YL Blog #35 – Bridging Defense Discourses: Why ASEAN Should Start Talking About Deterrence

Recent developments in the global and regional environment have revitalized discussions on the need for strong and credible deterrence. The recently concluded workshop on Anticipating the Next Chapter in US Nuclear Deterrence Strategy, hosted by the Center for Global Security Research, is therefore very timely and relevant. The two-day event featured intensive discussions on the challenges of enhancing US and extended nuclear deterrence: from having to deal with the realities of the war in Ukraine and the latent threat of Russian nuclear escalation; the growing military power of China including in nuclear arms; the competing pressures to modernize the US nuclear arsenal while at the same time complying with arms control and multilateral disarmament commitments, as well as keeping costs reasonable.

It is interesting to contrast this workshop with other defense events I have attended from the Southeast Asian region, particularly those hosted under the umbrella of the Network of ASEAN Defence and security Institutions (NADI). Notably, a quick perusal of the chairman’s reports of NADI would indicate that ASEAN states are largely concerned with non-traditional security concerns, such as health security, cybersecurity and countering violent extremism. A brief history of ASEAN would show that its appreciation of security was always more internal and development-oriented, both within and between member states, with a focus of preserving stability through its particular brand of “quiet diplomacy”. As its security agenda broadened, ASEAN has tried to involve outside powers via a variety of platforms such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). Indeed, since the 2000s, ASEAN has attempted its own brand of regional security that aimed to enmesh major powers into a web of sustained exchanges and relationships that should eventually lead to peaceful integration and conflict resolution. But events since 2020 have called into question the efficacy of ASEAN’s approach.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which should have been an ideal opportunity for the ASEAN security architecture to bring together disparate countries, ultimately found ASEAN wanting. China’s actions during the pandemic, where it offered masks and vaccines to embattled ASEAN member states while at the same time continued to press its illegal and unlawful claims in the South China Sea against these same states, have ultimately shown the limits of the “ASEAN way” of security provision. There is, in essence, a limitation in the security discourse within ASEAN.

There is growing recognition within ASEAN of the need to evolve their defense discourse to include more “hard power” security concerns. However, this recognition has not necessarily led to a “meeting of the minds” between ASEAN and the US. In fact, even as the Chinese threat makes itself felt in the South China Sea, it would appear that the bigger concern for ASEAN as a whole, including by members most threatened by China, is the threat of great power conflict itself, which they would rather avoid if possible, especially if it risks a nuclear conflict on ASEAN soil or waters nearby. The dilemma presented thus is: given concerns over the possibility of a nuclear war and general eschewing of deterrence, ASEAN states are at risk of fait accompli and may be susceptible to capitulating to China “in the name of peace”. This may indeed be part of the Chinese strategy; it was discussed in the ninth session of the workshop that risk calculations and perceptions are being influenced by China and Russia to make the US and other states see the risk picture they want, with the hope that it would convince the other parties to concede.

The tenth and final session of the workshop delved into the challenges of maintaining policy continuity for the US nuclear strategy. Domestic support from the US policymakers and the general public are critical elements to sustain the credibility of US nuclear deterrence. The same considerations that affect US opinions would well apply to the US’ allies and partners in Southeast Asia. The challenge to engage Southeast Asia on questions of deterrence is even higher, as the majority of the ASEAN member states have already casted doubt on the logic of nuclear deterrence and the utility of nuclear weapons for strategic stability.

However, for ASEAN “not be forced to choose between the great powers”, it must step up its understanding and discourse regarding defense and deterrence. It must be able to hold its ground on issues of primordial concern for the member’s national interests. This is not to say that the non-traditional focus of the ASEAN-led fora is unwarranted; indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has proved the importance of health security. Cybersecurity is a perennial security threat even if it is not as catastrophic as kinetic force, and violent extremism continues to loom large in the background. But this does not mean that ASEAN’s defense institutions should continue to ignore developments such as those discussed in this workshop. The likelihood of nuclear conflict, or even that of a large-scale conventional conflict, can no longer be safely discounted. Nor can such conflicts be confined to some faraway region outside of ASEAN’s concern; Taiwan, seen as a likely flashpoint between the United States and China, is just 155 miles away from the north of the Philippines. The South China Sea disputes are currently being waged via gray zone operations, but the artificial islands that China erected upon several of the features could well become nuclear targets, especially those which house nuclear-capable H-6 series bombers.

The concerns discussed in the workshop may seem distant to Southeast Asian states, and the proposed methods for addressing the threats identified would normally be anathema, especially to the values and ways espoused by ASEAN. But whether ASEAN likes it or not, it is necessary to engage with discourses like these to be able to avoid possible escalation and truthfully move towards conflict resolution. Transparency of states’ threat perceptions and defense policies feature an important element for risk reduction.

Moving forward, there is a need for ASEAN to proactively engage other think-tanks and open up to the discourse on deterrence in addition to its preexisting engagement programs. Given the obvious and understandable sensitivity of such topics, track II platforms such as NADI would be a place to start. It is important that ASEAN gets more comfortable talking about these issues. If ASEAN truly wishes to be central in the regional security order, then it must be prepared to speak all the languages of security, including deterrence.

Erick Nielson C. Javier (ericknielson.javier@ndcp.edu.ph) is a Defense Research Officer in the Research and Special Studies Division of the National Defense College of the Philippines. Previously, he served as a Defense Analyst in the Office of Strategic Studies and Strategy Management, Armed Forces of the Philippines from 2015-2021. Mr Javier completed his Master of Arts in Political Science, Major in Global Politics at the Ateneo de Manila University in 2017. He also received a Bachelor of Arts in Economics from the same university in 2009. He is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program of Pacific Forum International, based in Honolulu, Hawaii, USA. He has also contributed articles for The Diplomat and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s The Strategist. His research interests include geopolitics, geoeconomics, great power competition, revolutions in military affairs, and the future of warfare. His work experience includes strategic studies research on defense economics, scenario building and military wargaming. He also participates in Track 1.5 and Track 2 diplomatic engagements with Philippine military partners and institutions.

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

YL Blog #34 – Better now than later: the US nuclear enterprise on force modernization

I virtually attended the “Anticipating the Next Chapter in US Nuclear Deterrence Strategy” workshop, put on by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s Center for Global Security Research (CGSR), from November 1-2, 2022, through the Pacific Forum Young Leaders program. Below, I highlight a theme that ran throughout the conference, which was a kind of summary poll of America’s nuclear enterprise: modernizing America’s nuclear forces is an urgent national security requirement because Russia and China have altered the nuclear landscape. Though not covered here, CGSR has papers on the details of modernization online.

Russia and China are straining US nuclear capabilities

The concern with US nuclear forces begins with the mission they serve. The reason the US nuclear arsenal goes far beyond what is needed to deter an attack on the US homeland is the US commitment to maintaining the territorial status quo in western Europe and northeast Asia. This commitment is expressed in treaty obligations going back to 1949 with countries in Europe and Asia. In many cases, these allies are conventionally weak and too far away for enough US conventional forces to be on standby – think of the central European countries who faced down a far larger Red Army during the Cold War, or the initially weak South Korean military that faced larger North Korean and Chinese forces after the Korean War. So, US nuclear weapons “extend” US deterrence far away from the US homeland.

None of the longstanding US treaty commitments in Europe or Asia from the Cold War, with the exception of Taiwan and New Zealand, have been rescinded. In fact, coverage under the US nuclear umbrella has only expanded, as NATO has expanded north and east. If Finland and Sweden’s membership bids go through, the US will have 31 allies in NATO.

Meanwhile, the two largest regional threats to these treaty allies – Russia and China – have only enhanced their nuclear capabilities. This means, according to the recently released 2022 Nuclear Posture Review, that “the United States will, for the first time in its history, face two major nuclear powers as strategic competitors and potential adversaries.” This is a novel situation because China has kept its nuclear arsenal notably small until recently and, before its rapid economic growth in the last few decades, was too poor to change that. Russia, for its part, has introduced delivery systems to maintain mutual vulnerability with Washington despite US conventional advantages, which will only grow as more Russian combat power is consumed in Ukraine. These systems include maneuverable hypersonic missiles and a nuclear-powered thermonuclear torpedo. Moreover, according to the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, Russia “possesses significant advantages in its nuclear weapons production capacity…over the US.” Some in the nuclear enterprise contend that these changes leave Washington in a bad position. Simply by way of keeping its existing arsenal, the United States has fallen behind; it has only expanded its portfolio of defense burdens while Russia and China have become more formidable.

The Military Mindset: Worst-Case Scenarios

Having two nuclear peers is significant if one considers the worst-case scenario: simultaneous wars with Russia and China. As a panel on this specific contingency during the workshop made clear, this could arise either out of a full alliance between the two or uncoordinated opportunism, whereby one of the countries would launch a war in its region and the other would separately do the same after seeing Washington bogged down. The 2022 Nuclear Posture Review calls this “opportunistic aggression,” and says the US Joint Force needs to be able to deter and defeat it.

While one could deride this contingency as unlikely, the soldier’s duty is to plan for worst-case scenarios. With regard to Russia and China, those scenarios are mainly an attack on NATO allies and an invasion of Taiwan, respectively. Though it is unlikely, Russia could attack and/or invade the Baltics or other eastern NATO states. Though it is unlikely in the next few years, China could invade Taiwan. Either contingency, especially the latter, would tax US forces severely if Washington chose to militarily respond. Would there be enough US power left over to deter the other adversary? It is not as if the United States is a stranger to worst-case scenarios. In 1941, Imperial Japan took advantage of the Nazis’ occupation of the Netherlands and war with the United Kingdom to annex Dutch and British colonial holdings in southeast Asia.

Furthermore, planning for the worst-case scenario is arguably more reasonable now than at any other time since the end of the Cold War. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, extensive US backing of Ukraine, and increasingly credible Chinese threats against Taiwan make Russo-Chinese opportunistic aggression imaginable. Beijing and Moscow’s shared interest in countering Washington recalls the strategic triangle of the 1980s, when the United States was aligned with China against the Soviet Union – only now, Washington is in the solo chair once occupied by Moscow and now faces two, not one, nuclear peers.

Worst-Case Planning as US Conventional Forces Weaken

Worst-case scenario planning is further encouraged by China’s growing conventional capabilities vis-à-vis the United States in the western Pacific, another concern of defense writers and think tankers. US conventional forces are poised to grow relatively weaker in the 2030s because readiness, operations, and maintenance – not modernization and procurement – have been prioritized over the last two decades of counterterrorist and counterinsurgency operations.

The result: key US conventional capabilities such as stealth bombers and attack submarines are still lacking in the numbers needed to go toe-to-toe with China over Taiwan, and replacements for these capabilities will begin rolling off assembly lines too late. The recently unveiled B-21 stealth bomber, which will replace the B-2, is expected to enter US service only in the mid- to late-2020s. More importantly for a potential US intervention in a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, the US attack submarine fleet will bottom out at 42 boats in the late 2020s to early 2030s as older Los Angeles-class submarines are retired at a faster rate than new Virginia-class submarines are built.

This is especially unfortunate for the US policy of maintaining the status quo in East Asia, which (if we assume the worst of Chinese intentions) requires deterring Beijing from invading Taiwan. Weaknesses in US stealth bomber and attack submarine forces will coincide with enhancements in comparable Chinese forces, as Beijing’s investments in modernization and procurement from the early 2010s pay out. The net effect: the precarious US nuclear position will grow even more precarious. Earlier in November, at the Naval Submarine League’s 2022 Annual Symposium & Industry Update, commander of US Strategic Command Adm. Chas Richard said, “As I assess our level of deterrence against China, the ship is slowly sinking. It is sinking slowly, but it is sinking, as fundamentally they are putting capability in the field faster than we are.”

To be sure, the worst-case scenario of simultaneous wars with nuclear peer adversaries is not the only option. But given US commitments, it makes sense to prepare for it. If one doesn’t want to prepare for it (maybe because they don’t want to build a military capable of fighting two great-power wars at once), that requires political actions – like reducing tensions with adversaries or ending alliance commitments – far above the consideration of the soldier or the nuclear planner.


In Book Nine of the Iliad, the Greeks try unsuccessfully to woo Achilles back into fighting beside them against the Trojans. One Greek tells Achilles the tale of Meleager, who did not fight for his city when offered great treasures by his people but came around later, when the enemy was at the gates. For his dithering, Meleager never received the spoils his people promised. The nature of his mistake is obvious, yet it is repeated over and over in war. Last fall, Vladimir Putin called a military mobilization to strengthen his hand in Russia’s war against Ukraine – a decision that would have been just as costly yet far more productive had he done it half a year prior.

If the CGSR workshop was any indication, the US nuclear enterprise does not want to repeat the tragedy of Meleager. The United States increasingly faces more capable peer nuclear adversaries while it keeps its nuclear umbrella wide and faces conventional force setbacks. If it wants to plan for the worst – simultaneous wars – the need to prioritize nuclear force modernization is obvious. Better now than later.

Ethan Kessler (ekessler@globalaffairs.org) is a research associate at the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He has written on the US alliance with South Korea, US sanctions policy, US security assistance to Ukraine, and Taiwan’s defense strategy. He holds a BA in Political Science from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

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

YL Blog #33 – Rare Earths Realism: Breaking the PRC’s Global Refining Monopoly

“The Middle East has oil, and China has rare earths.”Deng Xiaoping (1987)

Rare earth elements (REEs) are a class of 17 metals essential to the technology, transportation, energy, defense, and aerospace industries. These are used for high-powered magnets and precision parts in anything ranging from batteries, solar panels, and wind turbines, to smartphones, lasers, and jet engines. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) came to dominate global supply chains for these valuable inputs during the Deng-era of foreign policy characterized by the adage, 韜光養晦 (tāo guāng yǎng huì), often translated as “hide your strength, bide your time.” Subsidized state-owned enterprises were empowered to drive competitors out of the rare earths mining and processing businesses, giving the PRC a virtual monopoly in the space by the late 1990s.

The wider world only came to fully appreciate the strategic implications of this concentration in 2010, when a maritime dispute between China and Japan triggered a total halt of rare earths exports from the former to the latter. Though trade resumed following the incident’s resolution, the episode highlighted both the vulnerabilities that the dependency allowed, and the PRC’s willingness to exploit those for political leverage. Japan was subsequently motivated to begin investing in alternative suppliers abroad, while the United States moved to jumpstart its own shuttered domestic capacity.

State of the Market

Thirteen years later, the green shoots of new market entrants display a small but meaningful movement towards diversifying the world’s REEs supply. The United States and Australia in particular have demonstrated political resolve to break China’s hold on the market. Japan and India are also attempting to establish domestic industries but the barriers to entry remain formidable. Mining and ore refinement are notoriously lengthy and capital-intensive industries to develop –doubly so in countries with complex licensing and ecological surveying requisites. The PRC still dominates the entire vertical industry and has the ability to flood global markets with cheap material, as it has done before with steel and with solar panels. In 2022, it mined 58% of all REEs, refined 89% of all raw ore, and manufactured 92% of REE-based components worldwide. There is no other global industry so concentrated in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party, nor with such asymmetric downstream impact, as rare earths –so further diversification should be pursued with unique urgency.

The United States: Reviving Heavy Industry

Beijing’s 2010 dispute with Tokyo was one of its several assertive foreign policy maneuvers to set off alarm bells in Washington and precipitate the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia.” As the swiftness of China’s rise continued to outpace expectations during the Trump years, American political appetite shifted from defending hegemony in Asia, to addressing its own vulnerabilities at home –one of which being the outsourcing of mining industries for REEs, amongst others such as lithium, nickel, and graphite. The global bottleneck for midstream industry segments like refining is so severe that the few American rare earths miners in operation send their raw ore to China for processing, before it returns to the US as permanent magnets for use in F-35s, Tesla Model 3s, and the like.

In conjunction with an overarching strategy to address this weakness by revitalizing domestic supply chains for critical minerals, the US government is supporting the buildout of processing facilities in California and Texas for two rare earths juggernauts in-the-making –MP Materials, an American company, and Lynas Rare Earths, an Australian firm. Additionally, the Biden administration’s recent Inflation Reduction Act provided tax incentives for critical mineral businesses, and supercharged two faculties that will allow the executive branch to bolster industrial development on an ad hoc basis: the Department of Energy’s Loan Programs Office and the Defense Production Act. The US should continue focusing grants towards ventures past the proof of concept stage in rare earths refining and magnet manufacturing, so that they can then access the Department of Energy’s lending resources to scale quickly.

People’s Republic of China: Tightening the Reins

The media often characterizes the PRC’s rare earths dominance as the “trump card” of wolf warrior diplomacy, but Xi Jinping likely understands that the implicit threat of applying this leverage outweighs the cost-benefit of its actual use. The international environment of today is far less forgiving than that of 2010, and a rare earths embargo applied tomorrow on a nation like Japan or the United States would easily spark a bellicose trade dispute and push a tsunami of funding towards emerging competitors.

However, there exists a dangerous window during the next several years, when the PRC’s influence over the global industry is diminishing but still overwhelming enough to put importing nations in a bind. In this sense, the “trump card” could still be played over a critical political moment –becoming even more tempting once its monopoly’s decline appears inevitable. Beijing’s cognizance of this scenario is reflected in its recent merger of three state-owned mining giants into the China Rare Earth Group. This massive consolidation allows the Party to more easily control the market and develop synergies to bring costs even lower, which will hamper foreign upstarts.

Realist Conclusions in a Global Market-Based System

In the long run, monopolistic behavior will be solved by the interconnected markets on which modern society is built. The strategic calculus and narratives between great powers may be swiftly changing, but the fundamental rules of the game remain the same. The more likely the world perceives the weaponization of the rare earths industry by Beijing, the more pressure will be applied on the two competitive market forces already working towards solutions.

The first is the potential for new market entrants. Rising Chinese export tariffs and spiking prices signal opportunity. Canada, India and the United Kingdom have all recently announced their intent to develop their first domestic refineries for REEs, with national security interests undoubtedly providing propulsion. Relatively small investments now could pay off big by shaking up market dynamics later this decade, so the US could seed promising ventures abroad, and consider this high-profile sector an opportunity to build up “friendshoring” partnerships with alternate producers.

The second is the threat of substitutes. Necessity is the mother of invention –and if substitutes can effectively replace REEs in end-use products, then supply fears may be sidestepped. The embedded risks of REEs have already been driving manufacturers like Toyota and Volkswagen to redesign their electric motors with less rare earths or alternative (albeit less efficient) magnet metals. The US Energy, Defense, and Commerce departments have been pursuing alternatives, but governments should also consider rewarding companies who find innovative ways of designing their products without REEs, in the style of bug bounties. Even without necessarily implementing substitutes, establishing backup options builds supply chain resilience and saps the power of a monopoly.

Tetrataenite is one promising breakthrough in magnetic alternatives. Until recently, this nickel-iron alloy was only observed in meteorite samples, but last year was successfully replicated in a University of Cambridge laboratory. Experts say it has an outside chance at upending the entire rare earths industry in the years to come.

Aside from proactively pressing into the two competitive market forces of new entrants and substitution, the United States should continue subsidizing the rapid development of its rare earths supply chains –particularly the midstream layers: ore processing, mineral refining, and alloying. The faster it can do so, the narrower the window will be for Xi Jinping to play hardball during the waning years of China’s monopoly, and the less likely that opportunity is to coincide with an attempted invasion of Taiwan.

The economic downturn, domestic discontent, and international scrutiny resulting from the PRC’s stringent Covid-19 lockdown policies have left Xi Jinping’s political capital temporarily spent as he works to patch up relations and entice businesses back to China. In order to break the global refining monopoly without sparking a larger geopolitical firestorm, an inflection point in broadening supply diversification needs to be achieved soon.

Brandt Mabuni (brandt@pacforum.org) is a resident WSD-Handa Fellow at Pacific Forum. Currently conducting research in energy transition and critical minerals, he is interested in trade, capital markets, and geoeconomic trends. As a Hawai’i local and clean energy advocate, he hopes to play a part in the rising role that archipelagic states and societies will have in upholding a secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific region. Previous to Pacific Forum, Brandt spent several years in the financial industry, and has lived in Fujian, China. He holds a master’s degree in Asian International Affairs from the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, and a bachelor’s degree in International Business from Azusa Pacific University.

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

YL Blog #32 – Smoother Sailing: Strengthening Indo-Pacific Partnerships Through Jones Act Reform

Bottom Line Up Front

The Russia-Ukraine conflict highlighted Hawaii’s dependence on foreign oil, an issue exacerbated by the Jones Act. The law’s restrictions on shipping make domestic oil imports to Hawaii considerably more expensive than foreign alternatives. In fact, prior to U.S. sanctions, Hawaii imported one-third of its crude oil from Russia. Following these sanctions, the cost of oil has skyrocketed in Hawaii. More broadly, Jones Act requirements have long impacted the cost of all goods imported to Hawaii from the U.S. mainland due the state’s isolated geographic location. Responsible Jones Act reform is necessary to manage these costs, while also creating an opportunity to limit security vulnerabilities and strengthen relationships with Indo-Pacific partners.

What is the Jones Act?

The Jones Act, or Section 27 of The Merchant Marine Act of 1920, requires that shipping between American ports is only conducted by U.S. flagged, owned, operated, and built vessels. This law aims to bolster the U.S. merchant marine in support of both commercial interests, a dependable flow of goods between U.S. ports, and national security interests, in the form of a merchant marine capable of serving as military auxiliary in times of conflict.

The Jones Act requirement that vessels are operated by domestic crews provides direct and indirect employment to a significant portion of America’s maritime workforce.

Major proponents of the Jones Act include domestic commercial shipping companies, ship-builders, mariner unions, and other maritime industry interest groups; these groups cite job retention as an important benefit of the act. PWC places direct Jones Act employment at over 95,000 jobs, however, this number may be inflated because it includes ship repair work that is not subject to the act. For Oahu’s shipping industry workforce alone, the Jones Act supports the creation of nearly 13,000 jobs for residents of Hawaii – delivering $787 million in annual workforce income and $3.3 billion in economic impact to our local economy (The Jones Act and Hawaii, 2020).

Additionally, supporters of the Jones Act see the policy as an important safeguard against an over-dependence on foreign shipping. In times of conflict, international shippers could stop servicing essential routes, leaving Hawaii without access to vital goods and supplies; international crews could return home, leaving the U.S. without sufficient marine manpower.

The Jones Act in Practice

The cost of building a ship in the U.S. is four to five times higher than overseas due to the absence of foreign competition in shipbuilding and the lack of economies of scale at U.S. shipyards (Frittelli, 2017). Thus, in practice, the Jones Act has contributed to a diminishing, aging domestic fleet.

Rather than replacing aging ships, companies have opted to push the vessels well past their typical lifespans or utilize ground and air transport methods. In fact, the volume of American cargo shipped along the Pacific coast, the Atlantic coast and the Great Lakes has fallen by about half since 1960. Over the same period shipping by rail and road has risen by 50% and more than 200%, respectively (What is the Jones Act, the century-old law pushing up prices in America?, 2022). Because of the Jones Act, America’s fleet of domestic cargo ships has fallen in number from 434 in 1950 to just 93 in 2018.

A smaller fleet has a number of implications; we will focus on four.

  1. Higher domestic shipping costs.

In addition to a higher initial cost of domestic-built ships, which is passed on to consumers, a smaller fleet limits shipping supply, driving up costs. Furthermore, the relative cost of operating a U.S.-flag vessel compared to a foreign-flag vessel has increased to $6.5 million in 2018, making it harder for such vessels to remain financially viable (Maritime Security: DOT Needs to Expeditiously Finalize the Required National Maritime Strategy for Sustaining U.S.-Flag Fleet, 2018).

As a concrete example, in an economic analysis of the petroleum tanker market, Hernandez et al. (2019) calculated a $759.1 million dollar benefit by removing the Jones Act. It is important to note that this is a net figure because domestic petroleum suppliers would lose, while consumers would gain.

  1. A smaller market for domestic ship-repair.

The Congressional Research Service reports U.S. shipyards typically build only two or three oceangoing ships per year. Because of the low demand, there is just one U.S. shipyard that exclusively builds commercial ships. While a larger number of shipyards build smaller vessels, such as tour boats, ferries, and barges, they are unable to repair larger vessels. According to the Maritime Administrator, there is an insufficient number of large dry docks to service the sealift fleet, delaying their readiness to sail (Frittelli, 2019).

  1. Less jobs available for domestic crews.

The Cato Institute states that with the higher cost to build domestically, U.S. carriers buy fewer ships, U.S. shipyards build fewer ships, and merchant mariners have fewer employment opportunities to serve as crew on those nonexistent ships (Grabow et al., 2018).

  1. Less shipping capacity to redirect during times of conflict.

According to the Grassroot Institute, a Hawaii-based nonprofit policy research organization, from 1980 to 2022 the number of Jones Act ships has declined from 257 to just 93. Additionally the number of militarily useful ships is just 74 (United States‐Flag Privately‐Owned Merchant Fleet Report, 2022).

In an interview with the Grassroot Institute, they stated that free-trade agreements related to the Jones Act come up often, but the U.S. has been historically unwilling to make changes, damaging relations with trading partners.

Policy Recommendation

Congress should establish a process for countries to apply for exemption from the domestic shipbuilding requirement of the Jones Act. Such an exemption would allow domestic shippers to purchase ships built in exempt countries and use these ships to service routes between Hawaii and the United States.

Allowing domestic shippers to purchase vessels built in exempt countries will enable rapid, cost-effective expansion and modernization of U.S. fleets, resolving many of the negative Jones Act implications highlighted above. Access to significantly less expensive foreign-built vessels would enable American shipping companies to employ a greater number of vessels; this equates to increased shipping capacity and lower domestic shipping costs as well as an increase in militarily-useful auxiliaries during conflict.

Furthermore, removing the domestic build requirement opens domestic builders to international competition, promoting innovation within the U.S. shipbuilding industry (Mickeviciene, 2011).

In recognition of the positive impacts of the Jones Act, we propose keeping the requirements that shipping between American ports be conducted by U.S. flagged, owned, and operated vessels. Sailor employment would not be cannibalized by international crews, helping to close the current deficit of 1,800 U.S. mariners and maintain safeguards against an over-dependence on foreign shipping (U.S. Department of Transportation, Maritime Administration, 2017). A larger fleet will grow industry revenues, leading to higher demand for crews, higher wages, and benefits that will trickle down to other players, such as dockyards.

Expansion of the domestic fleet would also result in having more ships and freeing up sealift capacity. Having mariners that are available and willing to crew sealift vessels as well as the U.S.-flagged commercial fleet, in times of war or national emergency, isn’t the only U.S. shipbuilding area in need of growth. Having an advanced U.S. ship-repair capacity is also an essential wartime need. Currently, the U.S. military accounts for nearly 80 percent of the industry’s construction and repair revenue (U.S. Department of Transportation, Maritime Administration, 2021).

Additionally, establishing a process for such an exemption creates an opportunity for friendshoring, thus strengthening partnerships with friendly countries in the region.

Strengthening Indo-Pacific Partnerships

The Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF) is an initiative under the Biden Administration, acknowledging economic engagements among partners as crucial for continued growth and peace. The model seeks to address critical vulnerabilities of regional economies to fortify against global threats: a shared goal of our policy recommendation (Fact Sheet, 2022). Instead of simply working in parallel to each other, there is an opportunity for the IPEF strategy and an established process for a Jones Act ship building exemption to complement one another.

The IPEF has four major policy pillars: connected economy, resilient economy, clean economy, and fair economy. A Jones Act exemption certainly fits well within a “resilient economy” at the very least, which aims to “guard against price spikes that increase costs for American families” through supply chain diversification (Fact Sheet, 2022).

Twelve nations participated in the launch of IPEF, but the future of the framework rests in the United States’ ability to incentivize cooperation. While the U.S. outlines a vision for a more connected future, it could do more to outline concrete details about the benefits of participation for partner nations. A Jones Act exemption, and corresponding economic benefits, could serve as one such incentive (Arasasingham et al., 2022). Nations that display commitment to, and pursue the spirit of IPEF could receive exemption priority. Ultimately, our proposed Jones Act reform will go beyond the focus of the IPEF, but the framework serves as a solid springboard for preliminary exemption consideration.

Case Study: Republic of Korea

The Republic of Korea (ROK) is the ideal candidate for an initial Jones Act exemption.

To start, the ROK already has a robust, cutting-edge shipbuilding industry. For the first half of 2022, the ROK has maintained the number one spot globally for new orders. In July, over half of the world’s shipbuilding bids were won by South Korean companies (Korea, 2022). As leaders in innovation, with the “2030 Greenship K Promotion Strategy,” the ROK is contributing to carbon neutrality in the shipping industry by investing in and mandating the use of new emission-free technology (2030 Greenship, 2021). The long-term plan is to reduce 40% of greenhouse gas emissions from ROK vessels within the next 10 years and 70% in 30 years (Ahn, 2021).

Dr. Sungmin Cho, an expert on Korea, China, and the Geopolitics of Northeast Asia, stated in an interview that there is near consensus within the ROK that its domestic economy has been overly dependent on trade with China in recent years. Any opportunity to diversify through increased trade with other nations, especially the U.S., would be welcomed by the ROK.

Furthermore, the ROK is a strong U.S. political ally. In addition to signing onto the IPEF, Presidents Yoon and Biden issued the United States-Republic of Korea Leaders’ Joint Statement in May 2022, affirming a strong commitment between the two countries to deepening political, economic, security, and people-to-people ties. An initial Jones Act exemption would open the door to a closer economic and political partnership between the two nations.


Although it was created in the spirit of protecting U.S. security interests, in practice, the Jones Act has resulted in a diminishing, aging domestic fleet. This has resulted in a number of unintended security consequences impacting Hawaii.

Our Jones Act reform recommendation opens the door to growing the domestic fleet through international cooperation, while keeping in place the protectionist aspects of the act that benefit U.S. shipping companies, crews, and military. Hawaiian families will benefit from the lower cost of goods.

Establishing an exemption process creates an opportunity to strengthen economic partnerships with friendly countries in the region in line with the priorities of the Biden Administration as indicated in the IPEF. South Korea is an ideal candidate for an initial exemption, and we see this as a first step towards additional exemptions for allies and a more collaborative economic future for the region.

Works Cited

Ahn, Junkeon. (2021, Feb 9). 2030 Greenship-KPromotion Strategy. Korea Maritime Transportation Safety Authority. https://wwwcdn.imo.org

American Maritime Partnership. (2020, July 21). TheJones Act and Hawaii. American Maritime Partnership. https://www.americanmaritimepartnership.com/hawaii-economy/

Arasasingham, A., Benson, E., Goodman, M., & Reinsch, W. (2022, May 23). Unpacking the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework Launch. Center for Strategic and International Studies. https://www.csis.org/analysis/unpacking-indo-pacific-economic-framework-launch

Case Asks President To Waive Jones Act To Facilitate Available and Affordable Shipping Of US Oil From US Ports To Hawaii To Replace Banned Russian Oil Imports. (2022, March 8). [Press release]. https://case.house.gov/news/documentsingle.aspx?DocumentID=780

Fact Sheet: In Asia, President Biden and a Dozen Indo-Pacific Partners Launch the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity. (2022, May 23). White House Press Release. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/05/23

Frittelli, John. (2017). Revitalizing Coastal Shipping for Domestic Commerce. Congressional Research Service. https://sgp.fas.org/crs/misc/R44831.pdf

Frittelli, John. (2019). Shipping Under the Jones Act: Legislative and Regulatory Background. Congressional Research Service. https://sgp.fas.org/crs/misc/R45725.pdf

Grabow, Manak, I., & Ikenson, D. (2018). The Jones Act: A Burden America Can No Longer Bear. In Policy File. Cato Institute.

Grabow, C. (2019, November 12). Rust Buckets: How the Jones Act Undermines U.S. Shipbuilding and National Security. Cato Institute. https://www.cato.org/policy-analysis/rust-buckets-how-jones-act-undermines-us-shipbuilding-national-security#essence-national-security-rationale

Hernández, Medlock, K. B., Mikulska, A., & Temzelides, T. (2019). A Cost-benefit Analysis of the Jones Act: Petroleum Product Tankers. Journal of Transport Economics and Policy, 55(1), 65–84.

Korea Maintains No.1 Shipyard Position in July. (2022, Aug 11) Press Release. ROK Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Energy. https://english.motie.go.kr/en/pc/pressreleases/bbs

Maritime Security: DOT Needs to Expeditiously Finalize the Required National Maritime Strategy for Sustaining U.S.-Flag Fleet. (2018). In Policy File. US Government Accountability Office.

Mickeviciene, R. (2011, July 27). Global  Shipbuilding Competition: Trends and challenges for Europe. IntechOpen. https://www.intechopen.com/chapters/16925

U.S. Department of Transportation, Maritime Administration. (2017, September 29). Maritime Workforce Working Group Report – Transportation. U.S. Department of Transportation . https://www.maritime.dot.gov/sites/marad.dot.gov/files/docs/mariners/1026/mwwg-report-congress-finalr3.pdf

U.S. Department of Transportation, Maritime Administration. (2021, March 30). The Economic Importance of the U.S. Private Shipbuilding and Repairing Industry. U.S. Department of Transportation. https://www.maritime.dot.gov/sites/marad.dot.gov/files/2021-06/Economic%20Contributions%20of%20U.S.%20Shipbuilding%20and%20Repairing%20Industry.pdf

U.S. Department of Transportation, Maritime Administration. (2022, January 16). United States‐Flag Privately‐Owned Merchant Fleet Report. U.S. Department of Transportation. https://www.maritime.dot.gov/sites/marad.dot.gov/files/2022-05/DS_USFlag-Fleet_2022_1_16Bundle.pdf

What is the Jones Act, the century-old law pushing up prices in America? (2022, Apr 11). The Economist.https://www.economist.com/the-economist-explains/2022/04/11/what-is-the-jones-act-the-century-old-law-pushing-up-prices-in-america

“2030 Greenship-K Promotion Strategy” to Dominate the Global Green Ship Market (2021, Feb 4). ROK Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries. https://www.mof.go.kr/en/board.do?menuIdx=1491&bbsIdx=31054

Jamie Lee is a graduate student in Political Science with an emphasis in International Relations at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. She was previously a legislative intern for the Hawai‘i State Senate Ways and Means Committee, where she researched federal and state fiscal policies. 

Thabiso Mutumhe is a student at Hawai‘i Pacific University, double majoring in International Studies as well as Diplomacy and Military Studies. She has a specialization in International Security and has a passion for modern military strategy.

T.F. and M.S. wished to remain anonymous

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

YL Blog #31 – Community-based Watershed Management for Socio-Cultural Benefits in Hawai‘i


Hawai‘i’s recent water shortage and contamination events warrant the revitalization of mechanisms towards community-based watershed management now more than ever before. The dominance of both the tourism industry and the military in Hawai‘i’s economy have long raised concerns over their impact on environmental degradation, including water degradation. In late 2021, these concerns received global attention as over-tourism and drought contributed to water shortages, particularly in Maui, while the military-operated Red Hill Fuel Storage Facility contaminated the drinking water of tens of thousands of residents in O‘ahu. (Lipscomb 3 Aug. 2021; Cramer 11 Dec. 2021) Although public criticism over the management of Hawai‘i’s water resources is not new, little action has been taken to incorporate community voices that could potentially enhance adaptability and prevent the onset of water-related disasters. Due to the vitality of water, the absence of community participation in watershed management has implications for a wide range of issues including those related to disaster management, food security, and human security.

This paper explores the human security aspects of watershed management in Hawai‘i, specifically the role of indigenous rights and practices in the adaptive capacity of ecosystems. It investigates the benefits and limitations of applying traditional, community-based approaches to the management of the Ko‘olau Mountains and West Maui watershed areas. In pursuit of this topic, interviews were conducted with three watershed experts based in Hawai‘i. This paper argues that adaptive watershed management in Hawai’i can and should be achieved by enhancing the socio-cultural benefits of Native Hawai’ian communities.


As an archipelago, Hawai‘i relies heavily on groundwater aquifers that are naturally recharged by rainfall in its upland watersheds. (Gopalakrishnan et al. 2005, 15) Although the term ‘watershed’ has commonly been used to refer to the upper slopes of mountains since the early 20th century, Hawai’ian land was historically divided into moku, or regions, and further into units known as ahupua‘a. (Derrickson et al. 2002, 569; Buldoc 2018, 74) While all Hawai’ian land was held in trust by the highest king or chief of the whole population, ahupua‘a were communally-governed, ecological and social units that extended vertically from mauka (mountains) to makai (sea). (Campbell 2017, 3) Native Hawai’ians, or Kānaka Maoli, managed natural resources holistically, emphasizing interdependence between natural resources and resource users. (Winter et al. 2020, 4) Holistic management of the ahupua‘a promoted self-sufficient food systems, disaster resilience, and societal well-being. After the arrival of Captain James Cook in 1778, however, Kānaka Maoli society, culture, and ahupua‘a management practices declined dramatically.

The greatest change incurred, specifically after the Great Mahele in 1848 when Western settlers were granted the right to own land, was the privatization of water. Similar to land, water was previously treated as a public good by Kānaka Maoli. (Gopalakrishnan et al. 2005, 7) It was not until 1978 that surplus water was legally determined as state property during the Mcbryde Sugar Co. v. Robinson Supreme Court decision. (Kloos et al. 1983, 8) That same year, the Hawai‘i Constitution was amended to adopt a public trust doctrine for natural resources and provisions that safeguard indigenous rights. (Sproat 2011, 148-150) The Water Code, adopted in 1987, has similar provisions that protect public interests and Native Hawai’ian rights in freshwater resources. (Sproat 2011, 147) These statutes, however, have failed to meaningfully empower community involvement in natural resources management against private interests. (Sproat 2011, 150)

Cultural connections are the primary consideration when it comes to community-based watershed management. Place-based knowledge is prominent in Hawaiʻi and across the pacific; the same applies when discussing ahupuaʻa. (Hawaii Watershed Guidance 2010, 81) Understanding this intimate connection is what was lacking when foreigners came in and disturbed the forests and watershed system in the 1800s. The moʻolelo (oral stories) are rooted in the people’s responsibility for the land, and whether one is native Hawaiʻian or not, this responsibility remains. (F. Koethe, personal communication, 2022) As previously alluded to, watershed management has not always been handled by people who are cognizant of cultural management. After the Great Mahele in the 1840s, foreigners directed native Hawaiʻian to divert vast amounts of watershed resources due to a lack of understanding. (F. Koethe, personal communication, 2022) That is also when Hawai’i saw a shift toward cattle, pineapple, sugar, and other mono-crop plantation crops, which were later found to be ecologically damaging. Once the foreigners realized the responsibility to protect watershed areas, drought conditions began to emerge. With this realization in mind, the 1900s were characterized by foreigners learning about indigenous practices and identifying the gaps in their forestry knowledge. (F. Koethe, personal communication, 2022) In a sense, the progression of watershed management plans was sufficient, but there is still a need for more equal and equitable methods acknowledging the indigenous population.

Expert Perspectives

In interviewing expert Frankie Koethe, the Community Outreach Liaison for the Koʻolau Mountains Watershed Partnership (KMWP), it is clear that building education and awareness is the best long-term commitment for the watershed movement. Recognizing that change does not happen overnight, the more hands-on experience community members can get and repetitively come back and take action, the environmental standards will improve. (Hawaii Watershed Guidance 2010, 66) Watershed Coordinator of the West Maui Ridge to Reef Initiative, Tova Callender, highlights the importance of multidisciplinary participation. At the fieldwork level, having various people integrated into the process allows for new perspectives to be considered because ground-level work involves more than just the scientist or a policymaking organization. (T. Callender, personal communication, 2022)

According to all three of the experts interviewed, watershed management’s most significant limitation is funding. Because watershed partnerships need funding to survive, it has become increasingly difficult for non-profit organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to criticize large donors, such as the military. On the issue of Red Hill, organizations like the Koʻolau Mountains Watershed Partnership knew about the problem but feared targeting such a prominent entity in case funding could be lost. (F. Koethe, personal communication, 2022)

There are other environmental stressors that pose a challenge for cooperative efforts. From sewage to waste water, and feral pigs and deer, therefore identifying and managing local sources of pollution is exceedingly important. (“Ridge to Reef 101,” West Maui Ridge 2 Reef, 2022) Because water flows downhill, coastal erosion, and significant amounts of in-stream sediment have settled and exacerbated environmental issues. (T. Callender, personal communication, 2022)

NGOs are critical in managing cultural ecosystem services, or the ‘nonmaterial benefits of ecosystems,’ but are often underrepresented in watershed partnerships. (Pleasant et al. 2014, 14) On the other hand, NGOs have seen success in grassroots aspects by building community rapport. Experts from the West Maui Ridge to Reef initiative have hinted that consistency is vital in maintaining community participation and fruitful discussion and physical action. (“Ridge to Reef 101,” West Maui Ridge 2 Reef, 2022) Koʻolau Mountain Range experts echo these sentiments and argue that ‘looking at maps isn’t enough.’ When all facets of the community come together, the magic can happen. By strengthening awareness, these organizations have successfully bridged the gap between larger businesses and private owners— this is why ahupuaʻa should be strengthened to enhance public participation in watershed management.

Support from the legal side is also limited. At the bare minimum, signs near watershed areas have shown legal aid. For both O‘ahu and Maui, there is a public understanding that there are linkages between doing things on land to protect the coast. (K. Oleson, personal communication, 2022) However, there is no authority to mandate action, so when watersheds and other water issues are known, there is nothing that can be taken to fix it legally. This occurs partly because watershed management is a low priority for the state of Hawaiʻi. (F. Koethe, personal communication, 2022)


  1. Strengthen the recognition of the ahupua‘a as a basic land management unit

Modelling current watershed management strategies after the ahupua‘a concept is a viable starting point toward greater community-focused efforts. First, the holistic aspects of ahupua‘a management resulted in impressive adaptive capacity and resilience. Second, although they have no legal standing, the ahupua‘a are historically defined areas that continue to be acknowledged by community members to this day. They are culturally associated with unique traditions and stories, thus their re-introduction is unlikely to be met with resistance. (Derrickson et al. 2002, 574) Third, because Hawaiʻi only has two levels of government (the state and county), the various ahupua‘a on each island are contained within a single county. (Derrickson et al. 2002, 574) This creates flexibility in delegating watershed management decision-making roles within each ahupua‘a.

Re-adopting approaches that place emphasis on the historical ahupua‘a, however, could be challenging in today’s world. For one, there is a greater movement of people and goods within each island, making it difficult to define legitimate stakeholders. (Derrickson et al. 2002, 574) Additionally, Indigenous institutions during the time of ahupua‘a that come into conflict with contemporary democratic ideals such autocratic rule by the konohiki could be seen as a threat. (Derrickson et al. 2002, 574)

  1. Adopt a Payments for Watershed Services scheme

One approach that could particularly address financial constraints is a Payments for Watershed Services scheme. Payments for Environmental Services (PES) is described as a ‘voluntary transaction where a well-defined environmental service (ES) is bought by a ES buyer from a ES provider if and only the ES provider secures ES provision.’ (Wunder 2005, 2) Because PES creates a financial incentive for service providers (i.e. landowners) to manage the environment more carefully and diligently, it can lead to improvements in natural resource quality and adaptive capacity. Although most upland land in Hawai’i is privately or publicly owned, the adoption of a Payments for Watershed Services scheme could potentially relieve the funding shortages faced by Watershed Partnerships, especially for state landowners and NGOs.

These types of schemes have been experimented in numerous countries, including the watershed areas of Northern Thailand. Although PES was intended to alleviate poverty among ethnic minority service providers in watershed areas, its impact was limited because it failed to meet other necessary conditions. Namely, it was not accompanied by in-kind rewards, such as the allocation of resource rights or interagency partnerships, and was insufficient as a sole source of income for service providers. (Neef 2012, 258) Indeed, Northern Thai minorities are legally marginalized by the Thai state and their traditional practices are frequently blamed for causing land and water degradation by downstream users.

  1. Legally establish environmental personhood for mountains and waterways in watershed areas

Finally, granting environmental personhood status to mountains and waterways could potentially remedy environmental and socio-cultural concerns in Hawai’i. In New Zealand, the Whanganui River obtained status as a legal person in 2017, protecting native Maori community notions of ancestral connection to nature. (Evans 20 Mar. 2020) As similar beliefs are found in Kānaka Maoli cultural systems, Hawai’i could follow New Zealand’s lead.

Potential shortcomings, however, include the difficulties associated with legally defining one natural feature but not those surrounding it as well as the potential issues that come with assigning primacy to indigenous beliefs, which do not necessarily protect the value of nature. (Shelton 2015, 12)


The Indo-Pacific region is filled with cultural diversity, including indigenous communities that continue to be underappreciated and marginalized within the nation-state system. Even though the importance of native Hawai’ian, or Kānaka Maoli, rights, knowledge, and practices have been legally acknowledged in state statutes, there is a vast lack of integration in practice. Kānaka Maoli participation is crucial in the trend toward community-based watershed management in Hawai’i. Although watersheds management is not considered a high priority concern for the state, poor approaches and practices have recently led to destructive, yet preventable, incidents. Hawai’i can enhance the adaptive capacity and resilience of its watersheds by taking community-centered approaches that focus on enhancing the socio-cultural benefits of native Hawai’ians. It can do so by strengthening the recognition of the ahupua‘a, adopting payments for environmental services schemes, and establishing legal personhood for its natural resources.


Buldoc, Sara. “Assessing Collaborative Governance Through Alternate Rationales: A Case Study of Watershed Partnerships in Hawai’i”. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2018.

Campbell, Holly V., and A.M. Campbell. “Community-Based Watershed Restoration in He‘eia (He‘eia Ahupua‘a), O‘ahu, Hawaiian Islands.” Case studies in the environment 1, no. 1 (2017): 1–8.

Coastal Zone Management, Hawai`i Office of Planning. Publication. Hawaii Watershed Guidance. Honolulu, HI: Tetra Tech EM, Inc., 2010. https://health.hawaii.gov/cwb/files/2013/05/Hawaiis-Watershed-Guidance.pdf.

Cramer, Maria. “In Hawaii, Fears Grow over Unsafe Levels of Petroleum in Drinking Water.” The New York Times, December 11, 2021.

Derrickson, S. A. K., M. P. Robotham, S. G. Olive, and C. I. Evensen. “Watershed Management and Policy in Hawaii: Coming Full Circle.” Journal of the American Water Resources Association 38, no. 2 (2002): 563–576.

EPA. “Drinking Water Emergency at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Honolulu, Hawaii (November 2021-March 2022).” EPA. Environmental Protection Agency, 2021. https://www.epa.gov/red-hill/drinking-water-emergency-joint-base-pearl-harbor-hickam-honolulu-hawaii-november-2021#websites.

Evans, Kate. “The New Zealand River that became a legal person.” BBC, March 20, 2020.

Gopalakrishnan, Chennat., Cecilia. Tortajada, and Asit K. Biswas. Water Institutions: Policies, Performance and Prospects. Edited by Chennat.

Gopalakrishnan, Cecilia. Tortajada, and Asit K. Biswas. 1st ed. 2005. Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 2005.

Kloos, William, Nathan Aipa, and Williamson B.C. Chang. WRRCTR No.150 Water Rights, Water Regulation, and the “Taking Issue” in Hawaii. Water Resources Research Center, University of Hawaii at Manoa, 1983.

Lipscomb, Jessica, “Maui residents rail against spike in tourism during water shortage: ‘Stop coming’ to Hawaii.” The Washington Post, August 3, 2021.

Mau, Nicole, and Frankie Koethe. “Koʻolau Mountains Watershed Partnership (KMWP).” 22 June 2022.

Neef, Andreas. “Fostering Incentive-Based Policies and Partnerships for Integrated Watershed Management in the Southeast Asian Uplands.” Southeast Asian studies (Kyoto (Japan)) 1, no. 2 (2012): 247–271.

Pleasant, Mary M., Steven A. Gray, Christopher Lepczyk, Anthea Fernandes, Nathan Hunter, and Derek Ford. “Managing Cultural Ecosystem Services.” Ecosystem services 8 (2014): 141–147.

Shelton, Dinah. “Nature as a Legal Person.” VertigO : la revue électronique en sciences de l’environnement 22 (2015).

Sproat, D. Kapua’ala. “Wai through Kanawai: Water for Hawi’i’s Streams and Justice for Hawaiian Communities.” Marquette law review 95, no. 1 (2011): 127–211.

“Ridge to Reef 101.” West Maui Ridge 2 Reef. Accessed June 2, 2022. https://www.westmauir2r.com/.

Roberts, Natalie, and Tova Callender. “West Maui R2R Initiative.” 12 July 2022.

Roberts, Natalie, and Kirsten Oleson. “Watershed Management in Hawaii.” 28 June 2022.

Winter, Kawika B., Noa Kekuewa Lincoln, Fikret Berkes, Rosanna A. Alegado, Natalie Kurashima, Kiana L. Frank, Puaʻala Pascua, et al. “Ecomimicry in Indigenous Resource Management: Optimizing Ecosystem Services to Achieve Resource Abundance, with Examples from Hawaiʻi.” Ecology and society 25, no. 2 (2020): 1–19.

Wunder, Sven. “Payments for environmental services: some nuts and bolts.” (2005).

Natalie Roberts is a Program Information Assistant at the East-West Center. She received her Master’s degree in Asian Studies from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.

Sarah Sweeney recently graduated with her Master’s degree in Asian Studies from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. She previously received her  Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Virginia Commonwealth University.

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

YL Blog #30 – Model Species Protection Policy in the USAPR: A Hawai‘i Case Study


In 2021, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Insular Affairs (OIA) announced that $1,541,421 in grant money would be awarded to combat invasive species as part of a larger endeavor to reduce the negative impacts of climate change. Although this is a step in the right direction, there needs to be a concerted effort to coordinate resources and promote biosecurity policy. This paper argues Hawai’i is uniquely positioned in the US-affiliated Pacific Region (USAPR) to serve as a leader in these efforts, with locally-based institutions like the East-West Center positioned to act as a liaison to produce cohesive policy.

The USAPR are defined as the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), the incorporated Territory of Guam, and the unincorporated Territory of American Samoa, all of which fall under the sovereignty of the United States (U.S.).[1] In addition, the three sovereign states of the Compact of Free Association (COFA) are included in the designation. The USAPR covers a diversity of endemic flora and fauna unique to the region which are particularly vulnerable to species loss as a consequence of both climate change and introduced species due to human transportation. According to the Pacific Island Regional Climate Assessment (PIRCA), “Despite the small size of most Pacific Islands, the combined exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of the region’s island polities encompass an area four times the size of the contiguous United States, making this region of great importance to the nation as a whole.”[2] Therefore, maintaining good relations with the USAPR is vital for the U.S.’s maritime trade economy and transportation. The Pacific region is geographically subdivided into three sections: the Western North Pacific, the Central North Pacific, and the Central South Pacific.

This paper argues the State of Hawai‘i must explicitly assert a leadership position in the USAPR’s conservation efforts through contemporary discourse over regional biosecurity. Such efforts should align with the State of Hawai‘i’s aggressive goals concerning climate change, as evidenced by the State of Hawaiʻi Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Commission’s annual report to the Hawai‘i State Legislature, which calls for the State of Hawai‘i “to help ratchet up [climate action] ambition abroad, and buckle down to work on adaptation actions at home.”[3] Conservation is a critical facet of climate adaptation, especially in those communities directly threatened by rapidly challenged ecosystem(s).[4] When taken wholesale, the unique island ecosystems of each polity within the USAPR confront overlapping challenges, making efforts towards conservation an ideal source of cooperation and dialogue.

As the host of the East-West Center, the Joint Indo-Pacific Command of the U.S. military, and other federally-funded organizations, the Hawaiian archipelago is already strategically positioned as an influential logistical base in the Asia-Pacific Region. However, this project is focused on a specific area directly influenced by the U.S. through the status of its entities as (1) a U.S. state, (2) territories of the American Union, or (3) sovereign states entered into the COFA with the U.S. Federal Government.

Case Study Species: The Diverse Scales of Model Species Protection

Although there are a wide variety of invasive species that harm economic and cultural livelihoods in the USAPR, we identify and analyze three species which are particularly harmful throughout the region as areas where collective discourse on model species is feasible.

The Coconut Rhinoceros Beetle (Oryctes rhinoceros) is an invasive species that is known to afflict Guam, American Samoa, and Hawai‘i. In the time span of five years (2007-2012), the Coconut Rhinoceros Beetle became widespread in Guam. On O‘ahu in Hawai‘i, it is known to be at the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Diamond Head, Barbers Point, and the Campbell Industrial Park.[5] The beetle bores into the crown of palms where it consumes the sap of the plant, thereby hindering the plant’s ability to produce fruit and can kill the tree. It is known to feed on commercially important crops such as coconut palms, bananas, sugarcane, papayas, sisal, pineapples, and date palms.[6] The Coconut Rhinoceros Beetle also threatens native palm species which are already under pressure of extinction due to climatic shifts in temperature, moisture, and inclement weather. Initial transfer of the Coconut Rhinoceros Beetle is thought to come from untreated mulch, waste, or human and cargo transportation. Stakeholders in Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and private entities across the various Pacific island polities are coordinating to make an effective plan to reduce the threat of Oryctes rhinoceros.[7]

Brown Tree Snakes (Boiga irregularis) require preventative measures which are necessary to keep the snake from reaching other islands in the USAPR. Currently, the Brown Tree Snake is only found as an invasive species in Guam and its native range in Indonesia, Australia, and nearby islands. In Guam, the Brown Tree Snake has extirpated 13 of the 22 native avian species and similarly eradicated some native bat and lizard species.[8] Conservation Biologists Rodda and Savidge (2007) indicate that “cargo destinations most at risk are in Micronesia, especially the Northern Mariana Islands, but Guam also has direct air transportation links to Hawai‘i that will soon be supplemented with direct ship traffic. Ultimately, all Pacific islands are at risk but especially those obtaining cargo through Guam.” Additionally, the snakes climb onto power lines, causing power outages, damaging electrical equipment, and costing an estimated $1.7 billion in damages annually in Guam.[9] Thus, it is imperative for the region to have the resources to remain vigilant against the spread of the Brown Tree Snake.

Cats (felis catus) threaten endemic species vulnerable to extinction, especially in fragile island ecosystems. Current humane society resources are lacking and unable to accommodate cat colonies in places such as university lands or managed wildlife territory. Felis catus, especially those that are feral, wreck habitats across the USAPR. Toxoplasma gondii, a protozoa which exclusively reproduces in cat intestines, is a major threat to native wildlife. In particular, it is considered one of the “Big Three” dangers to Hawaiian Monk Seals and  kills about 5% of native avifauna on insular polities.[10] The issue remains controversial in Hawai‘i, as most recently evidenced by a piece of state legislation (HB 1987) directly targeting feral cats proposed by State Representative Patrick Pihana Branco (D-50).[11]

Policy Discussion

The State of Hawai‘i must utilize existing tools within its shores to convene a regional plan for addressing biosecurity issues across the region. To that effect, this project recommends that the State of Hawai‘i, through existing entities like the Hawai‘i Invasive Species Council (HISC) of the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) and plans such as the Hawai‘i Interagency Biosecurity Plan (HIBP) established under the leadership of the DLNR and the Department of Agriculture (DOA),[12] enlist institutions like the Pacific Islands Development Program (PIDP) – or another appropriate federal entity – in the formation of a USAPR-based strategy for dealing with the formulation of this regional plan.

Precedent confirms there is room for a concerted strategy directed by Hawai‘i elected officials serving in state and federal capacities in a biosecurity capacity. The U.S. Navy Facilities Engineering Systems Command’s (NAVFAC) Regional Biosecurity Plan for Micronesia and Hawaii is a model that demonstrates the feasibility of our proposal and its relevance to continued U.S. national security strategy in the region.[13] Funded by NAVFAC, the plan is an expansive, four-part document of over thirteen-hundred pages. While NAVFAC implicitly assumed responsibility for the plan, they also recognized its limitations. “The spatial scale for this plan is extremely broad,’ the mission statement acknowledges, ‘encompassing most of Micronesia and the archipelago of Hawaii.” Furthermore, the plan’s “overall approach is unprecedented due to the broad geographic and taxonomic scope, as well as inclusion of multiple countries and cultures.” The area defined as Micronesia in this plan constitutes the three sovereign COFA states and the U.S. territories of the Mariana Islands (Guam and the CNMI), with specific recommendations even attached to each state of the FSM (Chuuk, Kosrae, Pohnpei, and Yap). NAVFAC’s funding for this plan is a foundation for a USAPR-based biosecurity framework, albeit without American Samoa.

The State of Hawai‘i must engage with the East-West Center on formulating a policy of substantive engagement with other members of the USAPR community. The next gubernatorial administration should designate – officially or not – a liaison to the East-West Center to determine steps for more active engagement in regional policy-making. The East-West Center is the Secretariat of the Pacific Islands Conference of Leaders (PICL), granting them unique influence over the convening of USAPR leaders to discuss issues such as biosecurity.[14] The most recent foundational strategy of the East-West Center identifies their desire to promote themselves as an “active hub for Pacific Islands expertise in the areas of culture and arts, economics, civil society, government, environment, and sustainability; a platform to amplify Pacific Islands voices; and a bridge between the region and partners.”[15]

In June 2015, former Hawai‘i state Senator Joshua Green (now-2022 Hawai‘i Democratic Gubernatorial Nominee) filmed a video with two Micronesian leaders in Hawai‘i concerning the necessity of bolstering relations between the two regions of the USAPR.[16] While unofficial networks already exist through (1) the East-West Center’s auxiliary programs and (2) appointed Board-of-Governors, a specific point-person should exist in the next administration to continually review and confirm progress on regional dialogue covering issues like conservation and biosecurity. This strategy should be borne carefully in light of newly-installed President Suzanne Vares-Lum’s five-part strategy articulating the future of the East-West Center over the next five years.[17] Furthermore, the administration should direct the Director of the Department of Business, Economic Development, and Tourism (DBEDT) to investigate how the State of Hawai‘i’s sister-state program might incorporate other members of the USAPR into the program’s existing framework.[18]

The Hawai‘i U.S. Congressional Delegation should incorporate funding for USAPR efforts into their appropriations requests at the Federal level. Hawai‘i is the only part of the USAPR with voting members in the U.S. Congress. As of August 2022, U.S. Representative Edward E. Case is a member of the House Appropriations Committee, while U.S. Senator Brian Schatz is a member of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, granting the State of Hawai‘i influence over federal funding appropriations at the national level. Given the geographical location of the USAPR relative to U.S. security concerns in Asia, defense and natural resource matters will likely continue to converge on policy regional agendas in the form of biosecurity.

The State of Hawai‘i’s Invasive Species Council (HISC) continues to monitor the NAVFAC Regional Biosecurity Plan and the ways they can meet the plan’s expectations.[19] As the largest part of the USAPR, their role in the plan’s success is critical. This is where the lack of data on how each part of the USAPR impedes a comprehensive summation of the issue. For that matter, American Samoa’s separation from the rest of the USAPR in dialogue concerning this plan is disappointing, considering their efforts to deal with invasive species.[20] The State of Hawai‘i, with the assistance of the East-West Center and such organizations as the Pacific Islands Development Program, which functions as the Secretariat of the Pacific Island Conference of Leaders (PICL) and is slated to host a conference for the group in September 2022, is poised to incorporate American Samoa into future conversations.[21] These efforts are in line with the East-West Center’s ambition to play a more aggressive role in policy conversations concerning such issues as climate change, especially in the context of an ascendant People’s Republic of China (PRC).[22]

As evidenced by the spread of the Coconut Rhinoceros Beetle and Brown Tree Snake, plant certifications, inspections, and quarantine practices continue to be vital in preventing non-native invertebrates from becoming established invasive species. This includes having certification processes for local nurseries to show that they abide by good importation practices to keep the island’s ecology safe. Stable funding is essential to have lasting effects, especially in regards to invasive species that reproduce quickly and can cause significant damages in a short period of time. The U.S. DOI has previously given awards to control invasive species. One award from 2020 gave $942,206 to support efforts in Guam, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Republic of Palau, and Yap, in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) to eradicate invasive species such as the Coconut Rhinoceros Beetle, feral cats, monitor lizards, and wild vines.[23] As mentioned in the introduction, the 2021 budget was about $1.5 million to combat invasive species, allocating money for Guam to counter the Coconut Rhinoceros Beetle, to remove invasive rats from the Mili Atoll of the Marshall Islands, to manage the Sabana Pandanus Forest and fund a native trees restoration project in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and to eradicate and generally manage invasive species in Micronesia’s states of Kosrae, Chuuk, and Yap.[24] Though these grants are encouraging to biosecurity specialists, the breakdown of awards indicate that certain groups need consistent funding.


The time is prime for Hawai‘i State Government to utilize existing resources within the archipelago to broaden its role as an actor in biosecurity policy across the USAPR through the formulation of a coherent regional strategy. However, a degree of humility must remain foundational to the scale of such a task; the diversity of the USAPR otherwise renders effective biosecurity policy impossible from the top-down. Policy-making attendant to the USAPR’s diversity should utilize experts from every part of the region through federally-funded local entities like the East-West Center to fashion a mosaic of policy cohesion; this is a tangible path for the future of biosecurity in the USAPR. Hawai‘i is a model for this approach, with a working framework of species protection methods in the realm of biosecurity the product of its size, wealth, and comparative proximity to the United States. It is obligated, as a dual part of the USAPR and the American Union, to work towards the protection of species across the USAPR.

Perry Arrasmith is a Master’s student in Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, where he is also a Graduate Degree Fellow at the East-West Center. Arrasmith is presently serving on the Hawai‘i State Commission for National and Community Service.

Serina Nakagawa is currently pursuing an Asian Studies Master of Arts degree at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa where she is a graduate assistant. She has a Bachelor’s magna cum laude in Global Studies with minors in Broadcasting and Asian Studies from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln.

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


[1] The phrases connoting the USAPR is used typically in scientific circles, and it is the most convenient phrase in the confines of this paper. It should be noted that Hawai‘i is not always included in the USAPR, as it is not affiliated with the U.S. in an ‘insular’ capacity so much as it is part of the Union. See “Drought in the U.S. Affiliated Pacific Islands,” United States Geological Survey, accessed August 14, 2022, https://www.usgs.gov/ecosystems/climate-adaptation-science-centers/drought-us-affiliated-pacific-islands.

[2]Hawaii and the US Affiliated Pacific Islands  https://pirca.org/about/pacific-islands/

[3] Hawaii Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Commission, “Report to the Thirty-First Legislature of the State of Hawai’i, Regular Session of 2022” (Honolulu, November 2021), 15, https://climate.hawaii.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/Climate-Change-Commission-Rpt-FY21-Sec-225P-3k.pdf.

[4] Callum M. Roberts, Bethan C. O’Leary, and Julie P. Hawkins, “Climate Change Mitigation and Nature Conservation Both Require Higher Protected Area Targets,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 375, no. 1794 (March 16, 2020): 20190121, https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2019.0121.

[5] HDOA Coconut Rhinoceros Beetle Fact Sheet https://hdoa.hawaii.gov/pi/main/crb/

[6] USDA APHIS Coconut Rhinoceros Beetle Facts https://www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/resources/pests-diseases/hungry-pests/the-threat/coconut-rhinoceros-beetle/hp-crp

[7] A Pacific Battle to Eradicate the Coconut Rhinoceros Beetle (2017) https://www.spc.int/updates/blog/2017/10/a-pacific-battle-to-eradicate-the-rhinoceros-beetle

[8] Rodda, Gordon and Julie Savidge. Biology and Impacts of Pacific Island Invasive Species. 2. Boiga irregularis, the Brown Tree Snake (Reptilia: Colubridae) 2007. https://bioone.org/journals/pacific-science/volume-61/issue-3/1534-6188(2007)61%5B307%3ABAIOPI%5D2.0.CO%3B2/Biology-and-Impacts-of-Pacific-Island-Invasive-Species-2-Boiga/10.2984/1534-6188(2007)61[307:BAIOPI]2.0.CO;2.full

[9] See footnote 8.

[10] The Toll of Toxoplasmosis (2020) https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/feature-story/toll-toxoplasmosis-protozoal-disease-has-now-claimed-lives-12-monk-seals-and-left

[11]HB 1987 https://www.capitol.hawaii.gov/session2022/bills/HB1987_.HTM

[12] https://dlnr.hawaii.gov/hisc/plans/hibp/

[13] https://pacific.navfac.navy.mil/About-Us/Regional-Biosecurity-Plan-for-Micronesia-and-Hawaii/.

[14] “Pacific Islands Development Program to Convene 12th Pacific Islands Conference of Leaders in September.” 2022. East-West Center. August 11, 2022. https://www.eastwestcenter.org/news-center/news-releases/pacific-islands-development-program-convene-12th-pacific-islands.

[15] “East-West Center Foundational Strategy 2023-2027.” 2022. East-West Center, August 2022., See priority three. https://www.eastwestcenter.org/publications/east-west-center-foundational-strategy-2023-2027

[16] Shared Responsibility: Hawaii and Micronesia with Sheldon Riklon and Joakim “Jojo” Peter, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MNbwnK5bQkw.

[17] The strategy is scheduled to be unveiled on August 23, 2022. For more information, please see the official announcement: https://www.eastwestcenter.org/events/ewcs-new-five-year-strategic-plan-featuring-president-vares-lum

[18] “Hawaii’s Sister-States,” Department of Business, Economic Development, and Tourism,, https://invest.hawaii.gov/international/sister-states/.

[19] The State of Hawai‘i’s HISC continues to monitor the plan in order to determine how they are meeting the plan’s expectations: https://dlnr.hawaii.gov/hisc/plans/rbp/.

[20] “American Samoa Invasive Species Strategy and Action Plan” (The Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources, American Samoa Government, 2017), https://library.sprep.org/sites/default/files/asispp-plan-as.pdf.

[21] “Pacific Islands Development Program to Convene 12th Pacific Islands Conference of Leaders in September,” East-West Center, August 11, 2022, https://www.eastwestcenter.org/news-center/news-releases/pacific-islands-development-program-convene-12th-pacific-islands.

[22] Suzanne Vares-Lum, “The East-West Center’s Regional Role in 2022,” East-West Center, February 3, 2022, https://www.eastwestcenter.org/news-center/web-articles/the-east-west-center-s-regional-role-in-2022.

[23] https://www.doi.gov/oia/press/interior-awards-942206-eradicate-invasive-species-insular-areas

[24] Interior Office of Insular Affairs Funds 2021  https://www.doi.gov/oia/press/interior-office-insular-affairs-announces-nearly-3-million-protect-coral-reefs-and-combat

YL Blog #29: Robust and All-out Support for Ukraine Contributes to Deterrence in the Taiwan Strait

At the 6th Global Opinion Leaders Summit hosted by WSD, the Japan Forum on International Relations, and the International Democratic Union, the key theme repeated by the former prime ministers was the need for “solidarity.” This includes not only solidarity among liberal democracies during crises, but also solidarity with Ukraine as they continue to endure the unprovoked and barbaric invasion by the Russian Federation.

As one panelist pointed out, it is a mistake to view the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a bilateral conflict. It instead must be viewed as a further escalation in attempts to re-order the world. Indeed, the grievance underlying dictator Vladimir Putin’s “justification” for their invasion was the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as post-Soviet states requested to join the alliance. Undermining the principle of national self-determination, Russia by contrast believes it is owed a “sphere of influence” in eastern Europe. This conflict thus will have worldwide implications. In particular, the People’s Republic of China is watching, not only learning from Russian operational blunders but also revising its strategic calculus for a future forcible “reunification” of Taiwan. For this reason, robust and all-out support by the US and its partners for Ukraine contributes to deterrence in the Taiwan Strait.

The Chinese Communist party has made its intentions regarding Taiwan clear for decades. Since Mao Zedong, successive paramount leaders have restated the Party’s intention to “reunify” the island under CCP control and has never renounced the possibility of achieving this end by military force. In the age of Xi Jinping as paramount leader of China, the unification issue has taken greater urgency. Xi has framed unification as a necessary condition for the “Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation,” Xi’s all-encompassing objective to gain great-power status for the PRC. To this end, the modernization of the Chinese navy has focused almost single-mindedly on developing the capabilities necessary to launch military actions across the Taiwan Strait.

Thus, the objective now ought to be to continue to deter the CCP from launching offensive military actions across the Taiwan Strait. Though most commentary on a potential Chinese offensive centers on amphibious invasion and occupation—of which most estimates suggest the PRC will not be capable until 2027—the recent live-fire exercises have increased the possibility of a naval blockade. To deter China, we must make the costs to Beijing of these offensives greater than the potential benefits. This logic, in essence, follows basic economic consumer theory: if the utility gained by an additional product exceeds its cost, then that product will be demanded and purchased. In terms of these costs, they can be in military (potential losses of PLA equipment and personnel), economic (imposition of punitive sanctions, tariffs, or other trade restrictions) or diplomatic (the isolation of China in international relations). In addition to raising the expected costs, known as deterrence by punishment, it is also possible to reduce the expected benefits—or rather, reduce the expected probability that the CCP will receive these benefits—known as deterrence by denial. As I argue through the rest of this article, US and like-mined countries’ support for Ukraine boosts both forms of Taiwanese deterrence—by punishment and by denial.

The PRC is watching and learning from the invasion of Ukraine. For example, a mainland-based military magazine argued that China’s marine corps must strengthen its air defense and anti-missile capabilities in case of a Taiwan contingency, noting the lack of such capabilities resulted in Russian failure to take Kyiv and the sinking of the Moskva missile cruiser. The Chinese are also adjusting their expectations for the economic and diplomatic costs of a Taiwan contingency based on the international community’s response to the invasion. As David Sacks wrote in Foreign Affairs in May, “from Beijing’s perspective, Russia’s war in Ukraine is merely a realistic preview of the costs China would likely bear if it resorted to war.” Thus, because the PRC’s calculus is affected by reactions to the invasion, any action to support for Ukraine or punish Russia will have greater benefits—a higher marginal utility, to revive the earlier economic analogy—because it simultaneously contributes to Taiwanese deterrence. With a higher marginal utility, the US and its partners should also be willing to bear a higher cost—impacts to the economy or supply of energy—with the knowledge that these short-run costs contribute to preventing or substantially delaying an arguably more strategically important conflict with a decidedly more capable aggressor.

This means further strengthening the sanctions regime against Russia, especially the minimal fossil fuel sanctions which Oleg Ustenko, chief economic adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, described in the Financial Times as a “phantom.” Ustenko notes, for example, that despite direct US sanctions on Russian oil, gasoline refined elsewhere from Russian crude is still sold in the US. Further, a carve-out in British sanctions allows the import of CPC Blend, a mixture of Kazakh and Russian oil. What sort of signal does this send to the Chinese? It says that the Americans, British, and Europeans are unwilling to punish an aggressor if there is any pain felt by their respective economies. It signals a lack of resolve and that China, which is one of the top five largest trading partners with each country (excluding Britain, where China is the seventh largest exporter and sixth largest importer) can expect that any action against Taiwan will go relatively unpunished. By contrast, ending the carve-outs, closing the loopholes, and establishing a “rigorous price cap” on Russian fossil fuels signals that China can expect serious economic retribution—mutual dependence be damned—for any potential action against Taiwan.

What may be more meaningful in deterring China is the personal sanctions against Russian leadership and elites. As Jianli Wang and Yan Yu wrote in The Diplomat in March, Chinese elites have moved large portions of their wealth overseas, vulnerable to the same account and asset freezes imposed by the international community against Russian elites. Despite some popular conceptions of Xi as all-powerful within China, the reality within the Communist Party is far more complex. Xi must retain power with the help of his own proteges, while also fending off rival factions behind the scenes. If CCP elites—from the Politburo Standing Committee to the PLA, to the propaganda wings—can be made to expect that their personal wealth parked abroad will be inaccessible the moment the PLA moves against Taiwan, Xi will face significant resistance within his party regardless of his own personal determination. There are more cards to play that can solidify these expectations within the Party. Some observers have called for the seizure of Russian oligarch and state assets to fund Ukraine’s reconstruction. Scott Anderson and Chimène Keitner warn in Lawfare that there are serious legal and constitutional issues—not to mention potential long-term damage to the confidence that underpins US centrality in the global financial system—that could arise, especially when targeting state and central bank assets. Anderson and Keitner note, however, that civil asset forfeiture is already being used to seize the assets of individuals—the oligarchs—implicated in “corrupt and criminal activities.” Expansion of the program beyond civil forfeiture would be difficult legally, and care should be exercised if the US wishes to reach any further into these frozen assets. But as far as deterring CCP elites goes, the US has raised the sword of civil forfeiture—that some assets would not simply be temporarily inaccessible but would disappear entirely—over the heads of any potential aggressor. That will do, for now.

Finally, the US and other like-minded countries must continue to supply Ukraine with as many weapons as are feasible. Ukraine must win, the invaders must be repelled, and in doing so they must demonstrate all the power and might that American equipment can provide. Ukrainian victory increases Taiwanese deterrence by denial—it lowers the expected probability of a successful operation against Taiwan, proving the ability of a smaller power to repel invasion by a larger and (at least, it was presumed before the invasion) more formidable power. It will demonstrate that even if the US will not directly attack another nuclear power, it will supply its friends with everything it needs to achieve victory. Indeed, for China, the mission is even more complicated than Russia’s. Not only must the PLA cross the Taiwan Strait, the US, contrary to its refusal to intervene in Ukraine has practiced “strategic ambiguity” in relation to Taiwan, not explicitly saying whether or not it will intervene in a forcible attempt to change the status quo. Further, despite post-facto walk-backs by aides, President Biden has repeatedly vowed to support Taiwan militarily if it were attacked—confirming many Chinese expectations that they will have to contend with the US in a unification contingency. In addition, every system that has been given to Ukraine—javelins, stingers, harpoons, and the game-changing HIMARS—has already been sold to Taiwan. To the extent that military assistance to Ukraine signals US resolve to support similarly-situated entities like Taiwan through continued equipment sales, and increases the perceived probability in the PLA of American intervention, military assistance to Ukraine contributes to Taiwanese deterrence by denial.

One of our Ukrainian speakers ended their speech by invoking Churchill: “give us the tools, and we’ll finish the job.” By giving Ukraine the tools, we also give Taiwan the tools for their own job as well.

Jake Steiner (jake@pacforum.org) is a resident WSD-Handa Fellow at Pacific Forum. His research focuses on the intersection between the foreign and domestic policies of the People’s Republic of China, sharp power, and I.R. constructivism. He holds a MA Honours in Economics and International Relations from the University of St Andrews (GBR).

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

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.