With a new US administration under Donald Trump tempted to use military power in ways still hard to predict, it is timely to review the major military challenges for the United States in the Indo-Pacific region. All draw attention to Sino-US relations, from the Korean Peninsula to the Indian Ocean, encompassing both the South China Sea and the East China Sea, where Taiwan is situated. In this introduction we draw together arguments from the four articles in this Special Forum. They range from a proposed strategy to force change in North Korea to a “non-provocative” approach to counter China’s “anti-access, area denial” strategy, to continued caution in not arousing China or India to reconsider long-standing commitments to rather limited deterrence in nuclear arms, to awareness that US policy changes would only have a modest impact on increasingly close Sino-Russian military cooperation. The articles offer new insights into these four challenges facing US military power in the region.

The immediate priority is to reduce or, ideally, eliminate, the military threat from North Korea. What military posture combined with diplomacy will most effectively achieve that objective? A second priority is to respond to China’s “anti-access, area-denial” capability in a manner that enhances regional stability, overcoming China’s threats without being provocative. What military posture and application of new technologies would achieve this objective? A third priority is to prevent a nuclear arms race in Asia, constraining Donald Trump’s unilateral tendencies and tolerance of allied nuclear weapons programs, while remaining attentive to the possibility that China and India too could be drawn into such an arms race. What US policies would best keep nuclear arms under control? Finally, US policymakers are challenged by a higher level of Sino-Russian military cooperation in 2016. If Trump is tempted to try to drive a wedge between these two powers, what are the chances he will succeed?

All four articles point to dangerous challenges in East Asia and make suggestions for how the United States should address them. The boldest departure is the strategy to force change in North Korea, using both military and diplomatic means. Cautionary proposals center on managing nuclear weapons to forestall an arms race and facing China’s maritime strategy with a credible but not provocative response. What might be another bold proposal to attempt to peel Russia away from China is presented as an illusion, even if some modest gains might be achieved in bilateral diplomacy. All of the articles address issues that the Trump administration is likely to raise to new prominence. Even when they call for military assertiveness, they link it to diplomacy and stress the importance of recognizing unintended consequences in policymaking. The articles draw on the latest evidence of policy debates and of developments in military technology and arms sales to identify realistic options for US policy, while not hesitating to offer innovative proposals for addressing the most serious and immediate challenges to regional security. North Korea, the South China Sea, the Senkaku/Daioyu Islands, Taiwan, and Sino-Russian military ties are all covered.

General Walter Sharp, “Shifting the Strategic Balance to Force North Korea to Change”

General Sharp calls for change that will result in a regime that does not develop nuclear weapons, does not threaten its neighbors, insures its citizens have human rights, and is on the road toward reunification with the ROK. For the ROK, the United States, and Japan to agree to put more pressure on North Korea, the people of each nation must be confident their militaries are prepared to control escalation and stop any North Korean provocations and attacks as quickly as possible, he asserts. Multiple Security Council resolutions and sanctions have hurt North Korea but have not been sufficient to elicit change. They should be strengthened to the level of prior Iranian and Syrian sanctions, while secondary sanctions on Chinese and Russian banks, trading companies, and shipping companies that violate UN Security Council resolution are imposed along with sanctions on those who support slave labor in foreign countries, Sharp argues. This means pushing China to take action, but not making China’s cooperation the key or a required component of our strategy. The United States should conduct a dialogue, Sharp asserts, with the ROK, China, and Japan on the definition of the end state of a unified peninsula—a construct that protects and enhances the vital national interests of each of the countries—as the basis for action.

Militarily, we need to discuss the location of US forces, the border security structure, the future of the North Korean military and police, and the disposition of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and facilities. Agreements on such matters as a UN border monitoring force (with China as the lead nation); the location and size of US forces; the disposition of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons; trilateral diplomatic measures that insure transparency of all action; mineral, port, and economic rights and benefits; etc. could greatly reduce concerns and lead to China agreeing that a reunified peninsula is in its best interest, readers are told. We should push the United Nations for a Chapter 7, Article 42 resolution, which authorizes military enforcement of certain sanctions, e.g., those against missile launches, nuclear production, and missile or nuclear proliferation. Enforcement is to include destroying missiles on their launch pads or in the air and allowing countries to stop and search vessels on the high seas. The military dimension is essential, but so too is the diplomatic dimension and an information campaign for North Koreans, Sharp adds.

A clearer definition of the future for the North Korean people must first be developed.A defined end state and information campaign are required to force internal pressure. Without both of these elements, the people of North Korea will believe all neighbors are enemies, and they will have no faith for their future in a reunified peninsula. Without these elements there is no hope for internal pressure on the regime, which is required.

We must develop a regional, layered, and robust missile defense system, which includes both defensive and offensive systems that can quickly strike anywhere in North Korea. This includes increased defensive capabilities such as radars, Aegis, and Patriot capabilities. There is also a need to acquire and deploy an upper-tier missile defense capability to destroy some of the missiles before the end game. Included in this are offensive capabilities and persistent ISR to find the missile launchers and survivable strike capability to destroy them before they can launch missiles. Sharp recommends that the ROK examine the Israeli tiered system for possible solutions to defend ROK cities.

Sharp also calls for forming a true trilateral military alliance among the ROK, Japan, and the United States, which would not only share intelligence but also plan together, have inter-operable command and control systems, exercise together, and operate as a full-fledged alliance to deter North Korea and be ready to respond to its threats. Ideally, in the future, this alliance would view an attack on one of the countries as an attack on all. We need to strengthen the alliance’s defensive and offensive cyber capability. This is one piece in the overall strategy to force change in North Korea proposed by General Sharp.

Debate over what should be done in the face of the growing North Korean nuclear threat has ranged from preemption to acceptance of a freeze to concentration on China to press the North. What is often missing is a comprehensive strategy of clarifying the end game, assuring the North Korean people through an information campaign, seeking common ground with China without outsourcing to it, solidifying full alliance trilateralism, and leaving no doubt about military responses to provocations. Our first article is distinctive in presenting a full-fledged strategy for containing and ending the North Korean threat.

Michael Mazarr, “Competing in a Shared Order in Asia”

The United States will likely have to adopt more flexible, multi-component approaches that recognize the more pluralistic, multipolar realities of world politics, and do so at a time when its military predominance is more in question, says Michael Mazarr. Under the leadership of Xi Jinping, China’s sense of nationalist grievance and assertiveness can be expected to continue growing. It has undertaken an accelerating military buildup designed in part to provide it with veto power on US power projection in areas of vital concern. Beijing’s military capabilities threaten the credibility of US power projection doctrines, and its sense of grievance and threat perceptions mean that it increasingly views the US regional role as unacceptable. Given these realities, the United States cannot simply spend its way back to primacy—the attempt would only exacerbate the security dilemma that risks dragging the United States and China into a conflict neither desires but both may be powerless to avoid. Mazarr calls for overcoming the growing Chinese challenge in a way that upholds, rather than upends, the chances for a renewed order, and argues that an innovative approach to non-provocative deterrence is available.

China is gaining a potent “anti-access, area denial” (A2/AD) capability to decisively interdict US power projection in key regions, such as the Taiwan Strait, but Beijing clearly has the ambition of extending its A2/AD umbrella well into the South China Sea, to cover the areas over which it claims sovereignty. From a military standpoint, it will be exceptionally difficult for the United States to counter these efforts, in part because local A2/AD approaches have inherent advantages over power projection: they only aim to deny control, not seize territory; the technologies tend to be cheaper; and because they are typically deployed from home territories, they offer a defender-easy reinforcement. Yet, limitations to A2/AD technologies mean that China’s capabilities in this sphere will be restricted to the Taiwan Strait and parts of the East China Sea, perhaps including the Senkakus, but not beyond, Mazarr adds. The result will be to replace US dominance “not with Chinese hegemony but with a more differentiated pattern of control,” with the South and East China seas becoming “contested battlespace.”

Measures taken to reinforce the US deterrent posture in Asia can backfire by worsening threat perceptions in Beijing and speeding the dynamics within a security dilemma that can lead to war. Chinese fears stem from a conspiratorial belief that the postwar order has been designed to threaten the rule of communist and other non-capitalist regimes around the world, and to maximize US power. Mazarr adds that forward-leaning US deterrent strategies in Asia, e.g., the AirSea Battle, are almost inherently provocative, and risk intensifying the strategic competition. Defensively-oriented, deterrent strategies could— predicated on the basic idea that, in Asia, the United States is a status quo power—meet this need instead. Such a strategy could have two leading components: a forward shield based around autonomous systems, “swarming” technologies, precision missiles, and stealthy maritime assets, backed by a second layer of long-range precision weapons fired from well outside the immediate battle area. Creating an area dominated by a dense cloud of precision fire in which large-scale offensive warfare ceases to be an option, he argues, would convince Beijing that large-scale aggression—against Taiwan, the South China Sea, or other regional targets—would likely fail. The goal is not to permanently constrain Chinese ambitions but to channel them into nonmilitary avenues—to remain as non-provocative as possible with a “defensive defense” doctrine that creates a veto power on major territorial aggression—, doing so through identifiably non-aggressive concepts and capabilities. An aggressor would confront short-range fires defending regional targets from dispersed and survivable locations, which promise to defeat any attack—a, resilient, defensive deployment of weapons able to cause devastating attrition on attacking forces.

This would be made easier by a revised security posture to take advantage of the fact that the United States has a broad network of allies and partners, while China has virtually none. Allowing allies to acquire similar technologies and work with the United States to create an integrated defensive net to deter aggression, in which the United States would provide certain capabilities—perhaps the command and control systems, anti-submarine warfare, logistics, and longer-range fire—beyond what the partner could do.

Christopher Clary, “A Multipolar Nuclear Asia in the Trump Era”

If Trump chooses to “greatly strengthen and expand” US nuclear forces, how likely is it that multipolarity will amplify the effect of that decision, triggering a multisided arms race that is resistant to old treatments? Christopher Clary addresses that question, offering a note of modest optimism based on the special roles played by China and India in any potential Asian nuclear cascade. The specific geography of the Sino-Indian competition may combine with ideational and organizational inertia to attenuate the effects of any Trump-induced nuclear buildup, he concludes.

If states tend to gravitate toward parity in nuclear stockpiles, then multipolarity would make it impossible to maintain a stable equilibrium, since a state would need to be able to possess sufficient nuclear weapons to equal the force of multiple states in combination, i.e., it would need more nuclear weapons than any one potential adversary state. As each state increases the number of weapons to deal with potential combinations of foes, those same adversaries would be compelled to react with offsetting increases of their own. This would trap them in an uncontrolled arms race if parity were the goal. It is this dilemma that Clary considers, as he observes that two states have concluded that such a quest for parity—let alone nuclear advantage—is unnecessary and wasteful. Instead, India and China have both embraced assured retaliation strategies that emphasize maintaining survivable second-strike forces with little emphasis on the relative size of the nuclear arsenal in comparison with nuclear foes. He is concerned with whether this stabilizing situation will endure, suggesting explanations for why it has persisted for so long.

Clary groups the explanations for this observed stability into three clusters: organizations, ideas, and threats. He identifies an organizational structure in China that segregated and isolated nuclear strategists, militating against serious rethinking of the ideas articulated by Mao and Deng, which have served as the foundation of the existing approach. In the Indian case, he notes the existence of a strategic enclave insulated from outside pressures, especially pressures from the Indian military. As for ideas, Clary finds that thinking about nuclear weapons proved long lasting in both India and China, becoming entrenched as foundational myths. Finally, in the absence of certain types of threats, regional nuclear powers are mostly content with assured retaliation strategies. Nuclear beliefs, insulated organizational arrangements, and manageable threat environments led to comparatively small Chinese and Indian nuclear arsenals. This is the status quo that should be kept.

If the United States argues loudly and consistently for many years that its already large arsenal is insufficient for deterrence tasks, especially if it appears that it seeks to engage in damage limitation against China, it may lead to a reconsideration in Beijing and New Delhi about the requirements of deterrence, Clary warns. Multipolarity is not destiny. It is mediated by the ideas, organizations, and threats faced by its constituent members, as well as the geography on which they are arrayed. Yet, Clary is hopeful that circumstances in Asia are likely to dampen, rather than worsen, any US nuclear weapons initiatives in the near- to medium-term. Even so, one can read his argument as a note of caution that US policy, if inattentive to regional realities, could stir a hornet’s nest of repercussions.

Paul Schwartz, “Russia-China Defense Cooperation: New Developments”

Sino-Russian defense cooperation continued to operate at a high level throughout 2016, and even intensified in some areas, making this a banner year for the bilateral defense relationship, argues Schwartz. Moscow and Beijing concentrated on delivering on the two landmark agreements signed in 2015, the sale of S-400 air defense systems and Su-35 combat aircraft to China. New details emerged regarding the delivery of aircraft engines and ancillary components associated with the Su-35 transaction, which will significantly expand the scope of that transaction. Talks continued as well regarding the potential transfer of up to four Lada-class submarines to Beijing. Russia and China also signed a definitive agreement for the joint development and production of an advanced heavy-lift helicopter for China in 2016. Moreover, the two agreed on joint production and technology transfer arrangements, and Russia’s purchases of Chinese systems and dual-use technologies increased as well. Anyone assessing the balance of military power in East Asia should pay close attention to these developments in Sino-Russian relations.

Beijing plans to deploy the S-400 along its coastlines, where they will provide extended air defense coverage over both the East and South China Seas. China will then be able to contest significant parts of the air space near Taiwan and the Senkaku and Paracel Islands from land. The Chinese will receive the prized AL-41F 117S aircraft engine and Irbis-E radar system, Schwartz notes. China intends to purchase a small number of the latest Russian-made missiles for use with the Su-35. It also decided to purchase six spare AL-41F engines for each Su-35, rather than the standard option of two spare engines per plane. Beijing likely intends to use the extra engines for other purposes, such as powering its new J-20 stealth fighters. The Su-35 will provide extended air coverage for the PLA Air Force when patrolling the East and South China seas. In a Taiwan conflict, the Su-35 would be assigned the mission of countering US and Japanese aircraft, while other fighters would be left to handle Taiwan’s less capable F-16 and Mirage2000 fighters. In these ways, arms purchases from Russia will impact the regional military environment.

The 2016 decision to deploy the THAAD anti-missile system on South Korean territory, “forced China and Russia to expand their anti-missile cooperation and speed up the modernization of strategic penetration capability,” readers are told. The two have even begun to discuss the possibility of creating a joint missile defense shield. This ongoing response deserves close attention, as both ready for the impending THAAD deployment.

The Joint Sea 2016 naval exercise demonstrated, Schwartz asserts, how the Sino-Russian defense relationship has grown. Russia’s willingness to hold the exercises in the South China Sea constituted a tacit show of support for China’s position in the region. Although Moscow has been careful not to pick sides in the South China Sea disputes to avoid alienating its friends in Southeast Asia, the exercises clearly signaled mutual displeasure regarding the growing US presence in the region. Moscow and Beijing demonstrated an increased level of interoperability between their respective fleets. For the first time, the two used a single command and control system, allowing for the full sharing of highly sensitive radar and sonar data. This too is a matter worthy of close international scrutiny.

Although the two maintained a high tempo of military-to-military engagement, arms trade continues to suffer from mistrust on both sides, Schwartz is careful to add. There are still hard limits on the kinds of technology that Russia is willing to share with China, and on what China will share with Russia. Joint military exercises still remain limited in terms of their numbers, scale, complexity, and the degree of interoperability, especially in comparison with the joint exercises held between the United States and its allies. Neither wants to be drawn into a conflict with a third country, especially the United States, over an issue (e.g., Taiwan or Ukraine) that does not affect vital interests.

While acknowledging some limitations, Schwartz concludes that defense cooperation has been an area of success, which both sides can point to as evidence of their enhanced strategic partnership. It has brought tangible benefits to both: Russia’s defense industry is once again receiving significant revenue flows from Chinese arms sales, while China is finally getting access to some of Russia’s most advanced weapons technologies. Both benefit substantially from joint military exercises. Also, the relationship has become slightly more even-handed as Russia’s concern about impending economic collapse have dissipated (making it less desperate for China’s assistance), and as Beijing’s need for Moscow’s support on issues such as the South China Sea court ruling and missile defense has increased. Absent a significant change in national leadership or in the geopolitical situation, defense cooperation is poised to remain at a high level, Schwartz argues.

If Trump were to move away from the “One China” policy or adopt a confrontational approach to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing would be pushed to pursue even closer defense ties, he adds. If sanctions were to be lifted, Russia’s dependence on China would decrease, Russia might be less willing to transfer its most advanced weapon systems and be less supportive of some of Beijing’s more provocative actions, such as in the South China Sea. Even if Trump were to successfully institute a full reset of US-Russian relations, Sino-Russian defense cooperation would still likely be maintained at a fairly high level. After all, defense cooperation is now an established part of the overall relationship, complete with its own institutions and longstanding relationships, and the relationship is based on a variety of strategic, economic, geopolitical, ideological, and military factors, which will continue to drive it forward regardless of the state of relations with the United States. Moreover, Putin’s great distrust of the United States favors these ties. While US policy can influence the scope and intensity of Sino-Russian defense relations, they are poised to continue at a significant level over at least the near-term, Schwartz concludes. US diplomacy matters, but it is unlikely to have a great impact.


The four articles can be combined into a wide-ranging agenda for US military policies in East Asia. On the one hand, there is a call for acting decisively and urgently in addressing the North Korean threat with a combination of assertive diplomacy and unprecedented moves to influence internal developments in North Korea and prepare for military action. On the other, there is a warning to avoid a nuclear arms race, which could arouse China and India to reconsider their restrained nuclear doctrines. In between are suggestions for prudent responses without exaggerated expectations or provocative overreach. A different approach to “anti-access, area denial” can deter China, relying on new technologies, and a modest attempt to deter Russia and China from drawing even closer militarily may have some limited payoff. The emphasis in these two cautious agendas is to avoid hyperbole about what can be achieved, while concentrating on deterrence to deal with harsh reality.

None of the four articles veers toward idealism. China may not help in this approach to North Korea, leaving the United States to concentrate on working with South Korea and Japan, even as it keeps trying to win China’s cooperation through discussions on the end game. China will remain suspicious of US involvement in the South and East China seas, but a defensive posture against its area denial weapons should deter it and increase the chances that it will turn to non-military means. The greatest optimism centers on how the United States can keep the status quo on nuclear arms with China and India. Perhaps, the greatest pessimism is about the difficulty of altering the course of Sino-Russian military cooperation. Realistically facing challenges, these articles point to a difficult environment for US policymakers but one that is amenable to new approaches and alliance leadership.