Tomorrow’s meeting between President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping will be a far-reaching event in shaping the administration’s policy objectives for the Asian region. A new Asian century is steadily taking shape. Examples of this can be seen in China’s attempt to assert regional dominance by projecting naval superiority, Japan upending decades of military inactivity by reengaging its defense forces around its East China Sea (where there is an existing land dispute between China and Japan), and North Korea heightening strategic tension by recently test -firing a medium-range ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan. Add on top of this the Trump Administration’s nascent (non-existent?) policy toward the Pacific Rim powers and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s perceived compliance towards Beijing’s restructuring of U.S-China relations in China’s favor by using Chinese Communist Party language to describe the future foundation for diplomatic quid pro quo.
Trump must be careful if pursuing a transactional policy agenda towards China. Strategic aptitude will be important when dealing with issues like China chipping away at the U.S’s ability to navigate freely in waterways in which Beijing seeks to claim sovereignty or its consistency in using an unstable North Korea as a bargaining chip to weaken the U.S’s ability to expand its power more broadly on the Korean Peninsula. As a nuclear-armed North Korea continues to threaten American allies South Korea and Japan, it will greatly impact the growing asymmetry in the U.S’s ability to embark on a partnership with China whether it is as a bridge for regional stability or as a partner in fostering U.S security objectives.
Due to inconsistency in the Trump Administration’s long-term objectives for the Asia Pacific region, a more war-hawkish tone is emanating from actors not currently involved in shaping U.S foreign policy. Fox News states General Jack Keane, Trump’s first choice for Secretary of Defense, as saying that the only way to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons is to engage in a pre-emptive first strike against Pyongyang. This statement may be intended to put China back on its heels before Xi Jinping meets with Trump. Either the Trump Administration has close to no control over the levers of diplomatic protocol when it comes to framing high-level objectives in pursuit of national security or it has decided it can continue to get away with a play as you go shock doctrine in order to bend the will of foreign actors. Even John Bolton, George W. Bush’s former ambassador to the United Nations, has called on using a pre-emptive strike on North Korea.
To whom do these calls for war really threaten? Is a threat of military action a sound deterrence policy? North Korea has been using the looming threat of nuclear war as a strategic deterrence policy not out of strength but out of weakness. Can the U.S project strength when seemingly taking a cue out of Pyongyang’s playbook?
Mutually Assured Destruction: Forgotten Era or Recurring Nightmare?
The age of nuclear weapons has brought with it the entanglement of political discord and military doctrine. Never before has the political nature of man been so enshrined in the technical evolution, some may see it as the devolution, of weaponry. Our curious venture into the scientific experimentation of nuclear weaponry has accorded us with a duality of knowledge in the primitive subatomic particles of life, edging us closer to understanding the organic nature of the life-giving atom while simultaneously giving us the option to wipe our evolutionary road out of existence. The reality of nuclear weapons shines a light on the great contradictions it builds into the strategic undertakings of international relations. The political doctrine used by nations to justify either the existence of current nuclear arsenals or development of new nuclear programs highlights the innate conflict between real security that derives from having such weapons and the regional insecurity amassed from traditional political divisions.
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was signed in 1968 to help build a framework for limiting the legality of accessing and/or building nuclear weapons. It also seeks to limit the potential destructive power of nuclear energy facilities that can be used covertly to build weapons- grade material. Currently, the treaty’s binding authority is being questioned due to the precarious activity of Iran and withdrawal of North Korea. The lack of compliance to the NPT by these countries can delegitimize its standing as a legal guidance towards nuclear energy and weapons development. President Trump has outwardly issued his distaste for international institutions. It is likely that he assumes that treaties hold no real power over a nation’s compliance to behavioral precedence set out in a treaty’s negotiated framework. If the Trump Administration holds no respect towards legal precedence in curbing a recalcitrant North Korea, nor does it currently have a credible national security architecture for the Asia Pacific, how does it intend to spur confidence it achieving ad hoc goals like winning a trade war with China? China emerged as a strong regional player due to its diligent dance as an actor in the liberal international order. Compelled as it is to skirt the West’s rules in favor of its own, China as been able to impart strength in the international system by making other nation’s believe in its desire for stability. Trump seems intent on forging new rules for international relations built upon often-unstable rules for his preferred ‘zone of compliance’ in place of traditional policy. Business deals may operate on such a scale, but deals (better known as alliances) do not operate in such a manner. Even the most scrupulous statesmen know the importance of strategic foresight, adherence to principles that impart stability, and proof of strength for the guardianship of allies to help project power when needed.
The emergence of new nuclear weapons states poses sever risks to the current balance of power, risks that the Trump Administration will not judge by the rule of law but by a self-imposed law of the jungle. Nuclear weapons has not ushered in a new age of regional unipolarity for a state like North Korea, but has created an entangled web of regional distrust and an overestimation in the creation of a multipolarity that would be created by such weapons in the hands of multiple states. President John F. Kennedy shows the reality of what the international political landscape would look like if more states acquired nuclear status. He is quoted as saying,
“There would only be the increased chance of accidental war, and an increased necessity for the great powers to involve themselves in what otherwise would be local conflict.”
The indication of great power involvement in the affairs of newly branded nuclear power states contrasts with how smaller powers perceive the attainment of such weapons as being able to curtail the influence of the United States. Currently, there seems to be an uneasy mix of factors at play: the recent call coming out of the Pentagon for a preemptive strike on North Korea, an imbalanced policy approach to China throttled between the president and Department of State, and Trump’s campaign rally proposal to build up America’s nuclear arsenal. Add in the recently disclosed plans for Russia to build an underwater drone capable of firing a nuclear torpedo. If traditional powers are resetting the manual of cold war politics when it comes to conventional warfare through nuclear deterrence, will these rules be applicable to a weak nation armed with the deterrence strength of a more powerful country?
Traditional nuclear powers are not reducing their weapons nor keeping policies alive that contribute to the modernization of current arsenals. Both the U.S and Russia produce lively rhetoric to indicate why nuclear weapons hold together the security of their countries. This produces popular concern over the perceived contradiction of traditional powers keeping their weapons while binding other newly developing states from attaining a powerful deterrent. The dangerous outcome of such ‘equity’ between states in being able to produce mutually assured destruction through nuclear weapons has become the de facto national security policy of nations both strong and weak. It is also the unbridled framework in which President Trump will seek to gauge China’s ability to be both a formidable contender and confidant in fomenting strategic objectives both China and the U.S can agree on.
The hollowing out of a definitive justice causes much of the lawlessness and instability in today’s world. We must also understand that the reality of this justice is irrevocably intertwined with realist motivations. Power becomes arbitrary if left unchecked. One can see this with the presumed umbrella of safety nuclear weapons is said to provide. As we unsteadily approach a daunting era of a new nuclear age, let us remember the consequential nature of power; that unpredictability is a symptom of a weaker hand and not a prescription for asserting, preserving, or deserving might.