YL Blog #28: Alliance Thinking About Deterrence in the Pacific Islands Region


When discussions regarding strategic competition between the United States and China invariably turn to potential sites or circumstances for military confrontation — if not deterring conflict in the first instance — few analysts or policymakers would nominate the Pacific Islands region (PIR) as a priority theatre. Yet it is fast becoming “a strategic frontline in a multi-nation contest for power and influence” in the Indo-Pacific, not least in the scheme of Great Power competition. Substantial analytical and journalistic reporting in recent years has been devoted to examining Chinese and US competition for regional political and economic influence. Questions over security and deterrence, however, have so far largely escaped closer analysis, even though there are significant mid-term “military and geopolitical advantages” at stake.

For the US, there is a growing need to consider these matters with greater urgency, not least considering that one of its closest treaty allies—Australia—is a resident power in the PIR. On the one hand, Australia is both advantageously and perilously located on the frontline of a relatively new theatre of strategic competition. On the other hand, the US-Australia Alliance has not been required to grapple with questions of deterrence and defense against powerful adversaries in the PIR for many years. Notwithstanding a long history of military cooperation, the PIR’s unique geography, complex geopolitical character and growing Chinese presence collectively present a new challenge for the US-Australia Alliance, and the serious chance that China could become a resident military power in the PIR should prompt a serious rethink of what collective regional deterrence should looks like in a new geostrategic context.

The Mismatch Between Interests and Resourcing

Historically, US regional interests have been most acute where Washington possesses sovereign territories or enjoys access, primarily across the northern arc of the PIR. Since the 19th century, locations across the PIR’s north—Hawaii, Guam, the Compact of Free Association States, and others—have helped sustain American commercial and political interests in Asia, while since the end of World War II, a robust regional military presence has allowed the US to maintain a favorable regional balance of power, protecting the freedom of movement of goods, ideas, and—should needs arise—American and/or allied forces to regional flash-points. Possession of or access to Pacific territories has also allowed America to deny these areas to potentially hostile powers who might seek to threaten the US homeland. Such concerns have largely lain dormant since Imperial Japan’s defeat in September 1945, but have risen again in the wake of China’s rise.

In fact, many argue that a growth in China’s influence in the PIR has occurred while Washington has been asleep at the wheel. For the purposes of this paper, America’s failure to adequately invest in regional security initiatives and local US force posture are of primary concern. The Obama Administration’s ‘Rebalance to Asia’ did include some Pacific-relevant initiatives such as increasing aid, trade and investment links with the region, alongside the stated goal of shifting the bulk of US forces (including 60% of naval forces) into the Asia-Pacific by 2020. However, efforts to recalibrate regional force posture occurred in parallel with a general reduction in global force posture, meaning that US Pacific forces have essentially “remained static” since the Rebalance was announced. It is also unclear whether the administration of President Donald Trump regards the region as strategically important. Notwithstanding the adoption of the Indo-Pacific Strategy to address China’s regional designs, there is little in the way of official documentation that clarifies Washington’s core security interests in the PIR, or that sets forth a convincing strategy for addressing the challenges posed by China there. The PIR did not rate a single mention in the administration’s National Defense Strategy, while subsequent Department of Defense and Department of State documents outlining the Indo-Pacific Strategy read largely as lists of minor achievements and initiatives rather than long-term diplomatic or military blueprints for addressing pressing strategic challenges.

Symptomatic of America’s broader Indo-Pacific budgetary shortfall, US military assistance to the PIR has been negligible compared with investments made elsewhere, namely in the Middle East. In 2018, for example, the entire PIR received a quarter (approx. $1 million) of the International Military Education and Training funding extended to Jordan alone (approx. $4 million). Nor have Pacific Island states typically received much in the way of targeted Foreign Military Financing, funding which has typically fallen under an ill-defined ‘regional’ category. Notwithstanding some encouraging signs in the FY20 National Defense Authorization Act—including expansion of the Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Initiative to include the PIR, $1.5 billion for Indo-Pacific security initiatives under ARIA, and a directive for US Defense and Intelligence authorities to compile a report on “foreign military activities in Pacific Island countries”—there remains much for the US to do to step-up its security footprint in the PIR consistent with its identification of the Indo-Pacific as its priority theatre.

Australia has also historically recognized the strategic significance of the PIR, but has not consistently invested the material and political resources to support that perception. To varying degrees of urgency, successive Defence White Papers have repeatedly articulated the imperative of a secure and stable PIR for Australian security. Realistically, however, since WWII Canberra has become accustomed to dealing with non-traditional security challenges such as failed states and natural disasters rather than state-based military threats or encroaching outside powers. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, Australia’s policy posture towards the PIR over the years has oscillated between “crisis-driven interest” and neglect depending on the top security priorities of the day, which for the last two decades have primarily resided in the Middle East—nearly 73% (US $9 billion) of total operational spending since FY00/01 has gone towards distant Middle East campaigns.

In recent years, however, China’s growing power and influence have refocused Australian policymakers’ attention back on the Indo-Pacific, particularly in the PIR. Though the ‘Pacific Step-Up’ policy may not be exclusively about addressing growing Chinese influence, that the policy has come largely in the wake of a growing Chinese profile in the region indicates that it is at least amongst its core drivers. Aside from expanding its diplomatic presence in the region, 35% of Australia’s (shrinking) aid budget now goes to the PIR (a number which could increase further), while Canberra could announce a range of new Pacific projects through the US $1.26 billion Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility later this year. In the security space, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) has also stepped up its engagements with the region, conducting the annual Indo-Pacific Endeavour exercise in the Pacific in 2018, sponsoring a program to deliver 19 maritime patrol vessels to 12 Pacific states, and standing up a Pacific Support Force to lead regional military training, among other initiatives.

China’s Growing Pacific Profile: Probing for Strategic Access?

Recent Australian and American initiatives in the PIR have undoubtedly been motivated by an uptick in Chinese activity and influence. In short, Beijing’s efforts to cultivate influence across the PIR could have serious strategic implications for both Australia and the United States—namely, should Chinese funding of critical infrastructure projects in the PIR ultimately pave the way for a regular People’s Liberation Army (PLA) presence there. China has been criticized for using economic coercion and so-called ‘debt-trap diplomacy’ to secure strategically important facilities across the Indo-Pacific, most infamously in the case of Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka. Many feared that the PIR would face a similar predicament (though recent research dispels these concerns), though its circumstances are somewhat different given the particular economic, political and security weaknesses afflicting many PIR states, and the region’s unique geography. In fact, the relatively small scale of the infrastructure required for small Pacific populations creates a favorable cost-benefit dynamic for China should it seek to generate strategic advantages over Australia and the US by cultivating strategic access in Pacific states.

China’s diplomatic battle with Taiwan has historically driven its interest in the region, but analysts worry that additional strategic considerations could also be entering China’s calculus. Some argue that recent diplomatic switches by Kiribati and the Solomon Islands from Taiwan to the People’s Republic could spark a chain of events resulting in “a crescent of Pacific island nations heavily influenced by China,” potentially allowing it to constrain US and Australian freedom of movement across the region. Others claim that military expansionism is in fact Beijing’s long-term goal, with low-return economic projects merely part of “a pre-conflict type of shadow game” of strategic positioning with the US. A regular military presence in the PIR could enhance the PLA’s regional logistics and communications networks, and allow it to surveil Australian and US military activities in peacetime, or even strike preemptively in the event of conflict in the South China Sea or East Asia.

Recent evidence adds weight to these concerns. Initial alarm was raised by an April 2018 story alleging that China and Vanuatu had held preliminary discussions regarding the establishment of a permanent PLA naval presence on the island nation, either in the form an initial access agreement permitting PLA vessels to refuel and resupply in Vanuatu, or even a purpose-built facility further down the track. Many pointed to the fact that Beijing had already provided development assistance for a new wharf on the northern island of Espiritu Santo, located close to a major international airport which China had also pledged to develop. The Australian government was quick to protest, and authorities in China and Vanuatu were just as quick to deny the reports, but the story nevertheless sparked significant anxiety within Alliance policy circles. Rory Medcalf distilled the Alliance’s core anxieties when he stated that such a base would “give China a foothold for operations to coerce Australia, outflank the US… and collect intelligence in a regional security crisis.”

Vanuatu, however, was not a one-off. Additional reports indicated that China could be in line to co-develop four major port facilities in Papua New Guinea (PNG), including at the site of Lombrum Naval Base on Manus Island. These anxieties likely informed the Alliance’s decision, announced by US Vice President Mike Pence at the APEC 2018 Summit in Port Moresby, to partner with PNG in the redevelopment of Lombrum as a dedicated naval facility. In that same month, further reports spotlighted Chinese interest in assisting Samoa in developing a new port facility at Savai’i and, it later emerged, a second port site on Upolu¾both locations are adjacent to potential major airstrips. More recently, in October 2019 provincial authorities on Tulagi in the Solomon Islands signed an agreement to lease the entire island to Chinese state-owned company SAM Group, before the Solomons’ central government deemed the deal unlawful. Given the island’s historical significance as a Japanese deep-water naval base during World War II, Australian and US officialswere concerned that commercial facilities on the island could be converted to reprise such a role for Chinese forces. Before news of the deal’s cancellation had broken, some Australian analysts had speculated that a planned construction airfield there could eventually be outfitted to support Chinese J-10 fighter aircraft.

Thinking Through Options for Deterrence in the PIR

Though China has yet to secure strategic access in the PIR, its efforts still leave much for the Alliance to consider. The Allies’ responses thus far suggest that they are willing to expand their own regional strategic footprint in response, albeit in a rather reactive manner. Before launching into a larger coordinated response, however, policymakers in Canberra and Washington will need to develop a common understanding of the exact threat that a Chinese military presence would pose, whether or not these designs can be deterred in the first place, or if not, how best to deter, mitigate or eliminate the security challenges that a local PLA base could pose.

As a first step, the Allies should consider the range of Chinese actions that they seek to deter. Both partners obviously share an interest in preventing China from securing strategic access in the PIR. What is unclear, however, is whether that means a) the establishment of these facilities, and whether they are dedicated or dual-use facilities; b) the further development of existing commercial infrastructure to accommodate military assets; or c) the PLA’s actual use of these facilities in ways that undermine Alliance security interests, that would constitute the crossing of a ‘red line’ for the Allies. Despite a few close calls, none of these circumstances have yet materialized, but policymakers cannot wait until after the fact to reach a consensus on where Alliance red lines lie in the Pacific. In other words, the Alliance needs to establish a shared threshold for regional deterrence, beyond which Chinese activities would provoke a collective response.

One possibility is that the Alliance could seek to ‘beat Beijing to the punch’ by securing access to strategic real estate ahead of Chinese companies. In doing so the Alliance would be attempting to deter by denial, signaling a preparedness to outspend and out-politic China in the Pacific. Elements of such an approach are already apparent, for example, the Allies moved quickly to preempt Chinese interest in Lombrum Naval Base, the first stage of which was officially opened in August last year. Most recently, reports suggested that the Allies will seek to establish a deep-water port of their own in the Solomon Islands on the island of Malaita, only weeks after the China-Tulagi agreement was voided. Local authorities there, allegedly unhappy with the central government’s decision to abandon Taiwan, have also invited Australian and US forces to patrol the area. It is unclear whether this latter proposal will proceed given that Honiara has already overruled another recent agreement between local authorities and foreign powers. Regardless, the Allies will not always be as fortunate as they were with the 11th hour cancellation of the Tulagi agreement—the sheer scale of regional demand for infrastructure and the difficulty of competing with China’s largesse means that the risks of similar agreements being reached in the future cannot be ruled out. In the long-term, Australia and America—even in partnership with likeminded states—will struggle to sustain the financial and even political capital to preempt suspected Chinese strategic designs at every turn. Competing with Beijing on the basis of dollar figures alone does not advantage either Canberra or Washington going forward, meaning that one could effectively presume that China could not be deterred from seeking strategic access in the PIR in this manner.

A second option could be to confront or even punish China for establishing or even attempting establish an operating location, an idea which was the subject of some limited discussion at the second Australia-US Deterrence Dialogue. Following this concept, the Allies could consider blockading or sabotaging Chinese dual-use or dedicated military facilities in the PIR, whether in their completed forms or in their construction phase. China’s creation of ‘facts on the ground’ in the South China Sea (SCS) has already demonstrated the perils of allowing such projects to go ahead—in fact, some US voices have claimed that China is in fact applying the Go-like tactics mastered in the SCS to the PIR. As such, analysis suggesting that the conventional wisdom regarding China’s SCS bases—that they could be easily and efficiently neutralized in the event of conflict—is dangerously wrong could carry lessons for the Alliance in the PIR. China’s SCS facilities would in fact be “prohibitively costly” for the US and/or its Allies to neutralize in the early stages of a conflict, given that it is nearly impossible to “imagine a scenario in which the United States would be seriously considering kinetic strikes on Chinese bases in the South China Sea that would not also involve fighting in Northeast Asia.” In other words, a second-order consideration could attract outsized investments of military resources at the most pressing of moments, a situation which could be equally possible in the PIR. By providing control over strategically important waterways between Australian and US Pacific forces, Chinese Pacific bases could create additional headaches for the Alliance in wartime planning and practice, drawing resources away from more decisive theatres in north Asia.

Compared with the SCS, China’s deterrence calculations would be considerably different in the PIR. Its core interests reside squarely in and around the Chinese mainland, and would not necessarily be engaged by a distant conflict in the South Pacific should it remain locally confined. Sheer distance would also deny the PLA the same logistical advantages that it enjoys in the SCS, potentially reducing the mid-term efficacy of forces stationed there in a conflict. These factors suggest that the Alliance could minimize the risk of Chinese retaliation or escalation if it took only limited action against putative PLA facilities in the Pacific. Even so, it is questionable whether Australia or the US would be so overtly confrontational as to blockade or strike Chinese facilities in the Pacific. Blockading or striking military facilities built upon artificial islets is one thing. Doing the same to potentially commercial targets located within a third party’s sovereign territory is another matter entirely. In fact, were Beijing invited to establish a military presence by a Pacific nation’s central government, the long-term political costs of these sorts of action could be unpalatable.

Alternatively, rather than trying to deny China a permanent military presence in the PIR at great political and economic expense, it could “prove cheaper to build military capabilities that… could neutralize Chinese bases” through denial operations or, if necessary, kinetic strikes—classic deterrence by denial. Pursuing such a denial strategy would not necessarily preclude Chinese military outposts in the PIR, but would nevertheless allow both Alliance partners to preserve economic and political capital, avoid near-term actions that could see Pacific nations become collateral damage, and address wider-ranging strategic needs. For example, though much recent discussion regarding the US withdrawal from the INF Treaty has dealt with the utility of these capabilities in Asia, they would provide equal leverage over hypothetical Chinese facilities in the Pacific Islands. In fact, for Australia these capabilities make more sense in a Pacific context given the substantial distance between potential basing locations in the Northern Territory and likely targets in the South China Sea and beyond.

The US has already begun developing and testing new ground-based INF-range cruise and ballistic missiles for future deployments in Asia, but these plans are complicated by the limited number and great distance of US territories from likely targets, and the reluctance of regional partners (bar perhaps Japan) to host these capabilities at the risk of China’s wrath. Instead, Australia could be given the lead in developing a domestic land-based strike capability with practical technical support from the US. Such an initiative would be a positive step towards more equitable burden-sharing arrangements, and assist Washington’s efforts to address the significant fiscal, maintenance and political challenges associated with resourcing the Indo-Pacific Strategy. Long-range strike would also address operational requirements in other parts of Australia’s near-abroad, while jointly developing an operational doctrine for their deployment and use would also contribute to a tightening of Alliance strategic planning in the PIR. Relatedly, the PIR should more prominently feature in Alliance consultations over the division of labor in a range of possible contingencies across the Indo-Pacific. Even with these capabilities, Australia could not, beyond unreasonable doubt, deter or defeat Chinese aggression alone, and would still depend on US military support in the majority of imaginable scenarios where China is the chief adversary. Nevertheless, Washington will continue to expect Canberra to play a leading role in local joint operations, particularly if the Allies agree that the majority of possible contingencies in the PIR would be peripheral to more resource-demanding conflicts elsewhere. As such, developing a clearer sense of each partner’s expectations of the other in any given PIR contingency, and planning operational responses accordingly, should be a top priority.


In closing, this analysis barely addressed the agency of Pacific Island nations themselves, though not for lack of interest or importance. Rather, Australia and the US would be well-advised to approach the strategic challenge in the PIR by building trust rather than leaving these nations out of strategic planning altogether. After all, PIR states do not necessarily share the Alliance’s perceptions of China, and there is little evidence that Australia or the US are taking the region’s own security priority—climate change—seriously enough to foster the deep strategic partnerships required to build a regional order favorable to their interests. Nor is this analysis to suggest that military investments alone can solve the strategic challenges at hand, only that these considerations have remained largely peripheral until recently. Finally, this paper is far from exhaustive, and many of the ideas presented here are admittedly incomplete and worthy of further exploration. Hopefully, future US-Australia Deterrence Dialogues can unpack the complexities of strategic competition in the PIR in much more detail.

Tom Corben is a resident Vasey fellow at Pacific Forum.

Disclaimer: All opinions in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent any organization.

YL Blog #27: Reinforcing the US Extended Deterrence in the ROK and Japan


I attended the US-ROK-Japan Trilateral Strategic Dialogue on September 5-6, 2019 in Maui, Hawaii as a part of Pacific Forum Young Leaders delegation. In this piece, I would like to discuss key lessons of the dialogue session at Maui and lay out next steps for trilateral security cooperation.

Nuclear Policy Discussions among Allies

First of all, participants from the ROK and Japan expressed concerns over the credibility of the US extended deterrence with President Trump’s statements on downplaying the role of alliance. While the working level relationship is robust and alliance coordination mechanism is well in place, there were increasing concerns over the prospect of high-level decision to abort or undermine alliance commitment. As a result, a few participants from the ROK and Japan invoked an example of the US-NATO nuclear sharing to illustrate a way to enhance the US extended deterrence in East Asia.

On the other hand, the US participants expressed subtle opposition against the NATO style nuclear sharing on two grounds. First, the US side urged the ROK and Japanese counterparts to understand better what it takes to have NATO style nuclear sharing, both in operation and burden sharing. The US side questioned whether the ROK and Japan are ready to operationalize and plan nuclear weapons into its respective national security planning, while in mindful of public opinion and potential oppositions. Second, and less explicitly articulated during the discussion, the US participants expressed its concern over escalation control during crisis. The sharing of nuclear weapons, though neither the ROK nor Japan will be able to launch it without consultation with the US in advance, invites uncertainty of controlling escalation from the US side.

Requirements of Coordinated Nuclear Policy

Nevertheless, all three nations agreed in principle that there is a need to enhance allies’ nuclear policy discussions. Such discussion will have to bear in mind the following consequences. First, nuclear policy discussion requires responsibility for all actors, both in operational and financial terms. The US domestic decision making on nuclear sharing notwithstanding, the ROK and Japan should assess the pros and cons of NATO-style nuclear sharing option in terms of its implication on allies’ force structure and costs of such planning. Second, domestic opinion of each nation should be taken into consideration – in particular that of Japan. Co-operating nuclear weapons with the US can invite strong opposition from domestic factions, considering Japanese views on the role of nuclear weapons. Third, broader regional security situation – China and Russia – has to be considered to minimize the potential oppositions from regional actors. While nuclear sharing options may suffice as critical national interest, regional actors may beg to differ and advance its own nuclear posture.

At the same time, North Korea factor should be considered when measuring the pros and cons of nuclear sharing option. In other words, we need to calculate whether the marginal benefit of nuclear sharing option exceeds the negative costs of the DPRK’s enhancement of its nuclear weapons program. It is possible, without full confidence on the US extended deterrence, that the ROK and Japan will develop its own nuclear arsenal or take other measures necessary to compensate for lacking US extended deterrence. Such prevention of nuclear proliferation in the region itself is certainly a benefit. In addition, co-operation of nuclear assets in the region could bolster strong deterrence against adversaries including but not limited to North Korea alone. On the other hand, it has to be noted that the DPRK has expressed critical views on the US-ROK combined military exercises, with or without the US strategic assets such as B-52 bombers. It is certainly the case that the DPRK will respond in its kind on the ROK and Japan’s decision to co-operate the US nuclear weapons in the region.  

Will Coordinated Nuclear Policy Solve Allies’ Concerns? 

Separate, however equally important, issue is that the nuclear sharing option may not address the root cause of allies’ concern on the US extended deterrence. The nuclear sharing option may not address the concern over the credibility of US extended deterrence because such arrangement can be reversed by high-level political decisions, likewise the extended deterrence itself. While such mechanism of co-operating nuclear arsenal in the region offers aesthetic of firm extended deterrence, the fact does not change that the US can change its policy as it withdrew tactical nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula in 1990s. Furthermore, the nuclear sharing option does not allow US allies an option to launch nuclear weapons without explicit US consent. In other words, nuclear weapons may be a paper tiger without full US endorsement.

The credibility of extended nuclear deterrence is a puzzle that can never be solved easily. Nuclear policy discussions certainly will have marginal effect on strengthening the US extended deterrence in the region, both in the ROK and Japan. However, such arrangement comes with financial cost and adversaries’ aggressive responsive measures have to be considered. On top of that, a nuclear sharing mechanism may not address the root cause of concern over the credibility of extended deterrence. Considering aforementioned variables, nuclear policy discussions among allies have merits both in terms of minimizing misunderstandings among allies and increasing the credibility of extended deterrence. While it is uncertain how such policy discussion will conclude, the process of nuclear policy coordination will certainly offer a room to address allies’ concern over the US extended deterrence.

Disclaimer: All opinions in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent any organization.

YL Blog #26 – Extended Deterrence in the Age of Trump: Hardware, Software, and Malware


2019 US-ROK-Japan Trilateral Strategic Dialogue offered an excellent forum to gauge the current strategic thinking and debates in Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul. The event comprised experts’ remarks apropos the extended deterrence in the Asia-Pacific and trilateral cooperation, as well as a two-move tabletop exercise (TTX) that brought alliance management issues to light.

The “hardware” component of extended deterrence was discussed at length, particularly the post-INF developments and implications for the region. The majority of participants agreed that INF withdrawal, albeit problematic in its execution and style, will positively contribute to countering Russian and Chinese previously unchecked advances. Putting aside the basing question, participants agreed that new missiles would strengthen the deterrence posture.

The second element, the “software,” which relies on assurance and credibility, needed more discussions and deliberations. Assuring allies that the United States will honor its treaty obligations in case of an attack is infinitely more challenging than developing a certain type of military equipment. This is what strategists and policymakers grappled with throughout the Cold War. They succeeded by supporting allies economically and politically, and by signaling unified positions despite serious disagreements that were dealt with behind closed doors. In regards to adversaries, the United States consistently communicated that an attack on an ally will automatically precipitate a devastating American response. This, indeed, is the underlying logic of deterrence: an aggressor-state is dissuaded from launching an attack on an ally, knowing that the United States will retaliate on its behalf which would negate any potential gain from launching an attack in the first place.

Since it is a part of the red theory of victory, it comes as no surprise that China, Russia, and North Korea are working hard to break the U.S. alliance structure. What is frustrating to watch is our commander-in-chief making comments that undermine allies’ confidence and play right into our opponents’ hands. For lack of a better analogy, I treat these comments as “malware.” One tweet might not unravel the alliance structure per se, but allow enough of them to roam in your system, and soon enough one will have to scrap the old and install a new infrastructure altogether.

In the recent past, few instances stand out. First, President Trump continues to downplay the importance of North Korea’s short-range missile launches, even though these missiles threaten Japan’s and ROK’s survival and security. Second, bickering over trade deals and troops cost-sharing underscores Trump’s transactional approach to foreign policy and skepticism of alliances writ large. Third, adopting North Korean lexicon and calling defensive military exercises “war games” is not just a diplomatic gaffe, but an insult to men and women in uniform. Put together, these blunders create a dangerous situation and invite aggressors to test our will to defend allies, particularly on the sub-conventional level.

As we are upgrading hardware, Trump unwittingly inserts malware into the trilateral relationship. Particularly unhelpful has been “public-shaming” of South Korea and its contributions for military cost-sharing. Koreans are already overly sensitive when it comes to the U.S. troops and the move to Camp Humphreys. Fueling the anti-American sentiments in the South facilitates North Korean long-held strategic thinking that once the U.S. troops out of the peninsula, South Korea will be ripe for reunification on the DPRK’s terms. Undoubtedly, Kim Jung Un is enjoying the new reality show.

TTX was designed to discern how the U.S., ROK, and Japan would react and respond to Beijing’s and Pyongyang’s coordinated assault on the rules-based international order. Japan and South Korea correctly calculated that the adversaries were seeking to alter the status quo, and that the situation merited a strong response. To demonstrate firm resolve and commitment to the alliance structure, all allied states, in fact, expressed willingness to “escalate to de-escalate.” Moreover, a component of the final move was North Korea’s wielding its nuclear card: a nuclear explosion in the Pacific Ocean as well as a missile launch over Japan. Allies unequivocally conveyed that they will watch the reaction and comments from the White House closely, and that their subsequent steps will be guided by what they observe.

Relatedly, neither Japanese nor South Korean delegates raised issues with Trump’s style of diplomacy, and only a handful of American experts acknowledged Trump’s malign effects on the U.S. standing in the world. One participant alluded that we need to brace ourselves for the partial or complete U.S. troop withdrawal from Korea, given Trump’s intransigence with cost-sharing and his record. The fact that the U.S. credibility was not openly questioned is perhaps a good sign. However, Trump’s foreign policy track record was the elephant in the room. (Remember Paris Accords? JCPOA?).

The extended deterrence framework has played an essential role in ensuring peace in Northeast Asia, but currently it is undergoing major shifts. Allies have a decent understanding of an appropriate response to revisionist states’ attempts to overthrow the status quo. However, Japanese and Korean participants (American as well, for that matter) remain unsure how to deal with self-inflicted wounds. Explicit signaling needs to be a priority; there should be no doubt in Beijing, Moscow, or Pyongyang that regardless of the domain and intensity, the United States and allies will respond and inflict unacceptable damage on the adversary’s forces. More hardware in the region will certainly alleviate some allies’ anxieties. However, returning to basics-updating the software and protecting it from malware-will deliver more bang for the buck.

Disclaimer: All opinions in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent any organization.


YL Blog #24: Regions and Its Contestations


The first plenary session of the Asia-Pacific roundtable, titled Asia Pacific vs. Indo Pacific: rationale, contestation and implications brought into light two fundamental questions of what a region is and why we are experiencing a shift in the terms.

To begin, are regions value-free or value-laden? Dr. Raja Mohan makes the argument that regions are continuously undergoing construction and deconstruction, reflecting changes in circumstance. He further argues that, resistance to the term ‘Indo Pacific’ is odd, as the term does not inherently oppose any other regional construct. Rather, the term ‘Indo Pacific’ describes the growing integration of a specific boundary of states. In fact, what is described as the Indo Pacific is not even a new concept. Dr. Mohan refers to this as the “restoration of old geographic descriptions, not a reinvention of new geography.” This point is made with reference to the fact that aspirations to connect the Pacific and Indian Oceans have long existed. Even China today aspires to achieve to connect the two Oceans through its Belt and Road Initiative.

The idea that regions are social constructs is agreeable, but it is arguable whether they are merely categorizations that are devoid of value judgement. For example, the phrase ‘Free and open Indo Pacific’ suggests that the Indo Pacific espouses certain values vis-à-vis other regional constructs which espouse contrary, or at least, conflicting ideals. Also, the hyphenated phrase Indo-Pacific, compared to the non-hyphenated Indo Pacific or slashed Indo/Pacific, hints at the conjoining of two strategically distinct regions, as well as a maritime-focused outlook. In this line of thought, that China resists the idea of an Indo Pacific construct is not odd at all. On the contrary, it is a natural reaction to a phrase that carries value-laden connotations.

Related to the above point, if regions are indeed social constructions, who is doing the constructing?  Early mention of the Indo Pacific construct can be found in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s speech to the Indian Parliament in 2007. The speech, titled, Confluence of the Two Seas, highlighted Japan’s aspirations to promote an open and transparent Indo-Pacific zone. In Abe’s second inauguration, the Indo Pacific concept emerged in the Security Diamond strategy. However, more recently, the Indo Pacific construct has come to represent Japan’s regional vision, and not regional strategy. While a vision is an aspirational guide to help accomplish a long-term plan, a strategy denotes intent to employ political, economic, and military resources to achieve a specific end goal, with a clear success or failure outcome. The shift from strategy to vision is noteworthy, reflecting Japan’s sensitive position between China and the United States. Dr. Takahara’s presentation about how China’s BRI and Japan’s FOIP can complement each other is an optimistic outlook, but Japan will need to balance this with sensitivity towards its alliance with the US. For example, Japan will need to be vocal when China’s BRI and Japan’s FOIP face a fundamental clash over values (free trade, accountability, transparency, etc.).

For the United States, the Indo Pacific concept reflects a clear United States strategy towards the region. Mr. Elbridge Colby emphasized that while the US is not trying to seek dominance in the region or coerce regime change in China, it seeks to create positions of strength as to diminish China’s ability to coerce the region’s states. The message was clear: The United States is not asking countries, for example, in Southeast Asia to choose between China and the United States. However, it does want to make the region more resilient against China’s regional hegemonic goals. While US activities in the region, such as aiding infrastructure building in Southeast Asia, and carrying out freedom of navigation operations, are not targeted at China per se, it is understandable why China may think it is. This gap in perception calls for greater communication between the two states, focusing on areas of convergence, rather than divergence. Furthermore, as two architects of the Indo Pacific construct, the United States and Japan need to cooperate closely, with the support of other countries such as South Korea and ASEAN member states, on how to make it a durable construct. For example, what happens when Japan’s vision clashes with United States strategy?

To conclude, the plenary session highlighted the gap in view held by the United States, China, and to a lesser extent, Japan, regarding the ‘Indo Pacific.’ One could even make the observation that this message set the tone of the entire Asia Pacific Roundtable conference. Specifically, rather than seeking ways to bridge the gap, discussions throughout the entire conference focused on areas of contestation between the United States and China in the region. As the world enters a more multipolar order, the importance of regions will naturally increase. Thus, at least in the foreseeable future, regions and its contestations will become a recurring concern for scholars and practitioners of international relations.

Disclaimer: All opinions in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent any organization.

YL Blog #25: The Advancement of China’s Tech Industry and Their Attitude of Self-Reliance


For the past 33 years, the Asia Pacific Roundtable (APR) has been a primary convention for policy makers and opinion drivers to engage in meaningful discussions on strategic issues and challenges for the Asia Pacific region. As a first-time attendee, what was most enriching was to learn more from other countries on their perspectives on China in the region and from Chinese scholars on issues like Hong Kong, the trade dispute, and Huawei, China’s top telecommunications equipment company.

China was a hot topic and one of the liveliest discussions from APR, came during the plenary session on The People Republic of China @ 70: Establishment, Evolution & Expectations. Professor Bates Gill, from the Macquarie University in Australia, set the context in which we view China, from the first phase of nation building 70 years ago, to Tiananmen Square, and now, with the constant leadership of Xi Jinping, China is a country that has defied traditional understanding. Moving forward, Professor Gill warned of the increasing tensions that exist within China, its system that the party views to be a real success and a doubling down of party state authority. We can already see this occurring through the Chinese Government’s forced detainment of the Uighur population in Xinjiang and the attention from leaders in the Politburo Standing Committee on the events in Hong Kong and their protests for freedoms they view as being eroded by the central Chinese government. As tensions, both domestically and internationally, build in China, their government seemingly struggles to learn and be accepted.

As Professor Aileen Baviera, President, Asia Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation in the Philippines mentioned, China as great power is still undefined. As they try to define themselves on their own terms, it is unlikely that they will be successful or accepted because they are not understood. The lack of understanding, across cultures and between nations, was evident to myself, as an American listening to this discussion and throughout APR.

If there is one thing I gained from my APR experience, it is the increased understanding of the Chinese perspective, how the Chinese articulate their own narratives, and how to understand the dialogue in the greater context. Professor Gao Jian, from the Shanghai Academy of Global Governance and Area Studies, spoke extensively on the need that the international community understand China and talk about China in the “Chinese Way”. That the country’s unprecedented rise is viewed as a trail, similar to the Chinese proverb, “We must cross the river, but we still do not know how deep the river is.”

During the concurrent session on Technological Rivalry and National Security, I reflected on these new insights, as speakers discussed the threat of the global 5G value chain due to the US turning Huawei into a ban entity and the impact on consumers, suppliers and giant telecommunication operators. For the Asia Pacific region, Huawei is a reliable company in telecommunications and technology, with almost half the market in China for mobile devices, and is the 3rd largest vendor in the global smartphone market. The company’s expansive network of telecommunications in the region, along with the heavy reliance by countries on the services provided by Huawei, made me think about the precarious situation that they must find themselves in. I felt very fortunate to be a part of the APR Young Leader Delegation, as my peers provided lively discussions on China, technology, and how commentary from the speakers could be interpreted from an American’s perspective.

The theft of IP that has brought Huawei to where they are now, as the US contends, and the US’s position that they pose a threat to security, are more wide-reaching then I initially gave credit. The current Administration’s efforts to limit US company engagement with Huawei and restrict the sales of components have had cascading impacts on the market. When I visited China this past month, and had the opportunity to assess some of Huawei’s hardware, was impressed by their capabilities and advancements in comparison to competitors like Samsung and Apple. The conflicts and legal actions that Huawei faces, also leaves the US companies that once supplied them with components for their devices at a great disadvantage. Huawei is building their own self-reliance. A message that resonated with me after hearing from Professor Gao at APR. The Chinese philosophy is one where they have nothing and no one to rely on. When faced with adversity, the Chinese will look internally for solutions. As Huawei works on developing their own operating systems for their mobile devices, I think the US needs to seriously consider the ramifications and Google executives should be concerned about the loss of market share should such ambitions to fruition.

In a recent interview with Huawei CEO Ren Zhengfei., he spoke extensively about the expansion of 5G and I cannot help but agree with his sentiments that by shutting out Huawei, US will be left behind. It reminded me of my recent visit with another Chinese tech giant, Tencent, at their Shenzhen headquarters. At their facility, one cannot help but feel the true power and influence that these companies hold in the country. The expansive reach to nearly every Chinese citizen and the increasing capabilities that go beyond traditional messaging apps or gaming platforms. What is truly ironic to me is that such companies were able to get to where they are because they mimicked the actions of American tech companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon. The Chinese admiration for Silicon Valley, technology advancement and innovations, seems to have left a bitter taste in everyone’s mouth. As an American, I left China concerned that our technology industry could one day be too slow to keep pace globally, and our society too sluggish in their adoption of new systems and already lacks the technological literacy to stay toe-to-toe with the Chinese. 

Disclaimer: All opinions in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent any organization.

YL Blog #23 – Pragmatism Versus Principles: How Regional Actors Are Navigating the China-U.S. Standoff in the Indo-Pacific


The 33rd Asian Pacific Roundtable, held 24 to 26 June 2019, was enveloped by two major developments in the region: the start of the U.S.-China trade dispute and the publication of the United States’ Indo-Pacific Strategy, which commits to “sustain American influence in the region to ensure favorable balances of power and safeguard the free and open international order.” With the background of the major power standoff, it was clear that Southeast Asian nations were questioning how to navigate what was often characterized as a binary security choice: side with China or the United States.  However, in reality, the various roundtable discussions at the APR, revealed that few ASEAN countries felt compelled to choose between the U.S. and China. Rather, the question they seemed to be grappling with was how to best utilize the current focus on their region to support their national interests and how to continue engaging with China without being negatively affected.

This was perhaps best exemplified in the selection and placement of the second plenary session on Asia-Europe partnership in which they explored how the EU can get more involved in the security arena in Southeast Asia. Speakers emphasized how the EU’s involvement would help balance the global power structure and act as a pacifying force between China and the U.S. The session came off as a weak plea for someone else to get involved in the region and provide more security resources (I read, “money”) and asked for a strong commitment from the EU to stay involved. Is this a desire to side with the U.S. vision for the region but maintain a face of not openly siding with the U.S.? Probably not. The EU has many shared interests with the U.S. For example, France updated its Indo-Pacific Strategy in May 2019 and highlighted the nuclear threat of North Korea, the militarization of contested islands in the South China Sea, terrorism, and the dangers of climate change.  However, the plenary speakers, rather than call for a free and open Indo-Pacific, kept emphasizing that China’s rise would not be stopped and that the region has to engage with China, and one speaker positively noted the common stereotype that Europe is soft on China. Southeast Asia is looking for partners that will work with China. 

Are we all in a Catch-22 scenario? One of the Japanese speakers astutely asked, is there a free and open Indo-Pacific that includes China? That would be ideal, but the threat the region and international order face is one in which a rising power is trying to gain enough influence to re-write an economic system in its favor at the expense of weaker states. In the first plenary session, Colby Eldridge from the Center for New American Security, broad-stroke described the U.S. intents in the region as one of checking the rising strength and assertiveness of China in the region to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific. In his recent opinion piece, he says, “The interests of the US are in preserving and protecting the sovereign freedom of nation states, so that we can trade and interact with them without undue encumbrance.” He goes on to address Southeast Asia saying, “You may not be interested in strategic reality, to paraphrase Russian intellectual Leon Trotsky, but it is interested in you. That choice is not between total affiliation with the United States or with China. But it is a choice as to whether you will preserve your sovereignty and national freedom.” A fellow Young Leader brought to my attention a recent incident in the Philippines in which President Duterte absolved China of any militant when a Chinese ship did a hit-and-run of Philippine fisherman in Philippine waters. Wanting to pursue a positive relationship with China meant not asserting the state’s maritime sovereignty. Where will this lead in the long run?

The U.S.-China standoff overshadowed a conference that is supposed to focus on ASEAN. No one in the region wants to pick a side on that. Does the US want people to pick a side? Yes, but not a pro-US side, rather a pro-Free and open Indo-Pacific vision for the region, which would require states to stand up to Chinese abuse of national sovereignty and predatory lending. Unfortunately, the phrase “free and open Indo-Pacific” seems to be synonymous to a message of “U.S., yes; China, no.” Southeast Asian states are being pragmatic, but what will be the cost on them and the international order in the long term? It is regrettable to mention than in the face of a bilateral security choice, multilateral efforts such as the Trans Pacific Partnership may have been the better strategic choice for a region that doesn’t want to choose only between the U.S. and China.  

Disclaimer: All opinions in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent any organization.

YL Blog #22: Managing US-China Strategic Competition by Overcoming the Perception Gap


In recent years, the U.S.-China relationship has been undermined by their increasing bilateral economic disputes, the strategic and economic tensions between U.S. and China are escalating, which has caused much concerns across the world. In the United States, many political elites share a narrative of disillusionment with China, which believes that the U.S.’s longstanding policy of “engagement” has failed. Meanwhile in China, interpreting bilateral tensions as containment from the United States is a considerable tendency. From 2017, Trump administration has published National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy and Nuclear Posture Review, collectively articulated China as a strategic competitor, claims the great power competition is return. Since then, the world has witnessed more confrontational interacts between China and the United States. To many observers, whether the United States and China are in competition is no longer a topic to discuss, and the concern that current competition between the two major powers could escalate into a comprehensive confrontation seems not impossible.

Under such circumstance, it is crucial to develop preventive measures to make sure that U.S.-China relationship will not fall into a comprehensive confrontation. How can both sides cooperate to manage this competition and prevent it from escalating into a more adversarial relationship or conflict? Closing the perception gap between China and the United States could be a fruitful approach.

Establish a meaningful intergovernmental dialogue between China and the United States to address strategic issues should be a priority. Although the United States has long sought such dialogue, Chinese officials are always express it is not the right time (“the conditions are not ripe”), refuse to conduct any official strategic dialogue regardless it is bilateral or multilateral. As many Chinese participants pointed out, the refusal is largely because China processes a much smaller nuclear arsenal than the United States and Russia, and given China’s no-first-use policy and it’s thinking that nuclear weapon is only for prevent nuclear coercion, opaqueness on nuclear policy has special value in China’s deterrence. There also many different perceptions between China and the United States: while China claims it’s already possesses credible and secure second-strike capability, calls for mutual no first use or mutual no targeting commitment between China and the United States, the United States asks for better understanding on Chinese nuclear thinking and developments, calls for transparency. Consider the lack of mutual trust and understanding between China and the United States, official strategic dialogue could be possible only if compromise made from both sides: Chinese official would need to consider engage to more meaningful, transparent strategic dialogue, while Washington would need to acknowledge that the United States and China are in mutually vulnerable strategic relationship, recognize this premise of strategic stability.

Despite of whether China and the United States could conduct official strategic dialogue, both parties should immediately seek to establish crisis management mechanisms. As a matter of fact, some military to military mechanisms have been established between China and the United States, and achievements have been made: in 2014, China and the United States have signed memorandums of understanding of notice on major military operations as well as codes on unplanned encounters at sea. These documents provide channel for communication during conflicts or crisis, also indicated that despite the tension and dispute, China and the United States could conduct pragmatic cooperation in certain areas. Such mechanisms should be well maintained and fully utilized. But existing mechanisms are far from enough, more such mechanism are needed. Consider China has maritime dispute with many countries in the Indo-Pacific region, and the United States has security commitment with its allies in this region, mechanisms on preventing conflict triggered by third party are in special need.

In recent years, deep distrust and suspicion increasingly plague the bilateral relationship, the worrisome trend of “prepare for the worst scenario” is emerging in both China and the United States. Such distrust has been amplified by information asymmetry, and the two major power is falling into a dangerous action-misinterpret

 -reaction loop. As an outcome of China’s rise, China is increasingly aggressive on preserve its rights, while the United States views any revise of current international system as challenge to its supremacy, and its current policies seems focus on slowing down China’s development and trying to decoupling China from international market. But is this the only way? Find common interest and work together could be an alternative approach. Since China says it’s not interested in pursue supremacy, claims its seek for peaceful development is not a trick, but a matter of strategy, it may need to adopt a more transparent, fair approach to implement its geo-economic initiatives, and the United States may need to resist its instinctual respond, try to shape China’s behavior by cooperate in certain areas such as climate change and global trade reform. Indeed, China’s rise poses challenge to the current U.S led system, but it should be viewed as an opportunity for global governance rather than nightmare.

I’m truly grateful to Pacific Forum for offer me this opportunity to engage this strategic dialogue. From the dialogue, my personal takeaway is both satisfactory and frustrating. The satisfaction is because I noticed participants from both sides are genuinely willing to address the issue on bilateral strategic relationship, the frustration is from a glimpse of how huge the perception gap between China and U.S, and this truly worries me. I do believe that by working together China and the United States could build a just, harmonic, sustainable international system, but the path to it is bound to fitful.

Disclaimer: All opinions in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent any organization.

YL Blog #21: Mitigating the Danger of Nuclear Escalation in a Western Pacific Crisis


The potential of a crisis between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is an inherently chilling proposition. Beyond the substantial loss of life that could be expected to accompany any conventional confrontation the existence of strategic nuclear forces on both sides raises the specter of inadvertent nuclear escalation. During the recently concluded 11th US-China Strategic Dialogue held in Maui US and PRC participants gathered to exchange views on the state of nuclear deterrence in the region. Participants identified a variety of potential drivers of inadvertent escalation, including practical difficulties involved in differentiating nuclear forces from conventional forces, the commingling of Nuclear Command, Control and Communications (N3) with conventional Command and Control (C2) capabilities, and a lack of mutual understanding regarding the scope of US policy under the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review.

Concerns over the distinguishability of nuclear forces were primarily raised by US participants. US participants noted that discriminating between nuclear and conventional PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) transporter-erector-launchers (TELs) would represent a particular challenge in a crisis situation. This raises the prospect of inadvertent destruction of PLARF nuclear missile systems, which would cause conventional forces to unknowingly degrade the PRC’s nuclear deterrent. In a similar vein, US participants also expressed concern over potential difficulties differentiating between PLA Navy ballistic missile submarines and attack submarines. During a conventional conflict any unintentional destruction of PLA nuclear-capable forces, to include SSBNs, would degrade the PLA’s nuclear deterrent, and potentially lead PRC policy makers to erroneously conclude that opposing forces were engaging in a deliberate effort to remove the PLA’s ability to deter an external nuclear attack. Such an assessment could drive an increase in PLA nuclear forces’ readiness posture, and thereby create an unintentional cycle of escalation.

US participants also raised questions regarding the dangers of comingling N3 and C2 functions. This largely reflects the fact that while US nuclear forces are organizationally and operationally distinct, falling under the aegis of US Strategic Command, PLA nuclear forces remain more closely tied to their individual branch of service. The most prominent concern on behalf of US participants was the dual-role of the PLARF, which provides both strategic (nuclear) deterrence and conventional medium and long-range precision fires (China Brief). The potential ability of the PLARF to degrade US power projection in the Western Pacific has been the topic of intense public discussion (RAND/USCC). To the extent that degradation of the PLARF’s C2 networks during a conventional conflict would adversely impact the responsiveness of its subordinate nuclear forces commingling N3 and C2 could create substantial risk of nuclear escalation. Inadvertent degradation of N3 systems could serve to drive an increase in PLA nuclear forces’ readiness posture, including the preemptive dispersal of TELs, leading to unintentional escalation. 

The potential danger inherent in lack of shared understanding regarding new language in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review became apparent over the course of the conference. During one session a PRC participant raised the potential that US early warning satellites may be destroyed during a regional conflict. This prompted a visceral reaction from multiple US participants, who pointed to the importance that the US places on maintaining the integrity of its early warning systems. It was noted that under the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review “attacks on U.S. or allied nuclear forces, their command and control, or warning and attack assessment capabilities” were included as extreme circumstances under which the US may consider the employment of nuclear weapons. Clearly there is additional work needed to clarify the exact definition and delineation of key terms.

Despite all of the misunderstandings and misgivings that were identified over the course of the dialogue, there remain a number of options for policy-makers on both sides to improve mutual understanding and reduce the risk of nuclear escalation. The role of the Nuclear Risk Reduction Center (NRRC) as a durable channel of communications, for the transfer of relevant technical data and arms control notifications during pre-crisis situations, and for direct dialogue during periods of tensions, should be viewed as a model of effective bilateral confidence building measures. One avenue for increasing transparency and improving crisis communication would be to expand the mandate of the NRRC by concluding new bilateral agreements to allow data exchanges with the PRC. Alternatively, policy makers could establish a parallel set of institutions designed along the lines of the NRRC dedicated solely to data exchanges with the PRC. In the long term policy makers on both sides could also explore the possibility of selectively disclosing a portion of their N3 architecture, and pre-identifying potential operating areas for mobile nuclear forces, in order to begin establishing baseline expectations regarding which assets and areas would be considered most critical to maintaining strategic deterrence in a crisis scenario. These disclosures would create a level of mutual vulnerability but could also aid in crisis management by providing a more clearly defined set of expectations for decision-makers on both sides.

Disclaimer: All opinions in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent any organization.


YL Blog #20: Pacific Forum Trilateral Strategic Dialogue Follow-up TTX


Players: United States (U.S.), Republic of Korea (ROK) and Japan (JAP)

Move 1 


Into the spring of 2020 the Hong Kong protests remain well-organized and participant numbers are at an all-time high. Protestors utilize guerilla tactics, rising up in city districts and dispersing as the police arrive. They ignore the face mask ban, yet hundreds of protestors are arrested in their homes. The arrests only incite more protests and result in more extreme public demands, including for Chief Executive Carrie Lam to step down and allow the Hong Kong people to directly elect their city government without interference from Beijing. President Xi continues to dig in, denouncing protests as foreign-inspired terrorism. Protestors appeal to the international community – and especially the U.S. – to aid Hong Kong in defense of its democracy.

China dispatches non-military personnel to Hong Kong to advise Carrie Lam and her staff. The next evening an outspoken Hong Kong protest leader’s house is raided and he disappears.

That week a radical group of students brutally assaults an armed police unit, leaving 2 policemen dead in the streets of Hong Kong.

In response, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army mobilizes along the Frontier Closed Area and increases security along the Hong Kong-Shenzhen border as a contingency plan. 

The Hong Kong government declares a state of emergency and demands that protestors to disband or face arrest.


Working level US-DPRK Negotiations continued into the fall of 2019 and the two parties agreed to implement the first phase of a multi-step agreement. In phase one, they struck a formal agreement to freeze nuclear development and testing and IAEA inspectors entered Yongbyeon to oversee facility dismantlement. While there was no formal agreement to freeze missile development and testing, Chairman Kim extended his promise to refrain from long-range missile tests. In return, the U.S. agreed to freeze all combined exercises/drills during negotiations and extend partial sanctions relief on civilian use of energy products.

In the spring of 2020, the U.S. promptly expands negotiations from the nuclear to the missile domain. Media reports state that the US seeks a formal moratorium on all missile testing, a declaration of DPRK missile facilities, agreement to cease production, and IAEA verification of a production freeze. As the DPRK resists this demand, planned further sanctions reduction measures are stalled, and talks stalemate.

Recent “leaked” Japanese satellite intelligence reveals the presence of surfaced DPRK submarines–believed to be SLBM-capable–in the ROK EEZ approximately 100 km south of Ulleung Island.

Unverified Japanese sources confirm that the JS Oryu of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force has left port.

Time: 60 minutes

Questions for individual country teams:

  1. What information/intelligence do you need and how do you obtain it?
  2. What are your three diplomatic and three military actions? Prioritize them.
  3. What message would you send to China? 
  4. What actions would you request of your allies, the United States, Republic of Korea and Japan?

Move 2


Several leaders from the Civil Human Rights Front are abducted by unknown persons, presumed to be the government police force.

A group of evacuating Chinese citizens are held hostage by the same student protest group.

The next day President Xi publicly states that the People’s Liberation Army is deploying a mechanized battalion of commandos into Hong Kong to “restore order and protect innocent Chinese people from terrorism and destabilizing foreign influences.” 

Lam’s statement urges the people of Hong Kong not to engage the People’s Liberation Army.

Ambassador Harris and USFK General Abrams state to Korean media that in light of precipitating events the U.S. is considering sending more forces ISR forces to the region, including airborne early warning and control systems, and bolstering U.S. naval presence in the East China Sea and South China Sea.

White House statement: “The United States will act to maintain stability and protect the autonomy of free societies in the region” as consistent with the 2019 Indo-Pacific Strategy.

The US 7th Fleet maneuvers to international waters near the East Sea. The USS Ronald Reagan leaves Yokosuka Air Base and enters the East China Sea past Okinawa. The USS Theodore Roosevelt carrier strike group sailed from the Indian Ocean to just off the coast of Subic Bay.

The Chinese Southern Theater Command prepares for mobilization by recalling its troops to bases and Army Rocket Force mobilizes its short-range and medium-range missiles.

The spokesperson for the People’s Liberation Army’s Southern Theater Commander issues a public statement: “The Southern Theater Command and the Army Rocket Force are mobilized in response to rising threats from the US carrier groups in China’s near seas. The People’s Liberation Army will take all the necessary actions to preserve peace and order in the region.”

Chinese Foreign Minister states: “The US military presence is a threat to regional stability and emboldens terrorist acts in Hong Kong. China is being pressed to demonstrate its resolve to protect its people, its sovereignty, and its peaceful development with all forms of national power.”


In response to the US fleet presence in the East China Sea, the DPRK Foreign Ministry demands that “threatening US assets leave the area surrounding the peninsula.” It declares negotiations void, accuses the US of “violating the spirit of the Singapore Declaration”, and tests an SLBM that lands in international waters about 50 km from the USS Ronald Reagan.

The DPRK Foreign Ministry states that a submarine was sunk and its 20 service members died in the East China Sea.

The ROK Ambassador to the United Nations informs the Security Council that the research center on the Socotra Rock collected data pertaining to the incident and that the ROK government will launch a formal investigation to uncover further details.

Time: 60 minutes

Questions for bilateral groups: U.S.-ROK, ROK-JAP, U.S.-JAP:

  1. What information/intelligence do you need and how do you obtain it?
  2. What are your three diplomatic and three military actions? Prioritize them.
  3. What message would you send to China? 
  4. What actions would you request of your allies, the United States, Republic of Korea and Japan, and the United Nations Security Council?

Disclaimer: All opinions in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent any organization.