Could a potential Trump–Kim meeting be an opportunity to reset the regional order in ways favourable to the interests of the US, its allies and security partners? At a time of unprecedented turbulence in Asian security affairs, Tim Huxley and Ben Schreer explain the preoccupations of regional policymakers as they prepare to attend the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue.
This year’s Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) – which the IISS will convene in Singapore on 1–3 June – takes place at a time of unprecedented turbulence in Asian security affairs. The US president’s cancellation on 24 May of a summit meeting with his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jong-un, scheduled to take place in Singapore only nine days after SLD, followed soon afterwards by his suggestion that the crucial bilateral meeting might proceed as scheduled, and then by a White House briefing to the effect that the meeting would need to be delayed, emphasised the huge uncertainty over the trajectory and implications of the major, drawn-out security crisis provoked by North Korea’s nuclear and long-range missile tests.
At the same time, America’s regional strategy and the future of the regional security order may be at a turning point. Some of America’s regional allies and partners have quietly welcomed the Trump administration’s assessment that a more muscular US strategy is necessary in response to China’s emergence as a peer competitor and the threat this poses to the regional security order. But the continuing unpredictability of the present US leadership and its failure to consult regional partners adequately has caused growing concern.
An optimist’s view of Trump’s approach to North Korea
The Trump administration’s handling of the North Korean challenge is a case in point. Although it has not explained clearly or convincingly why a nuclear-armed North Korea could not be deterred by the United States’ own massive nuclear capabilities, the administration is evidently determined to remove – one way or another – the threat posed by Pyongyang’s long-range nuclear-weapons capability. The stakes are high.
Some have seen the potential meeting between Trump and Kim as an opportunity to reset the regional order in ways favourable to the interests of the US, its allies and security partners. Optimists have argued that North Korea would have important incentives to cancel its nuclear and missile programmes, accepting a comprehensive, international verification regime. The rewards for Pyongyang would include the removal of the threat of war, a peace treaty with the US and South Korea, accompanying security guarantees, and the lifting of economic sanctions, accompanied by large-scale foreign investment as part of its international rehabilitation. In this logic, giving up its nuclear and long-range missile programmes would ensure regime survival with Kim as the leader of a prosperous country.
This outcome could also yield significant benefits for the US and its allies. With the North Korean nuclear and missile threat and the accompanying danger of imminent conflict removed, the Trump administration could focus on achieving another important goal: the withdrawal of US forces from the Republic of Korea (ROK). For sure, North Korea’s large conventional forces would remain intact, but the ROK’s own increasingly powerful armed forces would constitute a deterrent, backed by an ‘over-the-horizon’ regional US military presence including aircraft carrier groups and forces based in Japan. And even if US army units were pulled out of the ROK, a US air force presence could remain there longer.
Crucially, the elimination of the North Korean nuclear threat and the reduction – and perhaps eventual complete withdrawal – of US forces from South Korea could also facilitate a restructuring of America’s military force structure in the Asia-Pacific, which is much-needed in response to China’s escalating strategic challenge across East Asia. Allies and partners – particularly Japan, Taiwan and in Southeast Asia – know that the ‘355-ship navy’ promised by Trump is unlikely to eventuate except in the long term, so might welcome a reordering of existing US military deployments to deter potential challenges from China more effectively.
Reality likely to provoke acute regional anxiety
While in the best of circumstances, all these developments might fall neatly into place, a less favourable outcome is more likely. Assuming that the Trump–Kim talks do go ahead, it is highly unlikely that North Korea will be willing to abandon its nuclear and missile programmes completely. Indeed, US Vice-President Pence’s loose talk about a ‘Libyan’ option for the DPRK – with its incidental connotations of regime change – may only have reinforced Kim’s desire to retain a ‘life insurance policy’. Apparently anxious that Kim should not cancel the planned summit, on 22 May Trump backed away from his earlier demand for immediate and complete de-nuclearisation.
But staged disarmament could be a major concern for both Seoul and Tokyo. While it might remove the threat to the US from North Korea’s long-range missiles and possibly freeze Pyongyang’s nuclear-weapons programme, it could leave the ROK and Japan exposed to the North’s shorter-range missiles. And even if Kim were willing to enter into a fully fledged ‘grand bargain’ with the US, Seoul and Tokyo would probably feel far from reassured. A major threat from Pyongyang would remain, possibly boosted by a stronger North Korean economy.
The Trump administration might be happy to pocket the gain from reduced spending on its military presence in the ROK, a gain that would be limited given the extent to which Seoul already contributes to the costs of US Forces in Korea. But withdrawing US forces from the ROK would have important wider implications, due to the central importance of the Peninsula for the security of Japan and Northeast Asia as a whole.
Speculation in recent weeks over the potential withdrawal of US units from the ROK has already sparked concern in Tokyo. Whatever the circumstances, a real pull-out would almost inevitably provoke acute anxiety there over not just Korean Peninsula security, but also the possibility that the US might next close down its bases in Japan. And there would be no guarantee that the US would use the opportunity to re-shape its regional strategy to boost its capacity to deter China’s growing assertiveness in its maritime littoral – which many see as creeping expansionism.
And what happens if there’s no deal?
If a less-than-satisfactory agreement between Washington and Pyongyang might increase rather than diminish regional insecurity, a failure to reach any deal would almost certainly return the military option to the fore as the US administration’s preferred means of removing the North Korean threat. Such a US-led preventive war, involving not only the ROK’s armed forces but possibly also those of close US allies such as Australia, France, the United Kingdom and (in a defensive role) Japan, would necessarily attempt to deliver a quick and comprehensive victory that would remove the Kim regime, as well as the military threat that it poses.
Leaving aside the fact that preventive (as opposed to pre-emptive) wars violate international law, a clear-cut and positive outcome could by no means be guaranteed. Massive civilian casualties in the ROK and Japan as the result of North Korean counter-attacks with artillery, missiles and perhaps nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction could not be ruled out. Indeed, our colleague Mark Fitzpatrick argued in an op-ed for the New York Times that any US-initiated military action against North Korea could have ‘disastrous’ results.
These disturbing possibilities will be on the minds of security policymakers from across the region and from other interested defence establishments as they prepare for the 17th IISS Shangri-La Dialogue, which will provide the opportunity for important exchanges in both private and public. Perhaps the most significant of these conversations will be between the US and its regional interlocutors, who will doubtless wish to ensure that the imminent Trump–Kim summit, and US regional strategy more generally, do not usher in a new security order in which their interests are not properly recognised.