Washington’s Northeast Asian nuclear umbrella and Sino-American strategic relations

Obscured among the multiple aspects of the Korean security crisis is the future of the United States’ nuclear posture in Northeast Asia. In a recent interview with South Korea’s KBS news however, Moon Chung-in, a foreign affairs adviser to ROK president Moon Jae-in, asserted that should the DPRK denuclearize, Washington must reciprocate by withdrawing its nuclear umbrella over Japan and South Korea.

The insinuation that the US should substantially alter its nuclear policy in Northeast Asia as a quid pro quo for North Korean denuclearization would, all things being equal, seem fair. A substantial reduction – if not elimination – of a North Korean nuclear threat against the US and its allies would in principle mitigate the need for a continued American deterrent over the ROK and Japan.

Gearing up for great power tensions

North Korean denuclearization, however may not prove to be sufficient grounds for the US to completely withdraw its nuclear deterrent in Northeast Asia. The American nuclear umbrella, though focused on the DPRK, also positions Washington against one of its major great power rivals. As the US Naval War College’s Terrence Roehrig has argued, the US nuclear umbrella concurrently deters China to an extent.

The US Department of Defense, focused in recent years on unconventional threats, is once again doubling down in preparation for great power conflict. The US government’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review emphasizes the specter of great power competition with China. Likewise, the US defense establishment is currently set on refurbishing American nuclear capabilities, particularly as current systems approach the end of their service life. The Pentagon’s budget request for the 2019 fiscal year declared the modernization of nuclear delivery systems to be the Defense Department’s “number one priority”.

Sub-regional considerations in strategic relations

American deterrence against China in the context of the US’s Japan-South Korea nuclear umbrella, though part of the American alliance network in Northeast Asia, may not be all-encompassing: as the Cato Institute’s Eric Gomez points out, there is little reason to believe the US would utilize its nuclear deterrent in the event, for example, of an armed conflict between China and Japan over the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands.

Indeed, between two countries with as diverse of sub-regional interests as China and the US, there is variation in the geographic points of contention to keep in mind in analyzing the trajectory of Beijing-Washington strategic ties. Tensions as exist between China and the US stem primarily from issues related to the South China Sea and Taiwan.

Nevertheless, although Beijing and Washington reiterated their mutual visions for stable bilateral military relations as well as Korean security at the second US-China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue, continued Sino-American tension across the board presents a formidable challenge to stability in Northeast Asia. Considerations over how the United States relates to China in a security context should factor in realities at both the sub-regional as well as wider strategic levels.

Beijing’s defense establishment has organized the Chinese mainland and peripheral regions outside of China into five military theater commands, with the Northern Theater Command encompassing not only the regions of mainland China adjacent to the Yellow Sea, but Japan and the Korean Peninsula as well. Theater commanders are reported to have been given an unprecedented level of planning power, with Chinese strategic preparations said to be based on coordination of plans drawn up by respective Chinese theater commands.

Beijing and Washington, therefore would do well to ensure that they do not excessively compartmentalize shared visions for Korean denuclearization and bilateral strategic stability. Indeed, former South Korean prime minister Lee Hong-koo recently expressed hope, that despite the thorny nature of Sino-American relations, the two countries could continue cooperating on the DPRK’s denuclearization. This is especially important, in Lee’s view, given that China and the US are both permanent members of the UN Security Council.

The American nuclear umbrella, in any case is bound to continue affecting Sino-American strategic relations. Should peace break out in Korea, China will no doubt push for the termination of the US’s nuclear roof over Japan and Korea.

An American defense establishment wary of Chinese power, however could conceivably be hard-pressed to voluntarily withdraw its thrust so close to China’s periphery. Current and future dialogue between the US and China, therefore should not consider the denuclearization of Korea as as being fundamentally separate from the preservation of Beijing-Washington bilateral stability, but ought to view the former as an extension of the latter.

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