heavily economically integrated with the U.S. and the rest of the world, which increases the cost of any challenge to its push for leadership.
It will be difficult for the U.S. to muster the resources and national resolve to win a sustained struggle against a challenger with these advantages. There is certainly no indication that Trump has any appetite for it, and neither did the Obama administration. Yet Bobbitt’s proposal assumes that the alliance system, and America’s regional leadership, is inviolable and must be maintained. I submit that he may not have considered the risks and costs of doing so.
Still, even if one bows to the inevitability of Chinese leadership, isn’t there a case for America to resist on the Korean peninsula, as a kind of holding action? The U.S. may ultimately be pushed off its top perch in Asia, this argument goes, but it should at least try to yield in the most favourable circumstances—or just make China work for it. This is absolutely correct, but the Korean peninsula is not the place for such a holding action. North Korea’s ICBM clearly exposes the weakness of the U.S. position—America plainly is being decoupled from its Asian allies because those allies know that Washington would never sacrifice a U.S. city to defend them against North Korea. Better then for the US. to stage its holding actions from Japan, Singapore and Australia, where the pressure is less acute.
The most favorable outcome for the United States—or, more accurately, the least unfavourable—would be a peace treaty with North Korea including a provision for the permanent removal of U.S. forces in South Korea in exchange for North Korea’s agreeing to end its ICBM program. (Complete denuclearisation is off the table, because Pyongyang will never agree to that.) No doubt a deal along these lines would have an immediate chilling effect on Japan, Australia and even America’s NATO partners, for the U.S. will have signalled that it is prepared to compromise the security of its allies in order to reduce the threat to the homeland. But that problem is being imposed on the U.S. anyway, thanks to North Korea’s ICBMs—so it’s better to get something in return. Moreover, once the ICBMs have been destroyed and the long-range missile program stopped, the credibility of U.S. extended nuclear deterrence against North Korea can be restored. It won’t be easy to verify an agreement like that, but with U.S. troops removed from South Korea, Pyongyang won’t have much incentive to cheat.
Bobbitt writes that his Helsinki proposal faces barriers because “there are considerable psychological and cultural costs whenever a policy of decades is abandoned.” This may be even truer than he imagines. For as radical as his proposal would be, it is nevertheless premised on the indefinite continuation of America’s post-war Asian alliance network. But thanks to the twin pressures of North Korea’s ICBMs and China’s rise, the future of that alliance network is under unprecedented strain. And for the United States, there is really no overwhelming reason to resist that strain. So the U.S. has little choice but to offer North Korea the permanent withdrawal of its forces on the peninsula while getting the best deal it can for them.
If this looks to the skeptical reader like a meager return on an almost 70-year investment in South Korea’s security and more than 70 years of U.S. leadership in Asia, so it is. But the U.S. cannot prevent China’s rise. And although it has tried since the Clinton administration to stop North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, that effort has, regrettably, failed. America must now face the prospect of retreat from the Korean peninsula, but such are the consequences of failure.