The current North Korean crisis has yet to play out. The regime could yet launch multiple medium-range missiles and conduct another nuclear-weapon test. However, naysayers already are concluding that a recent U.S. military demonstration of resolve was “provocative,” and an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test has been postponed. The reality is that this crisis and many more likely to follow have their roots in American weakness.
After China rejected President Obama’s early overtures for “partnership” in late 2009, it fell to then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and her staff to fashion what became known as the “pivot” — now called “rebalancing” — toward Asia, propelled by increasing North Korea and Chinese malevolence and the anxieties of U.S. allies. It was the right move for the time. By late 2011, the United States was announcing its strategic shift that includes deployments of small contingents to the region, an increase in exercise activity and the formation of the Pentagon’s Air-Sea Battle Office to address new Chinese “anti-access” capabilities.
Though essentially ignored by the U.S. media, from 2010 through 2012 both U.S. and Chinese military forces have engaged in a series of signaling exercises, in which China has increasingly asserted its territorial claims in the East Sea and South China Sea, as well as deterring U.S. pressure against North Korea. Washington responded with its pivot and a series of more active military exercises with South Korea, Japan and the Philippines.
By late 2012, the administration decided on a course of stronger signaling. This was made more important by China’s blatant assistance to North Korea’s missile program, its air force posturing over the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands in January, and its island-capturing exercises in the South China Sea in late March. North Korea’s escalating threats following its third nuclear-weapon test on Feb. 12, and now its deployment of medium-range missiles, have seemingly been countered by U.S. Air Force B-2 bomber and stealth fighter deployments, and in the last week by the activation of advanced U.S. missile defenses.
Will military demonstrations alter the principal threat of the moment: North Korea’s emerging nuclear-missile capability and its partial or full proliferation to Iran? Or will they prevent a looming secondary threat: a growing lack of confidence by U.S. allies in Washington’s security guarantees as North Korea’s nuclear missiles and China’s burgeoning arsenal prompt a re-evaluation of their own nuclear deterrent options? No, they won’t, because the Obama administration has handicapped the pivot on two levels: First, the White House’s zeal to reduce U.S. nuclear weapons is also reducing Asian confidence in the U.S. deterrent. The administration’s April 2010 decision to retire the tactical nuclear warhead-armed TLAM-N Tomahawk cruise missile carried by U.S. submarines has removed the only secure U.S. tactical nuclear deterrent option in the face of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. Moreover, the administration’s desire potentially to reduce U.S. intercontinental nuclear warheads below 1,000 likely will diminish confidence they will be used for tactical missions. It is imperative that a secure tactical nuclear capability be restored for the U.S. Navy to better deter Pyongyang. Otherwise, allies such as South Korea will seek their own nuclear weapons, which could spur Japan and others to follow suit. On a second level, the administration is following a path set by three previous administrations in refusing to acknowledge and respond to China’s central role in emerging threats against the United States and its allies.Since the early 1990s, China has provided direct and indirect support for North Korea’s and Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, while consistently working against strong international sanctions against these regimes. Yet Beijing is viewed by successive U.S. administrations as an indispensable part of any political solution to North Korea’s nuclear threat and is given great credit for helping to create the Six Party Talks to engage North Korea.However, what if this has been a ruse, and the constant din that Beijing is “unhappy” with its crazy brother is nothing more than a very successful disinformation campaign? China’s transfer of many 16-wheel trucks to launch North Korea’s new KN-08 ICBM missiles in late 2011 may actually mean that it has no desire to conceal its real intent: to give North Korea a nuclear deterrent against the United States. The problem is that Pyongyang will likely sell its new ICBM to Iran and may be unstable enough to actually use them against Alaska.
It is simply astounding that the administration has said basically nothing about China’s enabling of a North Korean nuclear threat since Pyongyang publicly paraded its Chinese missile trucks exactly a year ago. At a minimum, the United States should withdraw from the Six Party Talks until China takes back its missile trucks and tell China it will be held to account in the event of a North Korean nuclear strike. Only then will Beijing begin to see the real price for its proliferation and reconsider its support that sustains these regimes.
Richard D. Fisher Jr. is a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Alexandria, Va.