The security picture in the Western Pacific is marked by maritime boundary disputes, nationalist enmities and rapidly modernising militaries. Against that backdrop, the prolonged absence of war between states poses an analytical conundrum. How has the region stayed so peaceful for so long?
Fortunately, peace has held among the major powers across this pivotal region for over a generation, enabling economic development on a scale that is the envy of the rest of the world. Yet if peace breaks down, it would dwarf the conflagrations of the Middle East.
Consider that Japan’s post-war military has not fired a shot in anger throughout its existence. Not once. China has not battled another state head-on since the border conflict with Vietnam in the late 1970s, and a more limited clash in the South China Sea in 1988. On the Korean Peninsula, the armistice in place since 1953 has episodically come under violent strain. But it has never broken. Southeast Asia has a number of long-running internal conflicts, and cross-border and boundary disputes which occasionally flash hot. But the last major state-on-state armed conflict ended in the 1980s with Vietnam’s withdrawal from Cambodia.
Some scholars, notably Muthiah Alagappa, argue that Asia’s declining incidence of inter-state conflict is structural in nature, as post-colonial states have stabilised politically and developed economically. A reinforcing argument asserts that the high cost of war (potentially nuclear war between the US and China) has made force obsolete for resolving disputes, especially given the region’s high level of economic inter-dependence.
The counter-argument, put by Hugh White among others, is that the region’s US-centric security order faces an unprecedented revisionist challenge from a great power, China, intent on acquiring capabilities to match this ambition, at least regionally. The cheek-by-jowl presence of the US, China and other heavily armed military powers in Northeast Asia means conflict there could escalate into general war even if the spark is local and accidental, especially since effective crisis-management machinery is not in place.
Peace is of course a good thing, yet the fact that the Western Pacific has been free of war between states in recent times potentially adds a ratcheting dynamic to the risk of armed conflict, since the use of military force, once initiated, will command a heightened ‘demonstration premium’ among the major powers, particularly those whose armed forces lack any recent meaningful combat experience. This is particularly acute for China and North Korea. Defeat is not a good look for any nation. But in non-democratic societies in particular, escalating to a successful outcome may be a rational temptation for commanders if the alternative spells personal as well as political oblivion.
Another point that does not receive the attention it deserves is that the US, despite being the region’s acknowledged guarantor of security, has not engaged in a single combat operation throughout the 100 million square miles of the Pacific Command since May 1975. Not once. Contrast this with the fact that America’s two bloodiest post-1945 conflicts were both fought on China’s periphery, in Korea and Vietnam.
What explains this disjuncture in America’s regional record?
Is it simply that Western Pacific states learned to shun military force as an instrument of external policy, as potential spoilers of the regional 'rules-based order' were held in check by America’s forward deployed capabilities, its network of alliances and security partners? In Southeast Asia, it has been argued that the normative security paradigm has shifted permanently, relegating armed conflict among ASEAN’s members to minor cross-border scrapes of the Thailand-Cambodia variety, or non-lethal maritime jousting. It is difficult to fathom circumstances under which Indonesia would again choose to confront its neighbours militarily, even if Jakarta experiences reversals in economic growth and democratic governance.
Or has the US itself been deterred? Turning to Northeast Asia, a close examination of the US record on North Korea suggests that Washington’s long abstinence from the use of military force in the Western Pacific reflects a more complicated reality than just successful US deterrence and regional economic development. As far back as the late 1960s, North Korea captured the USS Pueblo, holding its crew hostage for a year. The following year Pyongyang shot down an unarmed US surveillance aircraft. These and subsequent incidents caused multiple military fatalities. Yet the US did not retaliate. In 2010, North Korea attacked Washington’s South Korean ally twice, causing military and civilian casualties for South Korea. Not only did the US not respond militarily, it pressured Seoul, which was on the receiving end of North Korean provocations, not to retaliate.
Successive US administrations have continuously engaged in coercive signaling, through military exercises and reactive deployments directed usually at North Korea and China. Washington’s alliances with South Korea and Japan have not only endured, they have strengthened and deepened. Yet the historical record demonstrates that the US has been deterred from using force. Moreover, US strategic forbearance in the face of North Korean aggression even held during the post-Cold War era, the supposed zenith of US hegemony in Asia. Pyongyang’s ability to hold Seoul hostage because of its proximity to the DMZ is one well-known constraining factor on US military options on the Peninsula. Pyongyang’s breakneck nuclear and long-range missile development now threatens to unleash a more direct and fundamental deterrent.
But although these explanations of North Korea’s deterrent capabilities are valid, they miss the wider strategic point that Pyongyang has escaped US retaliation and pre-emption because it enjoys protection from China. Beijing is not always happy about this, since its recalcitrant ally has mastered how to exploit living in China’s strategic shadow even at the expense of Beijing’s security interests (eg. by developing missile capabilities that have encouraged Japan and a reluctant South Korea to join the US-led missile defence network). Without China next door, North Korea simply could not have evaded US military punishment as perfectly as it has. It is a feat unmatched among state adversaries of the US, all the more glaring when North Korea is uniformly regarded as America’s number-one enemy, according to a recent public opinion poll reported by the New York Times.
Proximity to China alone is no guarantee of inviolability. The fact that Afghanistan shares a land border with China was no bar to US-led intervention in 2001. But those were exceptional circumstances that did not challenge Beijing’s core strategic interests. By contrast, China intervened directly in the Korean War and opened critical supply lines with Communist forces during the Vietnam War. Washington’s rapprochement with China was the necessary geopolitical precondition for the US military withdrawal from Indochina. It is surely significant that the US has not used force in Northeast or Southeast Asia since; nor in the sea or airspace surrounding China, including the South and East China seas.
At a time when the prospect of US military adventurism in the South China Sea and other regional flashpoints is enjoying so much attention, it is important to consider the peculiar dynamics that account for the prolonged if somewhat edgy peace in the Western Pacific, in particular the very high bar on the use of armed force between states in place since the end of the Vietnam War.
The constraints that have deterred the application of US military force in the Western Pacific for over four decades will continue to apply in the face of China’s across-the-board military modernisation and ongoing improvements to North Korea’s missile and nuclear capabilities.
But it is already clear that the Trump administration aims to inject deliberate uncertainty about US strategic intentions in Asia, and towards China especially. Also, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in his most recent remarks on the South China Sea, there is now a greater willingness on the part of the US to 'accept risk if it is to deter further destabilizing actions and reassure allies and partners that the United States will stand with them in upholding international rules and norms.' Such willingness is likely to be one of the major contrasts with the Obama Administration’s risk-averse approach, in which conflict avoidance appeared to be the overriding priority. This sometimes came at the expense of US credibility, as at Scarborough Shoal in 2012.
Moreover, the deliberate unpredictability of the Trump Administration about US intentions injects an insidious risk into regional security. Combined with the genuinely unpredictable temperament of the new commander-in-chief, such uncertainty could destabilise the region as allies and adversaries struggle to adjust. The trigger for conflict is more likely to come from an over-confident Beijing or Pyongyang that misreads Trump’s isolationist instincts for a latter-day US paper tiger intent on abandoning its traditional alliances.
The potential for such misperception is one major reason why I’m not confident that inter-state armed conflict has been banished from the region, and why I won't be surprised if the region’s long peace is shattered in the coming decade.