The Intelligence and National Security Alliance established the Asia-Pacific Task Force, with Ambassador Bob Joseph as chairman, to examine the evolving U.S. strategy in the region and assess the implications for the national security and intelligence communities. This article is a brief overview excerpted from a much more comprehensive and regionwide military, political and economic analysis contained in a white paper: “INSA Asia-Pacific Task Force Interim Report on Defense and Military Strategic Trends.”
This excerpt focuses on strategic issues in Northeast Asia only.
In response to Beijing’s increased assertiveness, Washington has taken measures to ensure a credible extended deterrent necessary to maintain the stabilizing influence that the United States has performed since the end of the second World War.
These range from announcements such as the rotational deployment of U.S. Marines to Darwin, Australia, and the commitment to allocate 60 percent of U.S. naval assets to the Pacific, to quieter arrangements including expanding access agreements with allies such as the Philippines.
Missile defenses have played a particularly central role in the U.S. response, especially given the North Korean missile and nuclear threat. The trend nearly everywhere is toward more engagement and — with South Korea and especially Japan — more “jointness.”
The success of the overall U.S. strategy in the Asia-Pacific also depends on the military investments and political support of allies and other partners. While the United States will remain the “indispensable ally” committed to a strong regional presence, both Washington and its allies understand that U.S. partners must carry a larger share of the burden.
The security posture of the Republic of Korea is focused primarily on North Korea and on maintaining a strong alliance with the United States to deter aggression. Concerns about the adequacy of the defense of South Korea have grown in the last half-decade, especially since the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, the sinking of the Cheonan and the increasingly belligerent behavior of Pyongyang since Kim Jong Un’s assumption of power.
Buoyed by its highly advanced and growing economy, Seoul has focused on improving the technological sophistication and professionalism of its armed forces, in part to dissuade and deter Pyongyang from further provocations and in part to approximate more the capabilities of its U.S. ally, as seen in the decision to buy the Joint Strike Fighter.
At the same time, while Seoul remains closely tied to Washington, Korea has shown notable interest in developing longer-range conventional missiles. On the political side, South Korea continues to encounter challenges to improved relations with Japan while its economic and political ties with China grow.
Going forward, it seems likely that Seoul will continue to adhere closely to the alliance with the United States, especially given the persistent threat from the North.
Japan has undergone significant change in its perception of the security landscape, beginning in the late 1990s with the threat posed by North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs — a threat that has only grown over the years. China’s military buildup, especially the perceived threat to the Senkaku Islands, has raised additional concerns that have altered long-standing Japanese policies.
Looking forward, Japan’s shift toward a more active military posture appears likely to continue, given the probable persistence of the challenges to its security from North Korea and China.
Under almost any circumstance, Japan will continue to place high value on the U.S. security commitment and specifically on the extended deterrence provided by the U.S. nuclear umbrella. The continuing credibility of the U.S. nuclear force remains a principal stabilizing factor throughout the region.
North Korea has one of the largest standing armies in the world. While its weaponry is outdated, it reportedly has both the world’s largest artillery force and elite special operational capabilities trained and ready to attack South Korea’s capital, Seoul, situated 35 miles from the demilitarized zone.
The North also has a formidable missile and nuclear capability, and is also reportedly close to flight testing its new KN-08, a solid-fuel, mobile ICBM capable of reaching the whole of the United States. Perhaps for political reasons, including possibly pressure from China, the leadership has deferred testing this new missile.
North Korea has a very active nuclear weapons program. It is assessed that Pyongyang has between 6 and 12 plutonium weapons. Its uranium enrichment program reportedly has been operational for a number of years, in undisclosed locations. Recently, the Institute for Science and International Security assessed that by 2020, North Korea could have between 20 and 100 nuclear weapons.
North Korea reportedly has a large stockpile of chemical weapons and an active biological weapons program. The regime’s cyber capabilities also are formidable. Last year’s cyberattacks against banks and the media in South Korea were attributed to North Korea, as was the Sony attack this year.
Perhaps the defining element of the Asia-Pacific security setting is the transformation of China’s military capabilities and the likelihood that Beijing will continue to improve its defense posture going forward. Beijing’s military buildup and growing regional activism, sustained by impressive economic modernization, underscore Beijing’s apparent goal to replace the United States as the preeminent regional power over time.
This does not mean that China has decided that military conflict with the United States is inevitable or desirable. But China’s preparation for such conflict must be part of any understanding of the security dimensions of the Asia-Pacific region.
China has developed particular strengths in areas such as missile technology and now fields a substantial arsenal, including a larger and more advanced nuclear force comprised primarily of land-based ICBMs but also with a growing sea-based component.
Understanding the implications of the defense and military trends in the region is essential for the formulation of a successful U.S. regional strategy and, in that context, for establishing intelligence requirements and priorities.
Ambassador Joseph DeTrani is president and CEO of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA), a Washington-based research institute. Previously, in three decades of U.S. government service, he served as the State Department’s special envoy for the Six-Party Talks with North Korea, with the rank of ambassador. These views represent the views of the INSA Task Force and are not the views of any government agency.