China’s New Missiles and U.S. Alliances in the Asia-Pacific: The Impact of Weakening Extended Deterrence

Two weeks ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping attended a nuclear security cooperation summit in Washington. At the same time, China has been busily preparing its next generation of nuclear weapons. It has made steady progress on its new DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Last December, China conducted two more tests on the missile, including one that confirmed the DF-41’s ability to be launched from a mobile platform. The DF-41 will be China’s first solid-fueled missile with the range to reach the entire continental United States. The new missile’s range will likely exceed that of China’s older liquid-fueled DF-5 (or CSS-4 according to its NATO designation) ICBM. As a mobile, solid-fueled missile, the DF-41 will be hard to track and able to quickly launch, improving China’s nuclear deterrent. Some believe that China might deploy the DF-41 as early as this year.[1]

China has also been developing a sea-based ICBM, the JL-2. Though the JL-2 has a shorter range than the DF-41, China has built four Jin-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines to carry JL-2 missiles closer to their targets. While those submarines are unlikely for the moment to venture far from their base at Yalong Bay on Hainan Island, American officials confirmed that one of them conducted a patrol late last year. [2] Whether or not JL-2 missiles were on board the submarine is unknown. But if they were, that would make the JL-2 even more elusive than the DF-41, again strengthening China’s nuclear deterrent.

Chinese Ballistic Missile RangesChinese Ballistic Missile Ranges

While China’s nuclear arsenal is small when compared to those of Russia or the United States, there is little doubt as to its enduring importance to Beijing. That much is clear in the special status its nuclear weapons program has held over the last half century. As part of its wide-ranging military reorganization early this year, Beijing elevated its land-based nuclear forces, once a component of the army, to a full-fledged service on par with the army called the Rocket Force.

Many Chinese analysts believe that by creating a more robust nuclear retaliatory capability they can ensure that no country would threaten China with nuclear coercion should a crisis erupt over one of its “core interests,” like Taiwan. As one Chinese official once famously quipped in the 1990s, the United States would never trade “Los Angeles for Taipei.” Hence, China has opposed any proposal that might blunt the effectiveness of its nuclear missiles, even indirect ones, like America’s recent effort to deploy its Theater High-Altitude Air Defense system to protect South Korea and Japan from a possible North Korean missile attack. While Beijing may contend that a state of mutual vulnerability would lead to a more stable security environment between China and the United States, it also complicates a key feature of U.S. alliances in the Asia-Pacific.

Since the Cold War, U.S. allies, like Australia, Japan, and South Korea, have enjoyed what is called “extended deterrence”—a security guarantee that the United States would be willing to use its nuclear forces to deter aggression against them. But that guarantee is dependent on the credibility of the United States to act. Naturally, the United States is more likely to act if potential adversaries are unable to retaliate against it. Once fully operational, China’s new missiles, which can directly threaten the United States, will complicate the credibility of America’s security guarantee to its allies, weakening extended deterrence.

Already American credibility to act has been questioned over the last half decade, due to the Obama administration’s repeated hesitancy in foreign crises. The reliability of America’s security commitments concerns many of its allies in the Asia-Pacific, as China’s military capabilities continue to grow. That has led some U.S. allies to reevaluate their own military postures. Japan has even taken steps to change its constitution to enable its military to take on a more “normal” role to safeguard Japanese interests in the region.

Australia has begun to do the same. Since the early 2000s, several Australian policymakers have argued for a more self-reliant defense. In its 2009 defense planning document Australia stated “in terms of military power… we must have the capacity to act independently where we have unique strategic interests at stake.”[3] Then, its defense white paper this year, Australia indicated that it could only assume American military dominance in the Asia-Pacific for the next two decades, rather than for the “foreseeable future” as it had in the past. [4] As a result, Australia is pressing ahead with a defense review that will culminate in the purchase of a raft of new military hardware. Australia is now considering the purchase of Japanese submarines for its navy. A few Australian analysts have even begun to openly wonder whether nuclear weapons should in Australia’s future.

Some American policymakers have welcomed the change that weaker extended deterrence has brought. Long-time issues of burden-sharing have eased. They believe that a web of militarily stronger allies can deter China from upsetting Asia’s regional order and do so at a lower cost to the United States. If they are correct, it may usher in a new era of stability. But it also means that the United States will be less able to manage crises in Asia-Pacific, as regional countries will have greater ability to act without it. Should American allies do so, they could draw the United States into a crisis that it would have rather avoided. For those who are concerned about that prospect, it provides an added incentive to pursue ever stronger anti-ballistic missile defenses.

[1]China’s top new long-range missile ‘may be deployed this year’, putting US in striking distance,” South China Morning Post, Mar. 29, 2016; Bill Gertz, “Chinese Defense Ministry Confirms Rail-Mobile ICBM Test,” Washington Free Beacon, Dec. 31, 2015; Bill Gertz, “China Tests New ICBM from Railroad Car,” Washington Free Beacon, Dec. 21, 2015; Keither Bradsheraug, “China Said to Bolster Missile Capabilities,” New York Times, Aug. 25, 2012, p. A5.

[2] Bill Gertz, “Pentagon confirms patrols of Chinese nuclear missile submarines,” Washington Times, Dec. 9, 2015.

[3] Australian Department of Defence, Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030 (Canberra: Department of Defence, 2009), p. 48.

[4] Australian Department of Defence, 2016 Defence White Paper (Canberra: Department of Defence, 2016), p. 41.

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North Korea Moves to War Footing

It seems like we’ve all seen this movie before.  North Korea feels affronted and blusters; South Korea and the United States respond with negotiations and a concession or two; China and Russia seek a peaceful resolution (plus the survival of their buffer neighbor); and Japan just wants the problem to go away, which it does—until the next time North Korea feels affronted.

But this time North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un has ratcheted up tensions beyond the country’s usual bluster.  On March 11 North Korea invalidated its sixty-year armistice with South Korea.  And after the participation of two B-2 nuclear-capable bombers during a joint exercise between American and South Korean forces, on March 29 Pyongyang declared a “state of war” between it and South Korea, threatening to strike not only its southern neighbor, but also the United States (nominally Alaska, Guam, and Hawaii, since North Korean missiles can only reach that far).  With a modern military of its own, South Korea has vowed to respond if attacked.  And, of course, there are about 25,000 American troops stationed in the country, too.

So what strategy should the United States pursue in this latest crisis on the Korean Peninsula?  Surely, in crafting its approach, Washington should keep in mind its most important long-term interest in the region which, in my opinion, is the strengthening of the American alliance with South Korea and Japan.  That alliance is crucial to counterbalance a rising China and resurgent Russia in Northeast Asia.  But to arrive at a practical strategy for this crisis, it is informative to start by considering some strategic extremes and what effect they may have on that alliance:

The United States could advance an escalatory strategy to demonstrate to North Korea that it cannot continue to bluster at every perceived slight.  And if war comes, so be it.  The United States has adequate anti-ballistic missile defenses aboard Navy warships to defend Hawaii and Army air defense batteries could be dispatched to protect Alaska and Guam.  Of course, Seoul may not feel as secure if North Korea launches a large-scale conventional attack or nuclear weapons against it; but more likely Pyongyang will take more limited military action.  Such an outcome would likely lead South Korea and Japan to further bolster their defenses, though perhaps not with nuclear weapons (unless North Korea uses them first).  And a militarily stronger South Korea and Japan could better maintain the balance of power in Northeast Asia, removing some of the burden from the United States.

At the other end of the spectrum, the United States could adopt an appeasement policy—giving North Korea what it wants in exchange for a de-escalation of tensions—and return to waiting for Kim Jong-un’s regime to collapse.  While appeasement may not please the American ear, it is an option that would remove the specter of armed conflict and would be practical if one believes that time is on one’s side.  Of course, there may be a big knock-on effect: America’s guarantee of extended deterrence would ring a bit hollower in South Korea and Japan (not to mention in Taiwan, the Philippines, and Southeast Asia).  Still, South Korea and Japan would likely further bolster their defenses, this time probably with nuclear weapons.  In this case, the balance of power outcome in Northeast Asia might still resemble the former, but the level of trust among South Korea, Japan, and the United States would likely suffer.

Ultimately, the approach the United States will take is likely to fall in between the two extremes.  The Obama administration’s “strategic patience” is one.  It seeks to break the cycle of North Korean bluster by simply waiting for North Korea to back down and seek negotiations without any concessions from South Korea or the United States.  Kim Jong-un is now putting that strategy to the test.  In the meantime, the United States deployed F-22 fighters to South Korea on Sunday.

However this crisis ends, South Korea and Japan are likely to strengthen their armed forces.  In the long run, that should benefit the United States, if it can keep the alliance strong.  So, in dealing with this crisis, Washington would be wise not to take an approach without first learning and integrating the views of South Korea and Japan—because not only will they bear most of the consequences (both intended and unintended) of any strategy to deal with North Korea, but also the United States would benefit from avoiding any approach that may create divisions between it, South Korea, and Japan, and in doing so inadvertently weaken the alliance that is so vital for the broader regional balance of power.

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Winds of Change: Comparative Energy Security Policies

The meltdown of three reactors at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant, following the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011 (3/11), was a terrible event.  But for some renewable energy advocates, it also created an opportunity.  There was an immediate revulsion toward nuclear power around the world.  Even in France where three-quarters of the country’s electricity comes from nuclear power, popular opinion unambiguously swung against its continued use.  Across the border, Germany abruptly declared that it would abandon nuclear power and hasten its transition to renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.

How countries change their reliance from one energy source to another is often a hotly debated issue.  Nuclear power was once heralded as a low-cost and environmentally-friendly energy source—a way to end the need for dirty coal and oil.  But after Three Mile Island’s partial meltdown in 1979 and Chernobyl’s catastrophic meltdown in 1986, nuclear power fell out of favor.  But by then, many countries, including Japan and Germany, had already integrated nuclear power as part of their national energy mix and change would entail costs.  But what those costs would be were uncertain.

Until the Fukushima Dai-Ichi meltdown, Japan operated 50 nuclear power plants, generating 30 percent of the country’s electricity.  In fact, in 2002 the Japanese government sought to increase the share of nuclear power in the country’s energy mix to 40 percent by 2017.  Similarly, Germany operated 17 nuclear power plants, providing almost 20 percent of the country’s electricity.   For years, conventional energy supporters and renewable energy advocates clashed over just how quickly and how painful a transition from nuclear power to renewable energy sources would be.  Conventional energy supporters warned of a major economic shock if such a transition was not done gradually.  Meanwhile, renewable energy advocates played down the potential for economic pain after a transition was made.

But after Japan’s 3/11 disaster, both sets of advocates were proven wrong (and right).  The warning from conventional energy supporters was disproved first.  Within two months, Japan shut down 33 nuclear power plants, and two years later only two remained in operation.  Meanwhile, in Germany, eight nuclear power plants that were offline for testing or repair were kept shuddered.  A combination of increased use of coal-fired power plants and renewable energy sources and energy conservation measures—particularly stringent ones in Japan—made up for much of the electricity shortfall.  The economies of both countries muddled through 2011; no economic calamity ensued.

However, renewable energy advocates were also shown to be off the mark.  Two years on, the sudden change from nuclear energy to other energy sources has gradually eroded both countries’ economic competitiveness through higher electricity prices.  As a result, Japan has begun to look to imported natural gas, shipped to the country as liquefied natural gas (LNG).  Japanese electric utilities now seek LNG sources for new gas-fired power plants.  But despite long-term LNG contracts, such plants do expose the country to natural gas price and currency fluctuations over time.  For example, the recent 10 percent decline in the Japanese yen vs. the U.S. dollar pushed up natural gas prices roughly the same amount because natural gas is priced in U.S. dollars.  Japanese industry has long worried about the impact of higher energy costs and has begun to lobby its government to restart idle nuclear power plants.  And with the Japanese economy trapped in multi-decade stagnation, Tokyo seems willing to try, not only to help Japanese industry, but also raise consumer consumption.

Similarly, electricity prices in Germany are now 15 percent higher than the average in the rest of the European Union.  German consumers already pay more for electricity than most other Europeans and have seen their electricity bills climb 40 percent over the last five years to pay for renewable energy subsidies.  Hence, some in Germany have come to wonder whether its Energiewende [energy transition] will lead to lower future economic growth as businesses—particularly those in energy intensive sectors such as machinery and steel—have shown signs of disinvesting in Germany and locating elsewhere.

Moreover, Germany’s shift to renewable energy sources has made the country’s electrical grid more difficult to manage.  The amount of electricity put on a gird must precisely match the amount that is consumed; otherwise variations in voltage could cause rolling blackouts.  Unfortunately, wind and solar energy sources can only generate electricity intermittently.  So even as these sources have become a larger part of Germany’s energy mix, the country’s electrical grid needs a way to smooth out their unpredictability.  That can only be done with conventional energy sources.  And since Germany is committed to phasing out its coal-fired power plants, it is now reconsidering the potential of fracking to fuel gas-fired power plants.

Thus, while it is possible to quickly change from one energy source to another without major mishap, the process cannot escape market fundamentals altogether.  Japan and Germany still need reliable and cost-effective energy sources to remain industrially competitive in the world.  Otherwise some industries will migrate to comparable countries, like the United States where fracking has contributed to a revival of American industrial production.  Renewable energy sources have demonstrated that they can meet a substantial share of modern electricity demands, but certainly not all or even the bulk of it—at least not until an innovator creates the better battery.

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