How can the Trump administration strike the right balance of assurance, deterrence, and reassurance?
As U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping strode across the lawn at Mar-a-Lago on April 7, observers in capitals from Washington to Wellington parsed the style and substance of their interactions. Approximately 100 days into the Trump administration and only months away from the momentous 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, one can discern signs of the trajectory of U.S.-China relations. Most importantly, the Trump-Xi meeting laid bare the challenges and opportunities for the United States in the Asia-Pacific region, specifically the urgent need to devise a strategy that threads the needle between assurance, deterrence, and reassurance.
At their core, deterrence, assurance, and reassurance strategies are designed to exert influence over both adversaries and allies. Whereas “deterrence” strategies attempt to discourage adversaries – and even allies – from adopting aggressive behaviors by clearly conveying capabilities and consequences, “assurance” strategies seek to reinforce confidence in allied security commitments. “Reassurance” strategies, in comparison, act to assuage an adversary’s fears of uncertainty and aggression through a transparent statement of intentions. These strategies interact in complex, complementary ways, and although they are often interrelated – allies are often assured when a common adversary faces a strong deterrent, for example – the strategies can often be decoupled into distinct strategy profiles. This article briefly examines a range of the challenges and options for the way forward in Asia as the Trump administration considers broader regional strategies.
Every American presidential administration since Richard Nixon has attempted to strike the proper balance between deterrence, assurance, and reassurance in its approach toward the countries of the Asia-Pacific, some more successfully than others. Whereas concepts of deterrence and assurance were relatively straightforward during the bipolar environment of the Cold War (if only in hindsight), the Trump administration inherits a region that is facing a multitude of potential flashpoints and challenges resulting from North Korea, the East and South China Seas, and a changing balance of power.
A comprehensive deterrence strategy aimed at China needs to not only deter strategic interstate conflict, but should also act to deter conventional “grey zone” aggression as well as unconventional aggression in the space or cyber domains. A U.S. strategy would consist of the following elements. First, the United States should continue to feature a strong and modern nuclear force. The United States will likely spend nearly $350 billion dollars over the next ten years to keep its nuclear force relevant well into the 21st century – a fiscal prospect that is becoming increasingly necessary by virtue of growing North Korean nuclear threats.
Additionally, the United States should continue its strategy of deepening security relations with regional partners – not the least of which are in Southeast Asia, which has developed as ground-zero for Chinese revisions to regional order. China’s expansion into the South China Sea may suggest that U.S. efforts to strengthen regional partnerships are an insufficient deterrent against grey zone tactics. This might be attributable either to ASEAN claimants’ unwillingness to confront China, an emboldened Chinese approach to its neighbors, or both. Nonetheless, treaty allies such as Australia, Thailand, the Philippines, and others will be vital partners in facing a whole host of shared regional challenges, and enhanced regional partnerships will continue to alter Chinese cost calculations as they continue to embark on efforts to alter the status quo.
Assurance has rightfully been a long-standing pillar of U.S. foreign and security policy in the Asia-Pacific. U.S. alliances with Japan and South Korea are the cornerstones of regional peace and stability. Despite domestic turmoil in South Korea brought about by the downfall of President Park Geun-hye and ongoing debates in Japan about the desirability of expanded mission sets in the context of broader discussions on constitutional revision, it is imperative that the United States maintain cohesion with its allies. Enhanced interoperability and cooperation between the United States, Japan, and South Korea will be essential for facing the challenges posed by China and North Korea. Regional security partners such as Singapore, Indonesia, India, and many others have valuable perspectives to offer on how the United States can maintain its involvement in the Asia-Pacific.
As the United States continues to prioritize deterrence and assurance in Asia, it does so at the risk of unintentionally convincing China that it will be the target of U.S. aggression, at best creating a security dilemma and at worst triggering the Thucydides Trap. Along its course to deter China, the United States needs to reassure it. Such a strategy could feature several elements. First, the United States should offer China an opportunity to exchange views on the upcoming Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) and the Ballistic Missile Defense Review (BMDR). By doing so, the United States may achieve an improved understanding of China’s posture and China would have the chance to influence U.S. decision-making. If China chose not to engage in such an exercise, the United States would be in a stronger position to deflect Chinese critiques of U.S. posture. Second, the United States and South Korea should discuss the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system with China at an official level with the opportunity for site visits. The United States would gain insights into Chinese logic and objections against THAAD, while diminished pressure on South Korea may result. Third, the United States should pursue a sustained dialogue on strategic stability with China which would include the nuclear, cyber, and space domains. Since it is in both countries’ mutual interest to avoid strategic miscalculation, China and the United States may emerge from the dialogue with a greater awareness of the trade-offs in their strategic relationship.
To date, China has not sent reassuring messages when the United States attempted to engage in dialogue on ballistic missile defense and strategic stability. Further, China has not demonstrated an interest in receiving briefings, but instead complains about the U.S. regional missile defense posture. This indicates that China will proceed with its military modernization programs regardless of assurances provided by the United States. Nonetheless, confidence and security building measures (CSBMs) between China and the United States remain necessary because both countries regard certain behaviors as desirable to avoid. Chinese concerns regarding U.S. containment as well as preservation of territorial integrity are central to PRC motivations for modernization efforts.
Assurance, deterrence, and reassurance need not be mutually exclusive. The United States must in coming months articulate its preferred strategy for the Asia-Pacific. A prime opportunity in the defense and security realm will be the Shangri-La Dialogue on June 2-4, where Secretary of Defense James Mattis should use his speech to state clearly a desire for continued strong U.S. engagement in the region and propose concrete initiatives to this end. The assembled defense ministers from the Asia-Pacific will then be able to return to their capitals with faith that the United States does not intend to abandon the region, but instead desires to renew its partnerships in an effort to perpetuate a stable and peaceful order.
Captain Adam Greer is an officer in the United States Air Force. Daniel H. Katz is a Ph.D. candidate at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore. The views expressed here are solely those of the authors in their private capacities and do not in any way represent the views of the U.S. government or the Department of Defense.