War in Asia?


On October 24, the Center for the National Interest hosted a panel discussion entitled “War in Asia?” Speakers included Harry J. Kazianis, executive editor at The National Interest as well as director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, and Michael Auslin, Williams-Griffis fellow in contemporary Asia at the Hoover Institution. Jacob Heilbrunn, editor of The National Interest, moderated. A summary of the event can be found below.


“Economic, diplomatic, and financial containment” is “the best option” that the United States has to deal with North Korea, argued Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest. Michael Auslin, William-Griffis fellow in contemporary Asia at the Hoover Institution, agreed, however, both noted that containment of North Korea would differ from U.S. containment of the Soviet Union. Unlike the Soviet Union, North Korea is not attempting to destroy “the Western way of life,” said Auslin. Kazianis added that the United States did not have a choice between military confrontation and containment when it came to the USSR, but now has that choice with North Korea.

Kazianis admitted that containment may not be the perfect option, as it would de facto accept North Korea as a nuclear state, at least for the time being. However, he asserted that the United States should not “open Pandora’s box” of risks by utilizing military options to resolve the North Korea issue.

Compared to the military option, containment and diplomatic means are more affordable for the United States as North Korea’s economy, “one-thousand times smaller than that of South Korea,” is its “Achilles’ heel,” said Kazianis. The United States would be able to inflict economic and diplomatic pain on North Korea to shape its behavior. Additionally, both experts agreed that missile defense should form a pillar of the United States’ containment policy as it could protect U.S. forces, U.S. allies and create leverage for negotiations. Auslin noted that missile defense is a “correct path” to take.

To improve the effectiveness of containment, “some foundational things” should be “put on the table first,” Kazianis stated. He said that the Trump administration should correct its “mixed messages” and “cool down the rhetoric” to prevent further confusion on the international stage. “[M]ixed messages and lack of clarity” may bring misconceptions about the United States’ red lines, especially when it comes to its Asian allies and North Korea, Kazianis argued.

Both experts cautioned that war with North Korea is still a possibility. Kazianis stated that there is a “25 to 33 percent” chance of war with North Korea. Auslin said North Korea’s threats are “categorically different” from other kinds of nuclear threats. A “real accident,” such as a missile test gone wrong with debris falling on South Korean or Japanese populated areas eliciting a “limited” retaliation could lead to war as Kim Jong-un may be forced to escalate any conflict to total war.

China also has a role to play in the North Korea issue. Beijing has been an obstacle to resolving the problem through its inconsistent enforcement of UN sanctions, Kazianis stated. He argued that China should completely enforce UN sanctions on North Korea to better achieve economic containment. Nevertheless, China has its own interests on the Korean Peninsula and views North Korea as a “buffer” between Mainland China and the United States, argued Auslin. He further contended that Beijing would be willing to deploy forces to Pyongyang to “settle the regime question to [its] satisfaction” should conflict occur on the Korean Peninsula and that it could likely do so well before Washington could react.

Auslin contended that “Sino-Japanese competition,” not North Korea, is the “long-run issue” in Asia. He argued that China and Japan have struggled for dominance over the Asia-Pacific region for a long time and have used a range of methods to compete with one another from working within or creating new international institutions, to using the bully pulpit, to reaching out to different security partners. Kazianis agreed that China wants to become the leading power in Asia, but suggested that it faces debt problems at home that may limit Chinese dominance to areas like the South China Sea. Auslin concurred that China’s economy is under pressure that may constraint China from fully achieving its goals in the Asia-Pacific region, but added Chinese President Xi Jinping’s assertiveness has caused friction between China and its neighbors and is likely to continue to do so.

To China’s chagrin, Japan is normalizing its military and expanding its relationships with India, Southeast Asian countries, and Australia, Auslin stated. According to him, while China attempts to drive wedges between Tokyo and its partners, these nations benefit from Japanese weapons’ exports and enhanced cooperation. “China and Japan see it as a zero-sum game.”

To better address the various issues in Asia, Kazianis suggested that the Trump administration clarify its Asia policy and explain its views on issues like the South China Sea, Taiwan, and North Korea to allay Chinese, South Korean, and Japanese feelings of uncertainty. Agreeing with Kazianis, Auslin proposed that the United States should clearly define its “core interests” in the Asia-Pacific region, determine the threats to those interests, and devise policies to respond to those threats.