Stability on the Korean Peninsula took a beating in 2017. The year began with Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s Address that declared North Korea had “entered the final stage of preparation for the test launch of [an] intercontinental ballistic missile” and President-elect Donald Trump tweeted in response, “it won’t happen.” The subsequent twelve months witnessed North Korea’s sixth nuclear test and over 20 missile launches, including the long-range Hwasong-15 that demonstrated the range to reach the continental United States. Rhetoric was equally contentious, as both sides exchanged fiery language and insults. Tensions reached unusually high levels, even for Korea, and threats to use force became commonplace throughout the year.
The U.S. government’s across-the-board hardening in pushing back against a range of Chinese challenges to American interests emerged erratically after the start of the Trump administration in 2017 but it has demonstrated remarkable momentum over the past year.
<dropcap>T</dropcap>he rise of China as a regional and global power, and the implications of this development for the international system, has become *the* great geopolitical story of the early twenty-first century. China’s attainment of novel clout and influence on the world stage has been fueled by its phenomenal economic growth of the last four decades, a process that began rather modestly but has taken off dramatically since around 2000. The reactions of political commentators and scholars have ranged across a wide spectrum. Some suggest that China will inexorably replace the United States as the world’s greatest power, setting the international agenda and introducing a new political outlook, combining the domestic promotion of prosperity and nationalist pride in tandem with internal authoritarian rule and the comprehensive suppression of dissent, together with the utilization of economic and, where appropriate, military strength to achieve China’s external objectives with maximum efficiency. To such observers, who have a penchant for quoting the hallowed wisdom of The Art of War, the famed treatise of the Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu (545-470 BCE), the roadmap to Chinese world hegemony appears almost preternaturally well organized, with the country’s leadership apparently proceeding inexorably along a meticulously planned highway to international predominance.
Michael Beckley’s article argues that East Asian military forces possess local anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities to effectively balance the power projection of Chinese military forces in scenarios in Taiwan, the East China Sea, and the South China Sea. As a result, the U.S. can rely on its current level of security commitments, rather than giving up or dramatically increasing its security commitment, to achieve its strategic objectives in the region.
On 8 March 2018, National Security Advisor Chung Eui-yong of the Republic of Korea (ROK) met with President Donald J. Trump at the White House to brief him on his recent talks with Kim Jong Un, leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), in Pyongyang. Trump learned that Kim had promised not to stage any further nuclear tests and take steps toward denuclearization. Chung emerged from the meeting to read a statement outside the West Wing announcing that Trump had accepted Kim’s proposal for the two leaders to meet in person. This news shocked people around the world because it constituted a sudden and dramatic reversal in a U.S.-DPRK relationship of intense mutual hostility. In December 2017, under U.S. leadership, the United Nations imposed the last of a series of crippling economic sanctions on North Korea after it launched a missile the previous month that Kim Jong Un claimed could reach any target in the continental United States. By then, Trump had threatened military destruction of the DPRK. On 8 August 2017, at his golf club in New Jersey, he warned that if Pyongyang continued to threaten the United States, it would “be met with fire, fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.” A month later at the United Nations, Trump repeated his threat. If the United States “is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea,” he declared. Mocking the DPRK’s leader, Trump then remarked that “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself.” A few days later, Kim Jong Un publicly read an official statement in which he called Trump “a frightened dog” and a “gangster fond of playing with fire.” He added that “I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged U.S. dotard with fire,” using an arcane term for a mentally impaired elderly person.
Joining the growing list of international relations (IR) scholars who are turning to historical analyses of alternative, non-Westphalian diplomatic systems for insights into the creation and maintenance of political order is Ji-Young Lee, whose book, China’s Hegemony: Four Hundred Years of East Asian Domination, provides an empirically rich and theoretically insightful account of premodern East Asian international relations. The core argument of her book is that China’s hegemony was not a direct product of either its material power or its cultural appeal. Rather, Chinese hegemonic authority, measured in terms of compliant tributary practices, was co-constructed by a dominant China and its less powerful tribute-paying neighbors via mutual interactions. In particular, the book emphasizes how the domestic legitimation needs of less powerful states, such as Korea and Japan, played a key role in constructing (while sometimes adapting) Chinese hegemony during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and the Qing dynasty (1636-1911).
When the Cold War ended in the late 1980s, Washington and Beijing were on good terms–the military balance between the two countries was not politically salient. Much has happened in the ensuing decades. While American attention turned towards battling Iraq in two wars, responding to the threat posed by al-Qaida in Afghanistan and around the world, and in dealing with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS/DAESH) as the latest manifestation of the jihadist threat, the status quo was changing in Asia. China has emerged not only as a global economic and political power, but also as a conventional military power in the Western Pacific that possesses a small nuclear arsenal that under permissive circumstances can hold a few United States (U.S.) cities at risk. The conventional and nuclear balance in Asia is shifting from one of overwhelming U.S. preponderance to a situation in which things might become a bit more sporting.
Caitlin Talmadge’s recent article in International Security is a major intellectual contribution to a predominantly U.S.-centric debate on the likelihood of Chinese nuclear escalation in a conventional conflict with the United States. In particular, Talmadge’s article is to be commended for providing one of the most rigorous accounts of the scope of a hypothetical U.S. military campaign against China over Taiwan, and relatedly, how this campaign might threaten Chinese nuclear assets, thereby creating operational conditions that might inadvertently push China to go nuclear. Yet this U.S. military-technical challenge is not, for the author, the key issue. Rather, in determining ‘would China go nuclear?’ the author offers another, slightly less developed, answer: it depends on what Chinese leaders believe or think.
“Identity matters for security outcomes”, writes Jarrod Hayes in this fascinating roundtable on his 2013 book, Constructing National Security. Is there anyone working on international security today who can possibly think otherwise? Even the most diehard rationalist must surely recognize the importance of identity to President Donald Trump’s worldview, and to how other states, whether allies or adversaries, are developing their security policies in response to Trump’s election. But how much does identity matter? And when does identity matter? These are thornier issues. In answering these questions, both Constructing National Security and the contributors to this roundtable offer much food for thought.
Nearly twenty years ago, Robert Ross wrote an influential article on the sources of stability in East Asia. He argued that while the United States and China were destined to engage in great-power competition, geography and structural factors would lead to a stable regional bipolar balance. The United States would focus on maintaining its maritime position, and China would focus on securing its interests on land. Neither would find it useful or practical to attempt to change the regional order. “The U.S.-China conflict is a rivalry between a maritime power,” Ross concluded. “This dynamic reduces conflict over vital interests and mitigates the impact of the security dilemma, reducing the likelihood of protracted high-level tension, repeated crises, and arms races.” Military leaders in both countries would have to indulge in heroic assumptions to convince themselves that they could seriously challenge their adversary on its domain. Political leaders in Beijing and Washington would benefit from competing – and cooperating on areas of mutual interest – in a relatively low-risk environment.