Last week I attended an excellent symposium at Victoria University of Wellington on the likely relationship between Donald Trump’s United States and Xi Jinping’s China and what evolving Sino-US ties might mean for the wider region, including Australia and New Zealand.
The keynote speaker was the former head of the Singaporean Foreign Service, Ambassador Bilahari Kausikan. His comments were most contentious on the US-China-DPRK issue.
In summary, Ambassador Kausikan said that China can’t put sufficient pressure on North Korea to stop its nuclear and missile programmes as this will cause the regime to collapse and this will in turn put the focus on China’s own regime. The US can’t attack the DPRK militarily as the consequences for South Korea and Japan would be devastating (including potentially millions dead). He also doubted that attempts to negotiate a peace treaty with the DPRK would be successful.
What is left is the means by which every nuclear weapon state has hitherto been dealt with: Deterrence. North Korea may be very bad, but it is not mad. It is rational. Once it has acquired the survivable ICBMs it believes are needed for regime survival, it can be deterred since Pyongyang will then have no reason to court destruction.
However, deterrence has its own complications. When North Korea has nuclear-capable ICBMs able to threaten the US, the question is bound to be asked – will San Francisco be sacrificed to save Tokyo? Since the answer is obviously ‘No’, Tokyo will have to seriously consider its own nuclear options. Japan has the capability to develop an independent nuclear deterrent very quickly and has in fact been quietly developing this capability – with American aid and acquiescence -- for thirty years or so.
What about the ROK? Again, I quote from the Ambassador:
I do not think the US is eager to see Japan become a nuclear weapon state. Neither do I think that Japan is keen to become a nuclear weapon state. But for both this will eventually be the least bad option. Where Japan goes, South Korea must follow since Seoul is bound to wonder whether it will be sacrificed to save Tokyo.
Now, Ambassador Kausikan is no fool. I suspect that he chose a public venue to deliver this speech so that the message he is delivering will be read widely in Beijing. That message is ‘stop the DPRK programme fast, otherwise Japan and the ROK are going to tool up.’
But there are problems with this message. It has to be credible. I don’t think it is.
Just look at the Chinese reaction to the recent deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. This is a purely defensive system that intercepts short and medium range ballistic missiles on their descent. China is arguing that the ROK is too close to China to allow such a system to be installed. The very high quality radar associated with the system will cover parts of China and the system might also allow the US to disrupt China’s strategic nuclear deterrence strategy. In retaliation China has introduced punitive sanctions against the ROK.
There is no way that China is going to sit back and watch Japan and the ROK acquire nuclear weapons. China’s concerns will operate at two levels. One, relations between China and the ROK and Japan are at times rocky. There are multiple territorial disputes that could lead to some form of confrontation. These disputes are only exacerbated by historical animosity. But perhaps more importantly what do you think Taiwan is going to do in this new North Asian ‘Balance of Terror’? Taiwan would go nuclear in a heartbeat. Their last nuclear weapons programme was very well advanced before the US stopped it in the late 1980s. What better way to preserve the status quo (if not achieve formal independence)? Clearly, China won’t allow this to happen.
So rather than preserve an uneasy peace in North Asia, Ambassador Kausikan’s suggestion would be a recipe for a major confrontation between China and the US and Japan, and potentially between Seoul and Tokyo. And maybe others. After all, the chain reaction might not end there. How would key Southeast Asian states (including Singapore and Indonesia) respond, and what in turn might that mean for Australia’s strategic calculations?
Ambassador Kausikan gave us a stimulating address, but the picture he painted is not plausible as a path for regional peace.
Charles Finny is a Partner at the Wellington based Government Relations Consultancy Saunders Unsworth. He is a former diplomat who knows Asia well. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org