Extended Deterrence and Security in East Asia: A US-Japan-South Korea Dialogue

The fourth meeting of the Contemporary American Studies project on extended deterrence and security in East Asia was held at the Tokyo Foundation in December 2012 in conjunction with the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and the Center for the National Interest.

The meeting was held in the midst of heightened tensions in Japan-China relations triggered by the Japanese government 's purchase of the Senkaku Islands in September and discussed territorial and other issues among Japan, China, and South Korea, the impact of leadership change in the three countries, and the role the United States can play to ensure regional stability, including the freedom of navigation.

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The project focusing on approaches to addressing the growing friction in East Asian ties in the context of China’s rapid economic growth and the concomitant expansion of its military capacity was launched in February 2011 to promote trilateral dialogue on security issues among Japanese, US, and South Korean experts. The following is a summary of the project by Paul J. Saunders, executive director of the Center for the National Interest and member of the Tokyo Foundation’s Contemporary American Studies project. (Shoichi Katayama, Research Fellow)

Economic Deterrence?

While China’s rapid economic growth—and rising military power—increasingly prompt many observers to view Beijing as an emerging superpower rival to Washington, discussions during a recently completed two-year non-governmental US-Japan-South Korea dialogue on security in East Asia suggest that attempting to apply a Cold War-style framework of deterrence and containment may have limited value in developing policy toward China. While the past may hold some useful lessons, discussion in the expert meetings demonstrates that dealing with Beijing will require a more sophisticated mix of policies. The dialogue program was co-sponsored by the Center for the National Interest, the Tokyo Foundation, and the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

The fundamental difference between China and the former Soviet Union lies in China’s deep integration into the international economy—and the resulting powerful shared interests it generates in China’s relations with the United States, Japan, and South Korea. By contrast, the USSR was largely isolated from the international economy. As a result, Washington and its allies could attempt to punish or isolate Moscow economically, an approach few are prepared to consider in dealing with Beijing because of its potentially high cost. In fact, America’s and China’s economies may be sufficiently vulnerable to one another to create a new form of economic deterrence through mutual assured destruction.

Still, the Cold War does provide some helpful context in thinking about allied policy and Chinese conduct, especially in strengthening deterrence and extended deterrence—a key topic of the dialogue meetings and in talks between US, Japanese, and Korean officials. One critical lesson of the US-Soviet competition is that deterrence and extended deterrence are in fact fairly limited as policy instruments. The United States and its Cold War allies successfully deterred a Soviet nuclear attack and a Soviet invasion of Western Europe, but did not deter military interventions in Hungary or Czechoslovakia, proxy wars in Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia, or significant support for terrorism in the Middle East. One problem was that the nuclear retaliation that created the foundation for deterrence and extended deterrence was credible only in responding to existential or near-existential threats. This suggests that mechanically repeating US security guarantees or increasing American or allied conventional capabilities is unlikely to succeed in deterring assertive Chinese conduct.

Avoiding Confrontation

China’s ambiguous intentions add complexity to any effort to formulate policy. Where the Soviet Union explicitly sought global revolution—promoting Communism worldwide with the ultimate aim of reshaping the international system—China’s stated aim is its own peaceful development. Moreover, its motives in asserting territorial claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea, and developing military capabilities to support an anti-access/area denial strategy are subject to interpretation. Where some see an effort to expel the United States from East Asia and to establish Beijing’s dominance there, others find a defensive effort to limit the vulnerability of China’s economy (and therefore the survival of its regime) to US Navy control of critical sea lanes.

Moving forward, the territorial disputes and associated provocative conduct in these regions will likely continue to require special attention. Japan’s new “dynamic defense” concept is an important step forward, but is not ideally suited to managing the challenge of China’s so-called “Five Dragons”—civilian law enforcement agencies with maritime capabilities that have been involved in many troubling incidents. By extension, the US Navy can offer little help in preventing or managing confrontations between the Five Dragons, Japan’s Coast Guard, and Chinese or Japanese fishing vessels. Creative new policies are needed, perhaps including exchanges between the US and Japanese Coast Guards to place American officers on Japanese ships, a symbolic demonstration of American support that could also subtly but distinctly increase the potential cost for Chinese harassment of Japanese ships and their crews. Steps like this are also relatively inexpensive, particularly set against the cost of additional ships or new deployments.

New ideas are also needed to improve Japan-South Korea relations. Approaching elections in Japan and Korea on December 16 and 19 highlight the complex and central role that domestic politics continues to play in relations between Tokyo and Seoul—notwithstanding American hopes that their ties could improve sharply and clear the way for closer trilateral cooperation in managing security challenges in East Asia. General Security of Military Information Agreement—abandoned by Seoul in June for domestic reasons—is the most visible casualty, but not the only one. While the dialogue meetings make clear the many obstacles remaining to closer cooperation between Japan and South Korea, especially their difficult shared history and the contested Dokdo/Takeshima Islands, they also demonstrated a strong sense of shared security and economic interests and a continuing desire for full reconciliation. Perhaps with new governments in place early next year, Tokyo and Seoul will have a second chance.

A report of the first two meetings of the project issued by the Center for the National can be downloaded from the link below:
http://www.cftni.org/2012-Extended-Deterence-In-East-Asia.pdf

Meeting Participants

• Nobumasa Akiyama, Professor, Graduate School of Law, Hitotsubashi University
• Wallace “Chip” Gregson, Senior Director, China and the Pacific, Center for the National Interest; former Assistant Secretary of Defense
• Jo Yanghyeon, Professor & Director, Center for Diplomatic History Studies, Korean National Diplomatic Academy
• Kim Taehyun, Professor & Director, Center for the Study of Grand Strategy, Chung-Ang University, Korea
• Jae Ku, Director, US-Korea Institute at SAIS/Johns Hopkins University
• Fumiaki Kubo, Tokyo Foundation Senior Fellow; Professor, University of Tokyo
• Robert Manning, Senior Fellow, Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, Atlantic Council
• Yasuhiro Matsuda, Professor, Interfaculty Initiative in Information Studies and Graduate School of Interdisciplinary Information Studies, University of Tokyo
• A. Greer Meisels, Associate Director, China and the Pacific, CFNI
• Motohiro Ono, Diet Member, House of Councillors
• Paul Saunders, Executive Director, CFNI
• Yoshihide Soeya, Professor, Faculty of Law, Keio University
• Tomohiko Taniguchi, Guest Professor, Graduate School of System Design and Management, Keio University

Paul J. Saunders

  • Senior Fellow in US Foreign Policy at the Center for the National Interest

    President, Energy Innovation Reform Project