By Robert Ayson and Manjeet S. Pardesi, Victoria University of Wellington
North Korea’s intensifying nuclear provocations could well create the first major security crisis for President Donald Trump. Pyongyang is not only developing material capabilities: it is brandishing them in a demonstration of what the late Thomas Schelling called ‘the power to hurt’. These recent exercises in coercive diplomacy have seen the new US administration doing what Washington normally does: trying to get China to put more pressure on North Korea, reassuring Seoul and Tokyo that its alliance commitment to them remains undiminished, and indicating to Kim Jong-un’s regime that military options remain on the table.
The second and third of these measures play to America’s own strengths in the art of coercion. The peacetime commitment that underscores Washington’s Asian alliances and military presence in the region leaves little doubt that the United States has a potent capacity to deter a North Korean attack. Statements of resolve from the new administration (and even toying publically with preventive measures) confirm that US coercive diplomacy is well suited to encourage potential opponents to avoid war. But it is less clear that this approach, coupled with other standards from Washington’s coercion playbook such as economic sanctions, has been any good at circumscribing Pyongyang’s ability to build and exploit an increasingly threatening arsenal.
Yet the strong link between America’s coercion and the avoidance of war supports a wider regional goal: the preservation of the great-power peace that Asia has enjoyed for several decades. Success in maintaining this aspect of the status quo is not something to be taken for granted, especially by China whose economic development has presumed a peaceful external environment. But Washington has not been able to preserve the status quo in terms of the distribution of regional power. China has been advancing its extensive maritime territorial claims in East Asia, and raising the costs of American military intervention in a regional crisis. And it has done so practically without firing a shot in anger.
There is little doubt that should a war occur over the East China Sea, with Washington coming to Japan’s support, China would be bettered by American military options at most steps on the escalation ladder. And while Washington does not have the same level of alliance commitment at stake in the South China Sea, China’s still-limited capacity to use armed force at a distance would be easily put at risk by America’s firepower.
Washington’s ability to deter any decision by Beijing to resort to force should not be underestimated. But Washington finds it much harder to respond to Chinese coercion short of armed violence. China’s campaigns of pressure on Japan and on some of the rival claimants in the South China Sea would sound familiar to readers of Schelling’s account of the diplomacy of violence. Beijing has demonstrated its coercive options short of actual war on numerous occasions. These include the pressure placed successfully by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on the Philippines at the Scarborough Shoal in 2012; China’s interactions with Vietnam in the Spratlys; and its naval and air patrols in the vicinity of the contested Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea which send clear signals to Tokyo. Moreover, by militarising several South China Sea features Beijing is making a statement about the expanding area within which it wants others to know it has the capacity to exert military influence.
As the Trump era was beginning, there were some signs of a more robust approach designed to curtail China’s coercive appetite. In his nomination hearings, Rex Tillerson spoke of preventing China from accessing its South China Sea features. But it was not long before the new secretary of state’s message was walked back. This is symptomatic of a broader problem for the United States. There is not a lot Washington can do to deter China’s peacetime coercion in the region, apart from deliberately raising the risk of an Asian war. Trump has, on occasion, been willing to say some risky things about America’s relationship with China. But there are few obvious signs that his administration is determined to heighten the real competition in risk-taking with Beijing. Continuity seems more likely here than radical change.
The good news is that Beijing and Washington want peace in Asia. All other states should want that too. But as we argue in our recent article for Survival:
Each day Asia’s geopolitical peace is maintained, including through the interaction of American and Chinese deterrence efforts, a difficult peacetime problem grows for the supporters of the geopolitical status quo.
America’s challenge is to find a strategy which ensures that Asia’s peace is extended without compromising too much on its geopolitical interests, and the interests of its regional allies. China’s advantage is that it can support Asia’s great-power peace while all the time its position in the region strengthens.