“Major adversaries and competitors are enhancing and exercising their military, cyber, and other capabilities, raising the risks to US and allied forces, weakening our conventional deterrence and worsening the longstanding threat from weapons of mass destruction.” This statement comes from the U.S. intelligence community’s April 2021 Annual Threat Assessment Report. Two of the threats the intelligence community is most concerned about are in the Asia Pacific region: China and North Korea.
“China increasingly is a near-peer competitor, challenging the United States in multiple arenas – especially economically, militarily, and technologically – and it is pushing to change global norms.” From vaccine diplomacy, to the Belt and Road Initiative, to aggression in the South China Sea, the report details China’s attempts to expand its economic, political, and military presence. Intelligence experts predict China will likely double the size of its nuclear stockpile over the next ten years.
Meanwhile, “North Korea will be a disruptive player on the regional and world stages.” The report details the threat not only to the U.S., but also to regional allies South Korea and Japan, in the form of a “diverse strategic and tactical ballistic missile force”.
International peace, security, and economic interests are thoroughly intertwined in Asia, and countries’ actions can send ripples throughout the region and around the world. This brief explores the U.S. foreign policy in the Asia Pacific region. It will examine the economic, political, and security issues of the region, explore how these issues affect the U.S. and its citizens, discuss the role of the U.S. government, and finally outline reforms under consideration to address current challenges.
Why it Matters
Foreign Policy is defined as the “general objectives that guide the activities and relationships of one state in its interactions with other states. The development of foreign policy is influenced by domestic considerations, the policies or behaviour of other states, or plans to advance specific geopolitical designs… Diplomacy is the tool of foreign policy, and war, alliances, and international trade may all be manifestations of it.”
The U.S. has a variety of interests at stake in the Asia Pacific region, with pressing diplomatic, national security, and economic considerations, all against the backdrop of increased geopolitical volatility. The region was the subject of renewed policy interest under the Obama administration’s “Asia Pivot,” which some analysts praised for strengthening key alliances, and others criticized for its failure to deter China’s ascent in the Asia Pacific region.
As the current administration faces an openly antagonistic North Korea as well as an increasingly aggressive China, U.S. policy in the region and our relations with our Asian allies may be more crucial than ever.
Watch The Policy Circle’s Move the Needle Virtual Experience: U.S.-China Relations with Heather Nauert, Hudson Institute fellow and former Acting Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs at the State Department:
Putting it in Context
Japan was a rising power in Asia during the early 1900s and rejected “western influence” during the world economic depression. Japan sided with Nazi Germany during WWII, and eventually coordinated the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in 1941. In 1945, the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leading to Japanese surrender. From 1945 to 1952, the U.S. led the Allies in overseeing reconstruction and rehabilitation of Japan, which included implementing a new constitution. Japan signed a peace treaty with the U.S. in 1951, regained independence in 1952, and became a member of the United Nations in 1956. It is still one of the strongest allies of the U.S. today and is the 4th largest U.S. trading partner.
The entire Korean peninsula was one country for 1300 years until Japan annexed the peninsula in 1910. After Japan’s defeat in WWII, the U.S. and the Soviet Union oversaw Japan’s removal. Korea was split along the 38th parallel, with the U.S.-backed government in the south and the Soviet-backed government in the north. In 1948, UN forces rushed in when the Soviet-installed northern leader Kim Il Sung (grandfather of Kim Jong Un) invaded the south in 1950 and started the Korean War. The Korean War technically never ended; in 1953, both sides signed an armistice that kept the peninsula divided. Wary of future attacks, South Korea guaranteed its national security by signing the Mutual Defense Treaty of 1953 with the U.S., and in the 1980s the Soviet Union turned away from the north. Threatened by South Korea’s alliance with the U.S., North Korea embarked on a nuclear program that remains a point of contention today.
Opposing Communist and Nationalist forces competed for China during the first half of the twentieth century until Communist leader Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China in 1949. This forced the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek, which had the support of the U.S. in WWII, to flee to Taiwan that year. China’s alliance with the Soviet Union began to deteriorate in the late 1960s (referred to as the “Sino-Soviet split”). For the next several decades, the U.S. and China saw improved diplomatic and trade relations: China was granted the UN Security Council seat that had been held by Chiang Kai-shek in 1971, President Carter gave China full diplomatic recognition in 1979, and President Clinton normalized trade relations in 2000, which allowed China to join the World Trade Organization in 2001. China became the largest U.S. foreign creditor in 2008 and the world’s second largest economy in 2010.
U.S. relations with India have weathered multiple highs and lows since India declared independence from Britain in 1947. In the 1960s, the U.S. assisted India with education and agricultural initiatives, and strengthened strategic and military ties. However, India’s war with Pakistan in 1971 created tensions as India turned to the Soviet Union and refused to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Act in 1978. Nuclear testing in 1998 sparked international concern and prompted the U.S. to recall the U.S. ambassador to India. Since 2005, India and the U.S. have cooperated on defense, nuclear, economic, and cybersecurity initiatives. In June 2019, the Trump Administration ended India’s special trade status that had allowed it to export billions of dollars of its products to the U.S. without paying tariffs. India responded by imposing tariffs on over $1 billion of U.S. exports. Both sides are challenging the tariffs in the WTO.
Southeast Asia (The Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia)
U.S. interest in Southeast Asia greatly increased in 1899 with the annexation of the Philippines after the Spanish-American War. Japan, which wanted resources such as rubber and petroleum in what is today Indonesia, gained control of the region. Japan maintained control until the end of WWII, after which independence struggles and the Cold War took precedence. For the U.S., “efforts to prevent communist expansion in the region inhibited American support for decolonization and led to war in Vietnam and Laos and covert interventions elsewhere.” Relations since the end of the Cold War in 1991 have normalized; the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations collectively make up the fourth largest export market for the U.S. China’s aggression in the South China Sea has prompted closer relations between the U.S. and Southeast Asian countries.
Australia and New Zealand
After World War II, Australia and New Zealand were concerned about the rise of communism in East Asia, and watched as they were excluded from NATO in 1949. However, the United States’ own concern over the rise of communism led to the tripartite security treaty with Australia and New Zealand in 1952. The treaty remains important to the U.S. relationship with Australia, and the two cooperate closely on defense initiatives in the Middle East and the South China Sea as well as on infrastructure projects and scientific activities. Bilateral economic investment between the two countries amounts to over $1 trillion. The U.S. suspended obligations to New Zealand under the treaty after New Zealand enacted a policy forbidding nuclear warships from its ports in 1980, but the two still reaffirm bilateral security, political, economic, and social ties; the U.S. is New Zealand’s second largest source of foreign investment and the two work together on research in Antarctica and the South Pole.
The Role of Government
U.S. foreign policy is crafted principally in the executive branch, with the White House setting the agenda and assembling a national security strategy. At the Cabinet level, the Secretaries of State and Defense also play key roles in shaping policy, determining priorities, and implementing strategy. The U.S. Foreign Service, under the aegis of the State Department, trains and employs our diplomats, who are posted at U.S. diplomatic missions throughout the world to carry out U.S. foreign policy.
In the legislative branch, lawmakers in the House and Senate do play an important role in foreign policy; elected representatives in Congress have Constitutionally-mandated responsibilities for foreign affairs, “including the right to declare war, fund the military, regulate international commerce, and approve treaties. At least as important are such congressional authorities as the ability to convene hearings that provide oversight of foreign policy.”
The following Congressional committees handle foreign policy, defense, and national security matters:
- House Foreign Affairs Committee
- House Armed Services Committee
- House Homeland Security Committee
- Senate Foreign Relations Committee
- Senate Armed Services Committee
- Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee
Goals of U.S. Policy in Asia
National Security and Diplomacy
The broad objective of U.S. policy is to prevent a North Korean nuclear strike and deter North Korean aggression. As detailed in the New York Times op-ed, “The Price of War with North Korea,” longstanding U.S. allies Japan and South Korea would be the most vulnerable targets in a U.S.-North Korea nuclear confrontation. Another goal is to mitigate China’s aggression towards its neighbors, especially Taiwan, Japan, and the Southeast Asian nations, and engage diplomatically with China in proactively limiting North Korea’s belligerence. China also leads the world in surveillance systems and censorship to monitor population and repress dissent. The U.S. intelligence community’s Annual Threat Assessment Report lists cyber-espionage operations including “compromising telecommunications firms, providers of managed services and broadly used software, and other targets potentially rich in follow-on opportunities for intelligence collection, attack, or influence operations.”
Economic and Trade Interests
A particular concern for the U.S. is China’s aggressive attempts to expand its economic power and influence in the region and globally. A prime example is China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which “involves China underwriting billions of dollars of infrastructure investment” in European and African countries with the ultimate aim “to make Eurasia (dominated by China) an economic and trading area to rival the transatlantic one (dominated by America).”
Additionally, Made in China 2025 “seeks to make China dominant in global high-tech manufacturing” in sectors including electric vehicles, information technology and communications, and artificial intelligence. The combination of the two endeavors, if both successful, would make China an economic and technological powerhouse with networks it could control across much of the world.
The U.S. aims to counter Chinese influence in the region while also maintaining mutually beneficial trade relations and shared security interests, such as enacting sanctions against North Korea.
Universal Human Rights
As the U.S. State Department says, “The United States understands that the existence of human rights helps secure the peace, deter aggression, promote the rule of law, combat crime and corruption, strengthen democracies, and prevent humanitarian crises.”
Of note have been human rights practices in North Korea, and U.S., Canadian, and European Union sanctions against China in regards “to what U.S. officials say is a genocidal campaign against Uyghur Muslims,” which also came amidst “crackdowns on democracy in Hong Kong.”
Current Challenges and Areas for Reform
U.S. allies offer unique opportunities for cooperation as the U.S. pursues its policy objectives in that region.
South Korea is one of the U.S.’s most important allies in the Asia Pacific region, especially in terms of working to contain a nuclear North Korea. The alliance serves “to deter another North Korean attack on South Korea,” and also provides “a continental base for U.S. forces to face China and Russia and to provide a front-line defense for Japan.” The U.S. includes South Korea in the “nuclear umbrella,” a policy of extended deterrence in which the U.S. promises to use its nuclear weapons to protect allies. The U.S. has over 28,000 troops stationed in South Korea, and the two countries hold joint military exercises and training.
Japan’s alliance with the U.S. is considered “one of the region’s most important military relationships” and “an anchor of the U.S. security role in Asia.” About 50,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Japan. This relationship has assumed heightened importance in recent years in light of China’s increased aggression — particularly its maritime activities in disputed territories — and North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests.
U.S. ties with India are also assuming a greater significance in the face of China’s expansion. Starting in 2017, India along with Japan agreed “to deepen defense ties and push for more cooperation with Australia and the United States, as they seek to counter growing Chinese influence across Asia.” The U.S., India, and Japan have also signed infrastructure deals to attempt to counter China’s growing geopolitical and economic influence with its Belt and Road Initiative.
In Southeast Asia, China’s aggression in the South China Sea has antagonized Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam, which all claim zones in the sea. The U.S. supports these claimant countries’ freedom of navigation based on the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea. The U.S. has increased its military and naval activity in the region, including freedom of navigation operations, with defense allies including Australia.
In September 2021, the U.S. announced a security partnership with Australia and the U.K. (AUKUS), which would supply Australia with nuclear-powered submarines (although not nuclear weapons) and make it easier to share information in key technology areas from AI and cyber to underwater systems. The partnership will increase Australia’s military capability, and link allies to “create a global web of security arrangements to combat China’s massive and rapid global expansion,” according to Georgetown University adjunct professor Patricia O’Brien.
Along with Britain, Canada, and the U.S., Australia and New Zealand are also two members of the Five Eyes Alliance, an intelligence-sharing network focusing on “exchanging classified information on China’s foreign activities.”
North Korea and China represent the two most significant challenges both to U.S. interests in the Asia Pacific region as well as to the homeland. Both countries are nuclear powers, but U.S. interaction with these countries varies greatly. The U.S. has no diplomatic or official economic interaction with North Korea, while China is one of the U.S.’s top trading partners.
North Korea, also referred to as the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” (DPRK), is a single-party, communist state, governed by a family-dynasty dictatorship. The current Supreme Leader is Kim Jong-Un, son of former dictator Kim Jong-Il.
Challenges for the Local Population
North Korea is one of the most repressive regimes in the world with “all basic freedoms severely restricted” and no “functioning civil society.” There is no public Internet access and all media is state-run. The country has “one of the world’s most centrally directed and least open economies” and is one of the most impoverished countries in the world. In February 2019, the North Korean ambassador to the UN admitted the government was “urgently requesting help from international organizations to feed its people.” The UN’s Humanitarian Programme Cycle in 2020 estimated 10.4 million of the total population of 25 million need “nutrition support and food and improved access to basic services such as health, clean water, sanitation and hygiene.”
Foreigners detained in North Korea are often subject to human rights abuses. Tensions between the U.S. and North Korea escalated in 2017 due in part to the death of American college student Otto Warmbier, who was released to the U.S. after 17 months of incarceration in North Korea. According to the New York Times, foreigners imprisoned will likely endure “[a] forced confession, a show trial, a sentence to years of hard labor with little chance of appeal.” Though confronting Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions has generally taken policy precedence over the regime’s crimes against humanity, the U.S. has sanctioned North Korea over human rights violations. The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea offers specific policy measures for advancing human rights in U.S. policy toward North Korea.
For more detail about life under the Kim regime in North Korea, see Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick. For more on North Korea’s human rights abuses, see the State Department’s 2020 report or Human Rights Watch 2021 Report.
North Korea is an illegal nuclear weapons state, and continually violated the global Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) before withdrawing from the agreement in 2003. The state continues to develop and test nuclear weapons, despite ongoing condemnation and sanctions from the international community.
The North Korean regime conducted six nuclear weapons tests from 2006 through 2017 and conducted its first-ever test of an intercontinental ballistic missile in July of 2017. According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, North Korea tested a number of short-range missiles throughout 2019 and 2020. As of 2018, the Defense Intelligence Agency estimated North Korea had about 50 nuclear warheads, but most analysts give a range between 20 and 60.
The graphic timeline below outlines North Korea’s missile launches over the past 30+ years. Click here for a detailed list of North Korea’s latest nuclear provocations.
In November 2017, the Trump administration added North Korea back to the list of state-sponsors of terror. North Korea has aided the Iranian regime’s quest for nuclear weapons, and Pyongyang and Tehran have also been involved in nuclear cooperation with Syria. North Korea has additionally engaged in illicit arms trade with Cuba and Burma and has provided military training to Hezbollah members since the 1980s.
North Korea also engages in cyberwarfare; North Korean hackers have “targeted the media, aerospace, and financial sectors, as well as critical infrastructure in the United States and globally” for years. The country conducts ongoing cyber attacks on South Korea, and is thought to be connected to a series of hacks on financial institutions in 2016 as well as more recent financial hacks. Experts warn that the U.S. remains vulnerable to future cyberattacks from North Korea.
Today, China is run by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and Marxist principles, young Chinese revolutionaries founded the CCP in 1921. Xi Jinping assumed leadership in 2012 and is the current President of China and the General Secretary of the CCP. Click here for the Council on Foreign Relations’ Timeline of US-China Relations
Challenges for the Local Population
Between 2013 and 2016, economic growth brought over 50 million people in rural China out of poverty, but challenges still remain. In July 2020, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, “China announced that it had eradicated extreme poverty.” Based on the price tag of at least $800 billion, one World Bank official said, “We’re pretty sure China’s eradication of absolute poverty in rural areas has been successful” but “we are less sure it is sustainable or cost effective.” Additionally, China set a “deliberately frugal standard” of $2.25 per day as its poverty threshold; based on the World Bank’s upper-middle-income poverty line of $5.50 per day, which many say China should be using as its benchmark because of its economic status, a quarter of China’s population is in poverty.
Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2019 reported that “China’s assault on individual human right is at its worst level since the Tiananmen Square massacre.” The 2021 report indicated that “Beijing’s repression…deepened across the country in 2020” with a crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong and the detention of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims.
Economic Relations and Aggression
China is the U.S.’s third top trading partner, accounting for just under 14% of the U.S.’s total international trade. It had previously been the U.S.’s top trade partner, but the relationship shifted due to trade negotiations and tariffs. For more on the effects of tariffs and the U.S.-China trade negotiations, see The Policy Circle’s Trade and Tariffs Deep Dive.
China’s economy is still the world’s largest and according to the CIA World Factbook, “since the 1970s, China has moved from a closed, centrally planned system to a more market-oriented one that plays a major global role,” although “China continues to pursue an industrial policy, state-support of key sectors, and a restrictive investment regime.”
Outside of its borders, China’s economic goals are spreading far. Launched in 2013, China’s “Belt and Road Initiative, reminiscent of the Silk Road, is a massive infrastructure project that would stretch from East Asia to Europe.”
The Financial Times explains (2 min):
Besides infrastructure projects such as hydropower dams, oil and gas pipelines, and railway networks, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) explains assistance also capitalizes on developing countries’ need for “inexpensive, high-quality technology to expand wireless phone networks and broadband internet coverage” and “goes toward improving recipients’ telecommunications networks, artificial intelligence capabilities, cloud computing, e-commerce and mobile payment systems, surveillance technology, smart cities, and other high-tech areas.”
There is a level of discomfort with allowing Chinese firms to build 5G networks that could set technology standards. If China has access to the critical infrastructure that many countries depend on, China will essentially be in control of any and all information in these systems. For example, China’s largest video surveillance company Hikvision says its equipment can track people “by their facial features, body characteristics or gait.” Some Chinese tech companies, even private ones, have been scrutinized for their state ties and the fact that state authorities sometimes make checks on stored data.
Other concerns include sovereignty and excessive debt, as the cost of many projects has skyrocketed in recent years and rely on low-interest loans rather than aid grants. But with an estimated world infrastructure gap projected to reach nearly $15 trillion by 2040, some developing countries are left with few other options. The U.S. responded with the BUILD Act, but in terms of spending it is a much smaller endeavor than China’s Initiative. CFR reports 60 countries have signed on or indicated interest in physical infrastructure projects and at least 16 have done so for digital projects. In Africa, “China already provides more financing for information and communications technology than all multilateral agencies and leading democracies combined do across the continent.”
PBS News Hour dives deeper (10 min):
China is recovering from the coronavirus pandemic and “reinforcing its economic position and advancing its strategic goals as a result.” The coronavirus pandemic exposed the world’s reliance on China for basic medical supplies and personal protective equipment, and some are concerned this dependency is continuing with vaccines. The Guardian reports, “As the race to administer Covid-19 inoculations has ramped up this year, so have efforts to use the vaccines as instruments of influence.” China has announced “a flurry of free doses to countries around the world; China and Russia have made deals to supply more than 800 million vaccine doses to 41 countries. China experts are concerned that vaccines are being rolled into the Belt and Road Initiative and that China is “using summits with Middle East and African countries to offer preferential access to jabs alongside investments in highways, ports, 5G grids and renewable energy.”
China’s economic expansion is often intertwined with its military posturing, which poses another challenge. In February 2019, Admiral Philip Davidson of the Indo-Pacific Command called the Chinese military “the principal threat to U.S. interests, U.S. citizens, and our allies” in the region. China’s official 2021 defense budget is estimated to be roughly $210 billion, marking a 6.8% increase over 2020. However, China’s defense budget does not include all of its military-related activities, meaning it could be higher. In 2019, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) estimates China’s defense budget was closer to $240 billion in 2019, almost 40% higher than the official number of $183.5 billion. China’s defense budget is the second highest in the world after the U.S., and was greater than the combined military spending of India, Russia, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan in 2019.
The CSIS report indicates that over the past decade, “the annual increase in China’s official military spending has outpaced its annual GDP growth, reflecting the priority that Beijing attaches to bolstering its armed forces.” China has a stockpile of about 280 land- and sea-based nuclear weapons and “its modernization program is adding significant new capabilities.” China’s military ramp-up has also intimidated its neighbors.
Outside of its borders, China challenges Taiwan’s independence and pressures the country toward reunification with mainland China and postures aggressively in the South China Sea over territorial disputes with Japan and Taiwan. Additionally, many experts are concerned that China’s Belt and Road Initiative “could be a trojan horse for China-led regional development and military expansion.”
China has a history of conducting aggressive cyber espionage campaigns against the U.S. government and businesses. Additionally, outside of the government, Chinese hackers’ breaches of U.S. government databases compromised 22.1 million people in recent years. In December of 2018, intelligence officials reported increased digital attacks in the “U.S. energy, financial, transportation and healthcare sectors.” Some European countries are following the U.S.’s lead by blocking Chinese involvement in their economies by banning Chinese companies from investing or contracting to meet infrastructure needs.
Finally, China’s increasingly close relations and cooperation with Russia is concerning, as the two hold permanent member votes on the UN Security Council: “…Moscow and Beijing routinely follow each other’s line, usually putting them at loggerheads with the West. And there has been some alignment on North Korea, too.” In 2017, China and Russia vetoed a resolution to impose sanctions on Syria “over the alleged use of chemical weapons” and in February of 2019 vetoed a U.S. resolution that would “push for democratic elections and humanitarian aid access in Venezuela.”
In early 2021, USA Today reported, “Lawmakers in both parties see China’s economic, military and technological ambitions as the most urgent national security threat facing the U.S.” The U.S. intelligence community’s annual threat assessment, released in Spring 2021, indicates “China’s effort to expand its growing influence represents one of the largest threats to the United States,” and while it does not predict military confrontation, “so-called gray-zone battles for power…will intensify with intelligence operations, cyberattacks and global drives for influence.”
With China in particular, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative investigated China’s trade practices and found many of these practices to be unfair to the U.S. and China’s other trading partners. Policies include restrictions on foreign ownership and foreign investment, subsidies to domestic industries, and pressure on U.S. companies to transfer intellectual property to Chinese entities. In January of 2018, the Trump administration proposed tariffs that would counter China’s “unfair trade practices.” China responded in kind, resulting in a “tariff war” that has led the administration to engage in trade talks to reach a deal for the billions of dollars worth of steel, aluminum, financial, technology, and agricultural products exchanged as well as protect U.S. intellectual property and end “the forced transfer of technology from U.S companies to their Chinese counterparts.”
The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free-trade agreement between the U.S. and 11 countries in the Pacific Rim proposed under the Obama administration, intended to bring Pacific nations closer through “lower tariffs while also serving as a buttress against China’s growing regional influence.” The Trump administration withdrew from the TPP in January 2017, and the remaining 11 countries renegotiated and signed the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) in March 2018. If and how the U.S. may become part of this trade agreement is still uncertain. There is also the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) among members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and regional partners, signed in November 2020. The Brookings Institution reports that between CPTPP and RCEP, there are two major trade deals in Asia that the U.S. is not part of, even though almost “42,000 U.S. companies export to the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, supporting about 600,000 U.S. jobs.” China joined RCEP, and in 2020 was the biggest trading partner for ASEAN.
Concern regarding digital attacks has escalated in recent years; the intelligence community’s 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment listed Chinese and North Korean cyber attacks as principle concerns.
Tensions between the U.S and North Korea escalated throughout 2017 on account of missile testing. Former President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un met in Singapore to discuss “new relations” and “nuclear disarmament” in June 2018 and again in Hanoi in February 2019.
Since the February summit, North Korea has resumed short-range ballistic missile tests after an 18 month halt in testing as a sign of diplomacy. However, during the G20 Summit in Japan in June 2019, former President Trump met with Kim Jong Un and became the first sitting U.S. president to step into North Korea.
The State of U.S. Missile Defense
Deterrence theory and our missile-defense program have historically played the main roles in U.S. strategy toward North Korea’s and China’s nuclear weapons buildup and posturing. As the United States and the Soviet Union raced to acquire as many nuclear weapons as possible after WWII, analysts pioneered the theory of nuclear deterrence. According to Mira Rapp-Hooper, Asian security issues expert at Yale University, deterrence is simple: “If you do X thing that I don’t like, I will do Y thing that will be even worse for you…If one country doesn’t fire nukes at another because its leaders believe the second country will respond with a devastating nuclear counterattack, then deterrence is operating as it should.
In over 70 years since the U.S. bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end WWII, there has been no conflict involving nuclear weapons. But deterrence isn’t a fail-safe mechanism, according to Jeremi Suri, Professor of Public Affairs and History at the University of Texas:
“The paradox of American nuclear power is that the nation’s overwhelming arsenal is almost unusable. The damage created by a single nuclear strike would be so great, it would undermine most American strategic purposes. The public revulsion, even from Washington’s closest allies, would make the United States a global outcast. And American nuclear action would justify others contemplating the same, tearing apart 50 years of global non-proliferation efforts” (Wired).
According to 2018 data from Hans Kristensen and Robert Norris in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Defense Department maintains “an estimated stockpile of some 4,000 warheads,” 1800 of which are deployed in the United States and Europe. The remaining 2200 are “in storage as a so-called hedge against technical or geopolitical surprises.”
The Future of US Policy in the Asia Pacific Region
In March 2020, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command asked for $20 billion in additional spending between 2021 and 2026. In May 2020, the Pacific Deterrence Initiative was introduced as “a massive effort pushed by Congress to add more military hardware to the Indo-Pacific area and work more closely with partners and allies.” The Initiative would call for additional ground-based missiles, new fueling and maintenance facilities in the region, and more money for equipment and training with regional allies. Besides additional military strength, William Burke-White of Brookings Institution maintains multilateral approaches with countries that share U.S. values and commitment to democracy are key to addressing transnational threats like climate change as well as power rivalries.
Kurt Tong at the Center for Strategic and International Studies recommends the U.S. become more involved with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to participate in best practices “on trade, finance, investment, human resource development, and the environment” because “economic relationships and business ties” are just as important in countering China’s rise as military strength is. More direct involvement could help the U.S. become the “go-to partner for Southeast Asia” on matters from climate change impact mitigation to the rules of digital trade and open-data agreements. Marianne Schneider-Petsinger at Chatham House adds that more coordination between the U.S. and its allies in the Asia Pacific region “puts pressure on Beijing to change its market-distorting trade policies and can help efforts to hold China more accountable for human rights violations.”
Geopolitical tensions are high in the Asia Pacific region and have the potential to result in repercussions that will greatly affect U.S. allies in the region as well as U.S. security, political, and economic interests. Maintaining and fostering strong alliances, and understanding and addressing challenges in the region and how they affect the U.S. homeland will be key to ensuring the success of U.S. policy in Asia.
Thought Leaders and Additional Resources
Heather Nauert, Hudson Institute fellow and former Acting Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs at the State Department, joined The Policy Circle to gather the pieces of the puzzle to understand U.S. foreign policy in the Asia Pacific region and its vital national security, diplomatic, and economic implications. Read the recap here or watch the conversation below:
Ways to Get Involved/What You Can Do
Measure: Find out how your state and district are affected by foreign policy.
- Are there many veterans in your city or community?
- Does your city or community have a large immigrant population? Search on your state or municipality’s website for a community or human services tab, or search for terms such as “immigration,” in the search bar.
- Search on your state or municipality’s website for the business portal using keywords such as “trade,” or look for a tab labelled “business” in a dropdown menu. Look for options such as “access to world markets,” “importing and exporting,” or “[your state] + international trade,” or search for any of these terms in the search bar.
Identify: Who are the influencers in your state, county, or community? Learn about their priorities and consider how to contact them, including elected officials, attorneys general, law enforcement, boards of education, city councils, journalists, media outlets, community organizations, and local businesses.
- What steps have your state’s or community’s elected and appointed officials taken?
- Does one of your representatives serve on one of the Congressional committees addressing foreign affairs?
Reach out: You are a catalyst. Finding a common cause is a great opportunity to develop relationships with people who may be outside of your immediate network. All it takes is a small team of two or three people to set a path for real improvement. The Policy Circle is your platform to convene with experts you want to hear from.
- Find allies in your community or in nearby towns and elsewhere in the state.
- Foster collaborative relationships with community organizations, school boards, or local businesses.
Plan: Set some milestones based on your state’s legislative calendar.
- Don’t hesitate to contact The Policy Circle team, email@example.com, for connections to the broader network, advice, insights on how to build rapport with policy makers and establish yourself as a civic leader.
Execute: Give it your best shot. You can:
- Keep track of bills in Congress related to the Asia Pacific region.
- Know who decides policy in the Asia Pacific Region: Stay up-to-date with information from the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
- The Office of Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs is the point of contact for state and local governments at the International Trade Administration. See if your city or state has companies that engage internationally.
- If possible, organize a community discussion about aid, foreign policy, and what your tax dollars are going to support in foreign countries.
- Pose any questions in a written piece for your local publication to make others in your community aware and seek answers.
Suggestions for your Next Conversation
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