UCS Blog - All Things Nuclear, China

Nuclear Hawks Take the Reins in Tokyo

Japan’s Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera and Foreign Minister Taro Kono shake hands with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis before sitting down for U.S.-Japan security talks.

Donald Trump’s plan for a more muscular US nuclear posture got a ringing endorsement from the increasingly right-wing government of Japan. Not long after the Trump administration released its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) in early February, Foreign Minister Taro Kono said he “highly appreciates” the new approach to US nuclear weapons policy, including the emphasis on low-yield nuclear options the United States and Japan can rely on to respond to non-nuclear threats. 

Kono’s endorsement of Trump’s NPR was a surprise to those who saw him as a moderate who could temper Prime Minister Abe’s geopolitical ambitions, which include amending Japan’s pacifist constitution to allow for an expansion of the size and role of Japan’s military forces.

Support within the conservative leadership of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) for an increased US emphasis on the role of nuclear weapons is not new. Nine years ago, foreign ministry officials loyal to the LDP testified to a US congressional commission advising the Obama administration on US nuclear weapons policy. Their testimony reads like a blueprint for some of the most controversial sections of Trump’s NPR—especially its emphasis on low-yield nuclear weapons, which used to be called tactical nuclear weapons because they were options for fighting limited nuclear wars against nuclear and non-nuclear states, rather than strategically deterring the use of nuclear weapons by others.

Prime Minister Abe recently promoted one of the officials who testified to the commission in 2009, Takeo Akiba, to the top bureaucratic post in Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  Mr. Akiba and the rest of the LDP’s nuclear hawks may have had to wait a long time to get what they wanted, but their view of the role of US nuclear weapons in Asia is about to become official US government policy.

Then and Now

UCS obtained a copy of a statement Mr. Akiba submitted to the congressional commission on 25 February 2009, along with hand-written notes—taken by commission staff—of responses to questions. That statement, titled “Japan’s Perspective on the U.S.’s Extended Deterrence,” makes two primary requests:

  • A US presidential statement that places “nuclear deterrence as the core of Japan – US security arrangements.”
  • The maintenance of US nuclear weapons capabilities that are: “(a) flexible, (b) credible, (c) prompt, (d) discriminating and selective, (e) stealthy/demonstrable, and (f) sufficient to dissuade others from expanding or modernizing their nuclear capabilities.”

Obama’s 2010 NPR undoubtedly disappointed the Japanese officials who submitted that statement. Obama emphasized the declining role of US nuclear weapons in regional security.:

When the Cold War ended, the United States withdrew its forward deployed nuclear weapons from the Pacific region, including removing nuclear weapons from naval surface vessels and general-purpose submarines. Since then, it has relied on its central strategic forces and the capacity to redeploy nuclear systems in East Asia in times of crisis.

Although nuclear weapons have proved to be a key component of U.S. assurances to allies and partners, the United States has relied increasingly on non-nuclear elements to strengthen regional security architectures, including a forward U.S. conventional presence and effective theater ballistic missile defenses. As the role of nuclear weapons is reduced in U.S. national security strategy, these non-nuclear elements will take on a greater share of the deterrence burden.

President Trump’s NPR discusses the future role of US nuclear options in Asia in a way that is much more in line with the preferences in the statement Mr. Akiba submitted to the congressional commission in 2009. Trump’s NPR states:

Expanding flexible U.S. nuclear options now, to include low-yield options, is important for the preservation of credible deterrence against regional aggression… In the 2010 NPR, the United States announced the retirement of its previous nuclear-armed SLCM [sea-launched cruise missile], which for decades had contributed to deterrence and the assurance of allies, particularly in Asia. We will immediately begin efforts to restore this capability…

Mr. Akiba’s testimony to the US congressional commission suggested a preference for retaining the SLCM President Obama retired, since it “provides the flexibility of options (namely, it is low-yield, sea-based (stealthy), stand-off (survivable) and can loiter).” That SLCM was the nuclear Tomahawk Land-Attack Missile, TLAM/N.

These types of “flexible” nuclear options figure prominently in Trump’s NPR. The Japanese statement defined nuclear flexibility as having weapons that, “could hold a wide variety of adversary threats at risk.” These threats included “deep and hardened underground facilities, movable targets, cyber attack, anti-satellite attack and anti-access/area denial capabilities.” In this case, the Japanese statement’s use of “anti-access/area denial” was a reference to China’s conventional military capabilities.

The Trump NPR gives Japan’s nuclear hawks all the “flexibility” they asked for in 2009, backed up by an unambiguous declaration that the United States will use nuclear weapons to respond to non-nuclear attacks, including “new forms of aggression” like cyber attacks. It also appears to endorse a strategy of offsetting China’s conventional military capabilities, including space and cyber capabilities, with new US nuclear weapons. The Trump administration’s intention to use nuclear weapons to counter non-nuclear Chinese military capabilities is repeated in the administration’s National Defense Strategy.

Making Okinawa Nuclear Again?

The handwritten notes on the 2009 Japanese statement indicate one of the commission co-chairs, former US Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, asked if Japan could adjust its domestic policies to prepare for the redeployment of US nuclear weapons in Okinawa. Mr. Akiba responded by warning Schlesinger there was still strong domestic support for the Japan’s Three Non-Nuclear Principles, which were first announced in 1967, and subsequently reaffirmed by various members of the Japanese government as well as a 1971 vote in the Japanese Diet. The principles declare that Japan would not possess, manufacture, or allow the introduction of nuclear weapons into Japan.

But despite these concerns about Japanese public opinion, Akiba told Schlesinger that preparing to return US nuclear weapons to the Japanese island of Okinawa “sounds persuasive to me.” Given the Trump NPR’s emphasis on new tactical nuclear weapons that can be redeployed in Asia, and the Abe government’s unequivocal support for Trump’s NPR, it is worth investigating the possibility both sides have agreed to upgrade US munitions storage facilities in Okinawa so they can store US nuclear weapons on the island.

There are several reasons why redeploying nuclear weapons in Okinawa may make sense to bureaucrats, like Mr. Akiba, who support an increased role for US nuclear weapons in the Asia.

The first is the existence of a secret agreement between Japan and the United States that allows the US military to redeploy US nuclear weapons in Okinawa.  The agreement was signed by US President Nixon and Japanese Prime Minister Sato in 1969 as part of the legal process that returned sovereign control of the island to the government of Japan. The United States had occupied Okinawa since the end of WWII and built an expansive set of US military bases that remain there today. Some of those bases housed US nuclear weapons, which were removed in 1972 at the request of the Japanese government.

The agreement was kept secret for decades and both sides still refuse to discuss it publicly. Many of the details were finally made public in an official investigation conducted by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs during a brief period when the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) controlled the government from September 2009 to December 2012.

Another reason redeploying US nuclear weapons in Okinawa might sound persuasive to Mr Akiba is that US and Japanese officials can use ambiguities in the language of the Nixon-Sato agreement, and tight controls on the dissemination of information about related bilateral discussions, to obscure the process that would be followed if the United States decided to make Okinawa nuclear again.

Schlesinger’s question and the Japanese answer suggest the United States would ask the Japanese government for permission. But that permission need not be explicit, or public. It may not even be necessary. The language of the Nixon-Sato agreement is intentionally vague and suggests simple notification at a relatively low level of the bureaucracy might be enough. This kind of low level agreement would give the prime minister and other LDP officials the same kind of plausible deniability they used to avoid discussing the Sato-Nixon agreement on redeploying nuclear weapons in Okinawa for more than 50 years.

The potential presence of US nuclear weapons in Okinawa would be further obscured from public view by the US government’s non-confirm, non-deny policy on military deployments. US silence on the question would make it a lot easier for the Japanese government to consent to redeployment. In the absence of an external inquiry, US nuclear weapons could be put back in Okinawa quietly, without public knowledge or debate.

The final reason Okinawa might sound persuasive to Mr. Akiba is that the United States is building a new military base in the Okinawan village of Henoko. The project includes significant upgrades to a munitions storage depot, adjacent to the new base, where US nuclear weapons were stored in the past. Henoko is specifically mentioned in the 1969 Nixon-Sato agreement as a mutually acceptable location for the possible redeployment of US nuclear weapons in Japan.

Birds of a Feather

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is one of Donald Trump’s most loyal international supporters. He was the first world leader to visit Trump Tower during the transition and he highlighted his close personal friendship with the US president during recent Japanese elections.

Mr. Akiba is Abe’s chief foreign policy advisor, especially on the question of extended nuclear deterrence. Akiba selected, organized and led the first several Japanese delegations to the US-Japan Extended Deterrence Dialogue (EDD) and has toured US nuclear weapons facilities. With the release of the new US nuclear posture review and the Abe government’s unapologetic endorsement, it seems clear that all three men agree on the need to increase the role of US nuclear weapons in Asia.

The LDP support for the Trump NPR may seem surprising to many members of Congress, whose last impression of Prime Minister Abe’s opinions on nuclear weapons is the image of him greeting President Obama in Hiroshima. At a recent meeting in Washington an exceptionally well-informed national security staffer of a veteran member of the House, when informed of Foreign Minister Kono’s statement of support for Trump’s NPR, asked if Abe had publicly corrected Kono’s misstatement.

US opponents of Trump’s NPR should take note. As the debate over the NPR unfolds in the coming days, weeks and months, the LDP officials voicing their support for Trump’s NPR do not represent the majority of the Japanese public and their elective representatives, who are opposed to a larger role for US nuclear weapons in the defense of Japan. But they do represent the views of Prime Minister Abe, who has lined up firmly behind the Trump NPR.

China and Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review

Chinese Vice Premier and Foreign Minister Qian Qichen signs the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) on September 24, 1996.

The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) repeats one of the most pervasive misconceptions about the current state of the US nuclear arsenal: that it does not compare well with the nuclear arsenals of Russia and China, which are supposedly engaged in nuclear modernization efforts the United States is neglecting.

China is making steady incremental improvements to its nuclear arsenal. But the gap between China and the United States is too wide to argue the United States is lagging behind in any meaningful way. We’ve laid out the details in a new white paper.

A Quick Comparison

China’s nuclear force is much smaller and far less capable than the nuclear force of the United States. Consider the following:

  • China’s nuclear arsenal is smaller than the US nuclear arsenal was in 1950.
  • China has a few hundred nuclear warheads and enough weapons-grade plutonium to make only several hundred more. The United States has 4,480 nuclear warheads (active and reserve) and enough weapons-grade plutonium to make approximately 5,000 more.
  • China conducted 45 nuclear weapons tests to develop and certify the nuclear warheads it has in its arsenal today. The United States conducted 1,056 nuclear weapons tests.
  • China can deliver 75 to 100 nuclear warheads to targets in the United States via ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).  The United States currently deploys 400 ICBMs and has another 400 nuclear warheads it could put on those ICBMs.
  • China does not currently deploy any nuclear weapons aboard ballistic missile submarines, although it could possibly deliver 60 nuclear warheads to targets in the United States aboard the five submarines it will have when the fifth one, currently under construction, is completed. The United States currently deploys about 900 nuclear warheads on ballistic missile submarines and its 248 missiles could carry as many as 2,976.

A Limited Force for a Limited Purpose

Despite the enormous disparity between Chinese and US nuclear forces, the leaked NPR about to be released by the Trump administration claims the United States needs new nuclear weapons because “China is expanding and modernizing its considerable nuclear forces” and because China “pursues entirely new nuclear capabilities tailored to achieve particular national security objectives.” The new NPR also expresses concern about the “increasing prominence” of nuclear weapons in Chinese defense policy, including possible Chinese first use of nuclear weapons.

There is little evidence China is pursuing “entirely new” nuclear capabilities.

The NPR implies China’s ability to put multiple warheads on its silo-based ICBM, its ability to deploy ballistic missile submarines and its ability to deliver nuclear weapons by aircraft are new. That needs to be considered in context.

China has had the ability to put multiple warheads on its largest silo-based ICBM for decades. It only did so recently with some of its ICBMs, adding a total of 20 warheads. Adding warheads to the rest of these ICBMs would add only another 20 total warheads. So the decision to utilize the capability to add multiple warheads does allow for a modest increase in the number of warheads China can deliver to the United States. But it is a small increase and it is misleading to characterize it as an “entirely new” capability. The United States deployed its first ICBM with multiple warheads in 1970.

The same is true for China’s ballistic missile submarines and bombers. China has had the capability to put nuclear-armed ballistic missiles on submarines for quite a while. It commissioned its first ballistic missile submarine in 1981. It began conducting sea trials of the submarine class it is building today in 2006. It has still not actively deployed them.

China does have a new nuclear capable air-launched cruise missile but US intelligence sources state it does not currently have a nuclear mission.

There is little compellng evidence that nuclear weapons are more prominent in China’s military strategy or that China intends to use nuclear weapons first.

Authoritative Chinese military sources state that the only national security objective China aims to achieve with its small nuclear force is to maintain an ability to retaliate if another state launches a nuclear attack against China first. Those same sources also confirm China remains committed to its longstanding policy of not using nuclear weapons first.

The limited size and capabilities of China’s nuclear force lends credibility to Chinese statements about the limited role of nuclear weapons in its military strategy.

Of course, China has been incrementally improving the quality and increasing the quantity of its nuclear forces since its first test of a nuclear-armed missile in 1966. The pace of these improvements has been steady but slow, especially when compared with the growth of China’s economy. As noted above, after a half-century of continuous incremental “modernization,” China’s nuclear arsenal remains smaller than the US nuclear arsenal was in 1950.

How to Keep China’s Nuclear Force Small and Limited

President Trump and many members of Congress from both parties seem to believe the United States is in a new nuclear arms race with China. There is no evidence China is engaged in a substantive build-up of its nuclear forces. But even so, for those who are concerned, the best thing the United States can do to win this hypothetical nuclear arms race with China is to limit China’s ability to build new warheads.

China cannot dramatically enlarge its nuclear force without producing more weapons-grade plutonium. And China cannot develop new lighter, variable-yield or low-yield nuclear warheads—like the United States already possesses—without resuming nuclear testing.  It stands to reason, therefore, that US and allied officials concerned about the future size and capabilities of China’s nuclear arsenal should take every measure possible to prevent China from producing more fissile material for nuclear weapons and from testing new nuclear warheads.

For the moment, China says it is still willing to negotiate a fissile material control treaty (FMCT) that would verifiably ban new production of fissile material for nuclear weapons.

In addition, China stopped nuclear testing in 1996 and signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Chinese nuclear arms control experts say their government is still willing to permanently end nuclear testing and ratify the CTBT as soon as the United States does. Entry into force of the CTBT would verifiably ban China from testing new nuclear warheads.

The Trump administration’s plan to develop and deploy new nuclear weapons does nothing to prevent China from expanding its nuclear forces. However, ratifying the CTBT and beginning negotiations on the FMCT would cap the size of China’s nuclear arsenal at its current level. Working towards the entry into force of these two arms control treaties, then, should be the top two priorities for anyone genuinely concerned about the future size and capability of China’s nuclear forces.

Japan’s Role in the North Korea Nuclear Crisis

Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama (second from left) consults with US President Barack Obama during a 2010 summit on nuclear security.

During a recent trip to Japan I had the opportunity to discuss Japan’s role in the current North Korean nuclear crisis with Yukio Hatoyama, a former prime minister. He led the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) to victory in September 2009, becoming the only Japanese politician to defeat the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) at the polls since end of the Second World War. 

The DPJ campaigned on wresting political and economic power away from an unelected bureaucracy and returning it to Japan’s elected representatives. Mr. Hatoyama’s perceived inability to deliver on that promise led to a loss of public support and his resignation as the leader of the DPJ in June of 2010. His party held on to power until they were defeated in September 2012 by a chastened LDP led by the current prime minister, Shinzo Abe.

Hatoyama is concerned about Abe’s approach to the North Korea nuclear crisis. He believes the current Japanese prime minister is providing unwise and provocative encouragement to US President Donald Trump’s threats to launch a pre-emptive military attack. Hatoyama is not alone in that assessment. Most of the Japanese I spoke with during my stay in Japan feel their government should be encouraging dialogue rather than cheerleading for pre-emptive US strikes that could ignite a wider war and invite North Korean retaliation against US military bases in Japan.

Yukio Hatoyama comes from a storied political family, and one of the wealthiest in the country. His father, Ichirō, served as foreign minister from 1976-77 under Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda. His grandfather, also named Ichirō, served three terms as prime minister from December 1954 through December 1956.

Although he retired from electoral politics in 2010, Mr. Hatoyama continues to promote what he believes may be his most important political legacy: the creation of an East Asian regional institution comparable to the European Union. His controversial efforts to advance the idea during his term in office troubled US Japan hands, who worried an Asian version of the EU would undermine the US-Japan relationship, especially since Hatoyama believes greater Japanese cooperation with China is an essential prerequisite for success.

UCS came to know Mr. Hatoyama through colleagues in the Japanese nuclear disarmament community. They were encouraged by his strong support for President Obama’s effort to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in US national security policy, including US security policy in Asia. Together with our non-governmental counterparts in Japan, UCS continues to work with Japanese legislators, the broad majority of whom, from all political parties, support responsible nuclear reductions.

We hope to bring more of their voices to the US debate about US nuclear weapons policy as President Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review unfolds later this year.

Our interview with Mr. Hatoyama was conducted in his Tokyo office on November 21, 2017. An audio file of the interview is available upon request.

 

UCS: Today we have the honor of speaking with Yukio Hatoyama, the former Prime Minister of Japan and the current Director of the East Asia Community Institute. Mr. Prime Minister thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.

I suppose we should start with the question of North Korea. How do you think about the way the United States and Japan are responding to what North Korea is doing?

Hatoyama: In regards to the North Korean development of nuclear missiles of course it is a reality that this is indeed a threat and in that sense countries around the world should be cooperating together and it may be necessary also to impose sanctions as is being done now. However, the final purpose for these sanctions should always be how to bring North Korea to the dialogue table.

Unfortunately, in Japan Prime Minister Abe has said that the time now for dialogue has finished, but I believe this is incorrect.

And, of course, when we consider why it is that North Korea has gone ahead to develop its missiles and nuclear weapons as well we need to recognize that fact that while there is a ceasefire agreement in place between the United States and North Korea, the war is not yet over, it’s still just in a state of ceasefire.

When we think about how North Korea is looking to create its own situation as well, it also sees the United States’ nuclear weapons and missiles – that are being maintained – being possessed – as well. And this is also leading it to seek its own nuclear and missile development program.

If we consider that North Korea is looking at its possession of these weapons as a tool for dialogue I think this really shows even more how the fact that dialogue now is more necessary than ever.

UCS: So, you think they are using it to start a dialogue with the United States?

Hatoyama: Yes, I do think so. And I believe it is necessary for us to recognize the fact that while North Korea knows that if they were to launch a nuclear weapon or missile towards the United States their own country, in turn, would be obliterated. They are aware of this. And, therefore, I don’t believe it’s likely they would actually make such an attack.

Therefore, I think instead we should understand their actions as looking at a way to try and seek negotiations with the United States which would allow them to have a more equal position between the two countries.

UCS: One of the things that members of Congress and the critics of the Trump administration’s policy towards North Korea have been discussing is the possibility of an accidental war… because of the rhetoric about the time for dialog being over… sending a signal to North Korea that military action is what happens when the time for dialogue is over.

Do you think Prime Minister Abe’s repeating that phrase about dialogue – the time for dialogue being over – is increasing the risk of an accidental miscalculation that could lead to a war with North Korea?

Hatoyama: Of course, from the part of President Trump, looking at how he mentioned having to consider all possibilities, including attacking through use of force. That is something which perhaps as a president should be considered.

However, this use of force cannot be the first option. That cannot be what is first gone to, whether it includes accidental use or not. Of course, if there were to be an accidental use of weapons by the United States on North Korea, North Korea would retaliate, in turn, against Seoul, against South Korea and against Japan. Of course, this would not be in the interest… not be good for Japan.

Now that Prime Minister Abe is repeatedly saying that the time for dialogue is over, the more he says this – the more he repeats this – the more the risk is increased as well. And this is also not in the interest of Japan.

UCS: A related issue in the United States is China’s role in this whole problem. A lot of American officials and the American media are highly critical of China because they don’t think they’re doing enough. What do you think about that?

Hatoyama: I believe that rather than looking at…criticizing China in terms of its role … or what role it is or is not playing … the fundamental issue at stake here is an issue between the United States and North Korea. China, Japan and South Korea are therefore not central players in this but have the role of looking at how they can cooperate together between these countries to create the conditions and space for negotiations between the United States and North Korea as the two key players in this issue.

Of course, China and these other countries they themselves do not desire a war to break out. While some may be criticizing China for being too generous or too kind towards North Korea, rather we should be looking at how to have more cooperation between China, Japan and South Korea in order to bring the United States and North Korea to the negotiations table.

UCS: Well the main issue is that people in the United States want them to cut off oil and food. Do you think that’s a good idea?

Hatoyama: I believe that cooperation in the direction of sanctions is to an extent necessary. However, we also need to recognize that if North Korea is pushed too far into a corner then it’s unclear what actions they might take, and what means they might take to do this.

When we also consider Japan’s history as having been on the receiving side of economic sanctions – which actually contributed to Japan’s path towards waging the wrong war in the past century as well, this is something that we need to learn from history and recognize that strict sanctions can… well, do not necessarily always lead to positive results. They can actually lead to such negative results as well.

China is saying it will to an extent cooperate as part of the international community on the increase or strengthening of sanctions. We also need to make sure that this is not done in order to, well, let the people of North Korea completely starve. On the contrary, we need to look at what the purpose of this is.

UCS: Well I know our time here today is limited so I have just one final related question, and we’ll just keep the focus on North Korea. And that is the domestic political aspects of the North Korea question in Japan. I was invited to listen from the gallery to Prime Minister Abe’s speech to the Diet last week. North Korea seemed to be a prominent part of the speech. He conveyed the idea that this was an important issue in the last election. Was it? And do you think there is anything that the opposition, in Japan, can do to sort of change the Japanese view of the North Korea question.

Hatoyama: Unfortunately, in the recent election Prime Minister Abe was re-elected by bringing this idea of the threat of North Korea to the fore, and saying this is why we need a stable government in place. This was used to convince the people to vote in favor for him in this past election.

I believe that whether it’s President Trump or any American president, the policy of Japan, which is now being put forward by Prime Minister Abe, following the United States administration fully in its policies is not going to be the way to resolve any kind of issue including the issue of North Korea as well.

When we look at the policy…or Prime Minister Abe stating that the time for dialogue is over.. we’re merely following US policy in regard to North Korea. This is not the way to be able to resolve this issue. Rather, Japan needs to be looking at how it can play a role in bringing the United States and North Korea to the negotiations table, and aim in this direction. This is the direction in which the government should be aiming and the opposition parties should also be pushing the government towards this and encouraging this as well.

China in Focus #20: A Chinese Communist Christmas

 

There is no war on Christmas here. The word—all nine letters of it—is everywhere. Communist Party Chairman Xi Jinping may be reprising classic communist iconography in bookshops and on the telly, but in the shopping malls, where an awful lot of Chinese people seem to spend an awful lot of their time, the signs of the season are everywhere.

It is hard to be afraid of a country and a culture that has so wholeheartedly embraced one of my favorite holidays. Its religious roots are probably a mystery to most. Nothing is harder to explain to Chinese family and friends than Christianity, especially after I tell them I was raised a Catholic, which is considered an entirely different religion here. Nevertheless, the general sense that Christmas is a celebration of unity, peace, family, friends and charity seems well understood. “It’s like Chinese New Year for Westerners.” Amen comrade.

It wasn’t always this way. When I first came to China in 1984 the toughest emotional moment of entire experience was making the mistake of trying to sing “I’ll be Home for Christmas” to the foreign student assembly. We did our best to make a day of it, but there was not a Christmas creature stirring anywhere outside our dorm. Decades of anti-Western Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda had wiped almost every vestige of the holy day from “mainland” China’s collective memory.

It is interesting how quickly Christmas came back and how pervasive it has become. US China pundit Bill Bishop recently published a cynical missive championing the proposition that Americans should finally surrender the “fantasy” that China could ever become “more like us.” I read it while listening to Nat King Cole’s rendition of “O Holy Night” playing in a Shanghai Starbucks. After all the time I’ve spent here I’ve come to wonder whether Chinese and Americans were ever really all that different to begin with. Cultural differences are very real, but so are the universal human values – like love and family – that cultures embody. Christmas, if left undisturbed by political authority, seems to appeal to everyone.

To be sure, the mass marketing of global corporations plays a major role, larger than that of any organized church (Sorry @Pontifex). But that does not make the phenomenon any less real. Commerce has always been the carrier of culture. Governments can respond to global commercial and cultural trends in a variety of ways. Given Chairman Xi’s exceptional attempt to micromanage the evolution of modern Chinese culture, especially his unrelenting efforts to mediate its contact with the outside world, the ubiquity of Christmas in Xi’s China is a welcome sign.

It doesn’t prove anything, of course. But it does suggest that left to our own devices us ordinary people, enjoying the same coffee, cakes and carols this holiday season, whether we’re in, or from, Baltimore or Beijing, may not be as different as our pundits and politicians tell us we are.

Defending what we imagine to be “our” cultures from the supposed predations of “other” cultures seems to be a hallmark of what might be called post-globalization politics. The late US political theorist Samuel Huntington described it as a “clash of civilizations.” The idea that the United States is losing a global battle for cultural supremacy seems to be what animates political figures like Steve Bannon, Mike Flynn, President Trump and many of the voters who’ve rallied to their warnings about the rise of China and the decline of Western civilization.

The Chinese communist embrace of Christmas is an interesting refutation of Huntington’s “us” or “them” depiction of how culture operates in the interconnected world wrought by global commerce and its technologies. Christmas is no longer “ours.” It’s “theirs” too. Perhaps that’s because the essential cultural content is universal.

I had a related experience with Mozart in Vienna this summer. My wife, who is Chinese, was chatting with a hawker selling tickets to a concert in the Musikverein, or the 金色大厅, as the Chinese call it. The young man, a violinist, made his pitch in respectable Chinese. He also noted that Chinese attendance at performances of western classical music was underwriting the lives of a lot of young musicians in the city. Sure enough, the 金色大厅was chock full of Chinese tourists, whose enthusiasm for the music lifted the spirits of everyone else in the room, performers included. Is Mozart a product of “Western” culture that needs to be protected from a rising China? Or has a rising China’s embrace given new life to old art that belongs to us all?

Globalization has its problems. Rising economic inequality is the most pressing. Our political leaders should focus on that, rather than fretting about the future of human culture, which, if Christmas in communist China is any indication, we can sort out better by ourselves.

Pressuring China on North Korea Could Be a Mistake

The Trump administration is intentionally putting China in very tough spot. It is attempting to make the Chinese leadership believe it must choose between a preemptive US attack on North Korea or agreeing to US requests to strangle North Korea’s economy with even tougher sanctions, including cutting off North Korea’s oil supply at the beginning of winter. That may seem like clever diplomacy to some. But it’s a high stakes game of poker that the United States could lose.

The problem with the Trump administration’s strategy – if it is a strategy – is that from China’s point of view both choices lead to war.

China’s Bad Hand

Chinese arms control analysts do not believe North Korea is willing to give up its nuclear weapons program. Moreover, they think the uptick in threatening US language and military posturing have led the North Koreans to accelerate their efforts to develop a credible nuclear deterrent. In their view, the Trump administration’s policy of “maximum pressure” is pushing North Korea farther away from the negotiating table, not towards it.

Chinese scholars do not believe the Chinese leadership can influence North Korean decisions about security. One of the most often repeated laments I’ve heard from Chinese colleagues during this visit is that Americans don’t understand that China is not North Korea’s ally. North Korea does not trust China. It never has. Chinese historians are quick to point out that even during the Korean War in the 1950s the North Korean leadership resisted Chinese military intervention. And because North Korea does not trust China, the Hermit Kingdom’s nuclear weapons program is the only credible security guarantee it’s got. It is also the only bargaining chip the North Koreans can use to encourage the United States to negotiate, and then honor, a permanent peace treaty.

Chinese military experts do not believe US preemption will succeed. They think the North Korean leadership, and the nuclear weapons program, will survive a surgical strike. In their view, only a massive US attack, accompanied by a ground invasion, has a chance of permanently disarming the North Koreans. Moreover, Chinese military analysts believe that any US attack, no matter how limited, will precipitate North Korean retaliation. That will invite additional US attacks and begin a downward spiral of military activity that will be very hard to stop once it starts.

What does China believe? The Chinese government has stated, on multiple occasions, that severe sanctions, like cutting off oil and food supplies, will “destabilize” the peninsula. That’s the diplomatic way of saying it will lead to war. Chinese analysts do not rule out the possibility that North Korea might decide to punish China for capitulating to the United States. A Chinese military response to any North Korean attack against China risks inviting unwanted US military involvement. Alternatively, a North Korean military attack against South Korea or Japan would compel US military action. Either way, Chinese experts believe the same pattern of escalating attacks and retaliation will ensue.

So, if the Trump administration isn’t bluffing about preemption, and the Chinese leadership believes preemption and sanctions both lead to war, the only real choice China faces is how it should respond to this no-win situation.

Possible Chinese Responses

Like most people faced with impossible choices, China’s leaders will probably try to put things off as long as they can. They will try to give the Trump administration a little more on sanctions and hope that’s enough to keep things quiet a bit longer. At some point, however, when sanctions begin to have a meaningful effect on North Korea, China’s leaders will likely conclude they cannot apply additional pressure without triggering a North Korean military provocation.

Some of the Chinese experts advising President Xi think that time has already come. They are the ones behind the Global Times editorial that threatened Chinese military intervention if the United States fires the first shot. These Chinese hard-liners are now trying to bring Russia on board with discussions about a joint statement warning the Trump administration against a preemptive attack on North Korea. They do not believe the United States is willing to risk a war with China and Russia to attempt a preemptive strike against North Korea that has a low probability of success.

Other Chinese experts don’t want the leadership to take such a huge step backwards and revert to a Cold War-style relationship with the United States. They agree there is no reason to expect North Korea to freeze or dismantle its nuclear weapons program, and that tightened sanctions and increased pressure only strengthen North Korean resolve. Nevertheless, they would rather work with the United States than against it. A tiny minority of those experts would even like the Chinese leadership to consider cooperating with the United States on military action against North Korea.

Likely Outcomes

The chance of that happening is probably quite small. Chinese cooperation in US military action against North Korea would invite North Korean retaliation against China. And China’s leaders have good reason to doubt whether there will be any meaningful reciprocation from the Trump administration in exchange for taking such a huge risk. Chinese military and foreign policy analysts presume the United States will still see China as a rising economic and military threat. Moreover, the Trump administration’s notorious unpredictability would make any US promise unreliable.

Because the choice the United States is presenting to China is so unpalatable, the most likely Chinese response will be to wait out the storm and hope Trump is bluffing. US efforts to ratchet up inflammatory rhetoric and military exercises are unlikely to alter Chinese thinking. Chinese leaders have been confronting US threats and enduring US military posturing for decades. Moreover, there is a tendency in traditional Chinese military culture to believe that preparations for actual military moves are concealed, while advertised preparations, like anchoring a nuclear submarine in South Korea, or practicing air strikes, are for show. Mainstream Chinese interpretations of post-1949 US-China relations reinforce that tendency. From China’s point of view, the Trump administration’s threat to start a war with North Korea looks like a bluff.

If the Trump administration is bluffing, and the Chinese government manages to keep its cool, what happens then? Will China look like the wiser party? Will Japan and South Korea lose faith in Trump’s judgment? It is possible that instead of backing China into a corner, President Trump may find himself trapped in a situation where he feels he has to attack North Korea just to preserve his credibility in Asia.

It would not be the first time a US president fell into this trap. President Eisenhower got stuck in the same conundrum during the Taiwan Straights Crisis of 1954-55. The Joint Chiefs argued the United States had to attack China, and risk nuclear war with the Soviet Union, to preserve US credibility in the region. But Ike was a general too, understood the nature of war, and chose to subordinate concerns about credibility to caution and wait. He chose wisely. How President Trump would respond is a question worth pondering before pushing the strategy of “maximum pressure” to the breaking point.

 

Chinese Military Strategy: A Work in Progress

Chinese President Xi Jinping, also general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), presents the heads of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Academy of Military Science with the military flag in Beijing, capital of China, July 19, 2017. (Xinhua/Li Gang)

Several years ago UCS reported China could put its nuclear weapons on high alert so they could be launched on warning of an incoming attack. Last week I had the opportunity to speak with some of the authors of The Science of Military Strategy: the authoritative Chinese military publication that was the source of the information in our report.

In a lively discussion, most of which took place between the authors themselves, I was able to confirm our original report is accurate. But I also learned more about how and why The Science of Military Strategy was written and what that can tell US observers about the broader context of how military thinking is evolving in China.

What it means to say China “can” launch on warning.

As of today, China keeps its nuclear forces off alert. The warheads and the missiles are separated and controlled by different commands. The operators are trained to bring them together and prepare them for launch after being attacked first.

China’s nuclear arsenal is small. Reliable estimates of the amount of weapons-grade plutonium China produced and the amount of plutonium China uses in its warheads tell us China has, at most, several hundred nuclear warheads. It has even fewer long-range missiles that could deliver those warheads to targets in the United States.

Because China’s nuclear arsenal is small and kept off alert some Chinese military strategists worry it could be completely wiped out in a single attack. Their US counterparts have told them, in person, that the United States will not rule out attempting a preemptive strike at the beginning of a war. The question for Chinese strategists is whether or not they should do something to mitigate this vulnerability. Many believe the risk of a major war with the United States is low and the risk of a nuclear war is even lower.

For Chinese strategists who don’t share that optimism, there are two basic ways to address their vulnerability. The first would be to significantly increase the size of China’s forces. Chinese nuclear weapons experts told me that would require a lot of time and considerable effort. They would need to resume producing plutonium for weapons and may also need to resume nuclear testing. The economic costs would be considerable. The diplomatic costs would be even greater.

The second way to avoid the risk of allowing an adversary to think they can wipe out China’s nuclear force with a preemptive strike is for China to put its forces on alert and enable them to be launched on warning of an incoming attack. That would require the development of an early warning system. It may also require upgrading China’s nuclear-capable missiles. One Chinese missile engineer explained that China’s existing missiles are not designed to be kept on continuous alert.

Either option would significantly alter China’s nuclear posture. But the latter may also require a consequential change in China’s nuclear doctrine.

China’s political leaders promised the world they would never, under any circumstances, be the first to use nuclear weapons. Wouldn’t launching on warning of attack, before any damage is done, violate that promise? The answer is not as obvious to Chinese policy-makers as it probably seems to their American counterparts, who don’t believe in the efficacy or credibility of a no first use pledge in the first place.

What I learned in my conversation with the authors of The Science of Military Strategy is that when they wrote that China “can” launch on warning of an incoming attack they were not saying China has the technical capability to do so,  nor were they announcing the intention to implement a launch on warning policy. They were simply declaring that, in their view, China could launch on warning—before their missiles were destroyed—without violating China’s no first use pledge.

Shouldn’t they have made that more explicit?

The authors told me, in response to a direct question, that they did not consider the impact of what they were writing on external audiences. That does not mean they were unaware non-Chinese might read it, just that they weren’t writing for them. The Science of Military Strategy is  an institutional assessment of China’s current strategic situation prepared for the consideration of the rest of China’s defense establishment and its political leadership. Those two audiences wouldn’t need to be told what the “can” in an Academy of Military Science (AMS) statement on launch on warning was referencing. They would already understand the context. As the authors explained, AMS is not responsible for making technical assessments of China’s capabilities, nor does it make public announcements about Chinese military policies or the intentions of China’s political leadership.

It’s difficult for many US observers to imagine that Chinese open source publications like The Science of Military Strategy aren’t just another form of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda. That’s understandable given Chinese government controls on speech and publication. But even in a relatively closed and tightly controlled polity like China’s, professionals still need to engage in meaningful discussion, including military professionals. Understanding that internal discussion from abroad requires more than parsing the language in Chinese publications. It also requires a sufficient degree of familiarity with the social, institutional and sometimes even the personal factors that define the context within which Chinese discussions of controversial topics – like nuclear weapons policy – take place.

Regular interaction with Chinese counterparts is the only way to acquire this familiarity. Unfortunately, both governments make that much more difficult than it needs to be. And language is still a significant barrier, especially on the US side.

Pessimism on US-China Relations

Most of my Chinese colleagues believe the intergovernmental relationship between China and the United States is deteriorating. The cooperative relationship of the 1980s and 1990s gradually gave way to an increasingly competitive relationship over the past two US administrations. The new edition of The Science of Military Strategy, composed over an 18-month period prior to its publication in 2013, addresses new issues that might emerge if this trend continues, and the relationship moves from competition toward conflict.

There is no fixed schedule for putting out a new edition. According to a general who was also involved the production of two prior editions, the first addressed concerns related to China-USSR relations. The second responded to the so-called “revolution in military affairs” exemplified by the new technologies used in the 1991 Gulf War. The current edition had no equally specific point of origin. It was, in the Chinese general’s words, more “forward-looking.” And as the Chinese military looks forward, its relationship with the United States looms large on the horizon.

None of the authors felt China’s overall military capabilities were remotely comparable to those of the United States. One of the more interesting barometers they used was the average annual salary of an ordinary soldier. All of the authors agreed this gap is unlikely to be closed in the foreseeable future. China still needs to focus its military development in select areas. Having a clearer understanding of what China’s future military challenges might be—an understanding AMS is charged with articulating—can help Chinese decision-makers set priorities.

That one of those priorities is addressing the vulnerability of China’s nuclear forces to a US preemptive attack is a troubling indicator of deteriorating relations.

 

Trump and Asia’s Strongmen

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe poses for the cameras with US President Donald Trump during his recent trip to Asia.

Earlier this month, from the gallery of the Diet building in Tokyo, I listened to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe talk up his friendship with US President Donald Trump and their plans to pressure North Korea into giving up its nuclear weapons. This was the centerpiece of his State of the Union address and the claim that convinced anxious Japanese voters to support Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) during the October 22nd election.

It is not unusual for the US-Japan relationship to take center stage in Japan’s domestic politics. No matter who is in the White House, most Japanese voters expect their prime minister to get on well the US president. The cold shoulder Barack Obama gave Abe’s predecessors from the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) expedited the demise of the only non-LDP led Japanese government in the last fifty years.

Abe’s domestic policies are unpopular. He rammed through a divisive national security law that restricted press freedom, stifling inquiry and dissent. He continues to push nuclear power despite the public’s post-Fukushima reticence. Abenomics increased economic growth but exploded the deficit and shuffled the gains to Japan’s top 1%, increasing inequality and undermining Japan’s social safety net without addressing any of Japan’s long-term economic challenges. Had the opposition not split over national security concerns, the LDP would have had a tougher time convincing Japanese voters to support them at the polls.

Playing the Field

Unfortunately for Mr. Abe, Mr. Trump is also fond of Chinese President Xi Jinping. The lavish praise Trump awarded the Chinese leader could eventually undermine Abe’s reputation as an able steward of US-Japan relations. Japanese anxieties about China run deeper than their concerns about North Korea. Sporadic fears of US abandonment have plagued Japan ever since Nixon went to China in 1972. For the time being, the Japanese media tends to underreport Trump’s budding bromance with Xi. Should that change, Mr. Abe might start to look like the weaker suitor for the current US president’s attention.

Vladimir Putin also got his share of kind words from the US president on his first official trip to Asia. Most importantly, the ex-KGB officer received a US presidential vote of confidence in his denial of Kremlin meddling in American politics. Putin’s illegal annexation of Crimea and his ongoing military intervention in Ukraine didn’t even make the news. Instead, the leader of the free world focused global attention on the Russian autocrat’s rough treatment at the hands of his Western critics.

Looking Forward

Sooner or later the Japanese public will start to wonder about the wisdom of Abe’s close personal relationship with Trump, especially if his US approval ratings stay in the basement and he begins to look like a one-term president. Japanese doubts may quickly turn to anger if the governing LDP spends money it doesn’t have on expensive military hardware it doesn’t need just to mollify Mr. Trump’s anger over a trade deficit that, because of the sheer size of the Japanese and US economies, could never be closed by US arms sales.

Unlike China and Russia, Japan is a democracy where its leaders are only as strong as the support of the people they govern, who eventually will hold them accountable at the polls. Mr. Abe’s tendency to stoke their fears and promise protection may win over a majority of Japanese voters for awhile, and some Japanese voters indefinitely. But the old adage attributed to Abraham Lincoln about the impossibility of successfully manipulating most voters most of the time probably still holds, even in the age of Facebook and Twitter.

Progressive opponents of authoritarian politicians can hasten their demise and prevent their return with better answers to the national security problems that often get them elected. Here in Japan, Yuriko Koike’s “Party of Hope” tried to out tough the LDP with nationalistic rhetoric on defense and trade. But the popular Tokyo governor’s party was crushed at the polls and she resigned from its leadership. Progressive Japanese legislators uncomfortable with Koike’s turn to the right reassembled as the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ), which fared much better in the recent election and is now the largest opposition party in the Diet.

Tsujimoto Kiyomi, who is leading the fight against Abe’s effort to limit the opposition’s ability to question him, recognizes the CDPJ needs to address the electorate’s concerns about North Korea and China if it wants to lead a progressive Japanese majority back to power. In an interview hours before Abe’s address to the Diet, she explained that Trump’s hard line on North Korea—and Abe’s willingness to parrot it—were not the source of their support in Japan. Japanese voters, like their counterparts in South Korea and the United States, are understandably nervous when they hear both men claim that the time for dialog with North Korea is over. That implies preparations for military actions that could drag Japan into a war and lead to attacks on Japanese cities.

According to Ms. Kiyomi, and other CDPJ legislators I spoke with this month, Japanese voters were responding to Trump’s camaraderie with their prime minister. They understand Japan’s national defense depends on help from the United States. Specific policies matter less than the personal relationships Japanese voters find reassuring.

Unfortunately, because the LDP has been the majority party for all but three of the past 50 years, Japan’s progressive opposition hasn’t had much of chance to develop mature relationships with US government officials. Even when progressives were in charge of the government, the career LDP officials in the bureaucracy continued to dominate US-Japan relations. Moreover, these LDP bureaucrats sought to undermine their political opponents by telling US officials, and the Japanese public, that the new progressive Japanese leadership was anti-American. It’s an unfair accusation that stuck, creating a false impression that the new leadership of the CDPJ intends to work hard to correct.

Support from leading progressive politicians in the United States would help, a lot. Senator Bernie Sanders, for example, is a political hero in Japan. His campaign for the US presidency was well-received by Japanese voters who share many of the same economic anxieties Sanders spoke to during the 2016 election. Visible friendly relations with progressive US leaders like Sanders would give the LDP’s progressive opponents the same political shot in the arm that Abe got from his relationship with Trump.

More importantly, US progressives could learn a great deal about America’s most important Asian ally if they expanded their brief beyond the old school US Japan hands who steered President Obama away from progressive politicians in Japan. That’s especially true when it comes to defense and foreign policy. Progressive politicians in both countries have a hard-time convincing their respective voters that they can be effective international leaders. They might be able to change that by working together on tough problems like North Korea, rather than continuing to work separately.