Nuclear-armed neighbours to contain North Korea?

North Korean ballistic missiles are displayed in Kim Il-Sung square during a military parade in Pyongyang. Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images.

As the US and China try to deal with North Korea, one Asian expert is pessimistic about the prospects of denuclearisation - and says other countries in the region may need to develop their own weaponry. Sam Sachdeva reports.

With the US and China struggling to contain the threat of North Korea, could a nuclear-armed Japan and South Korea be the best way to stabilise the situation?

That was the argument of Bilahari Kausikan, an “ambassador-at large” and former Singaporean diplomat who delivered the keynote address at a Victoria University symposium on Donald Trump, China and the Asia-Pacific region.

Kausikan, speaking in his personal capacity as “a pensioner”, offered a colourful take on the US and China’s search for a new modus vivendi and the wider implications.

While cautioning that the inauguration of a new US administration was only “one episode in this long sweep of history”, he said Trump’s unorthodox approach could well have an outsized impact on bilateral relations.

Kausikan poured scorn on media outlets who declared China had “won the US election” after Trump’s victory.

“The Chinese value predictability over almost all else, and Mr Trump’s campaign rhetoric had injected significant uncertainties into US-China relations.”

Despite fears that the US would be “rolled” by China when President Xi Jinping met Trump at a Mar-a-Lago summit, he said the event conformed to the general pattern of first visits - “in other words, not very much happened”.

Kausikan said all US administrations were shambolic to some degree in their early days, and rushing to judgement over Trump risked “becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy” for countries in the Asian region.

“If fed a steady diet of unrelieved negativity based on the presumption of failure, my ASEAN brethren might come to the wrong conclusions, and therefore make wrong decisions that are difficult to reverse.”

While the decision to abandon the TPP was “undoubtedly a blow to American credibility”, the decision to pursue a bilateral trade deal with Japan indicated Trump backed “something less than outright protectionism” in East Asia.

The chief worry of many - a trade war between the US and China which would damage others in Asia - had receded somewhat with the “Goldman Sachs crowd” within the Trump administration beating out the economic nationalists - although Kausikan warned that may not be permanent.

“I don’t think any advantage the Goldman Sachs crowd has gained so far is irreversible.”

He spoke of a “gradual reversion to the norm” on security and foreign policy, with the US continuing patrols in the South China Sea and Trump planning to attend the Apec and EAS summits later this year.

Beyond that, Kausikan argued, Trump was beginning to correct some of the mistakes of the second Obama administration - in particular, its fear that emphasising the competitive nature of the US-China relationship would damage cooperation in areas like climate change.

“Mr Trump clearly knows China will not cooperate on any issue unless Beijing decides it is in its interests to do so.”

Containing North Korea

One area of cooperation which the whole world is watching is how the two countries will work together to contain North Korea as it rapidly develops its missile and nuclear testing programme.

However, Kausikan warned that while American and Chinese interests overlap, “I do not think their interests are similar, and neither has sufficient leverage to stop North Korea”.

Although Obama’s cyber interventions may have delayed North Korea's missile development, he believed that would not deter Pyongyang from acquiring an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) - a goal which it sees as vital to its future existence.

“If you believe that if the cost of not proceeding is the end of the region, the end of the state, then you might as well go ahead.”

He believed North Korea would persist with its tests and eventually succeed, unless the US and its allies South Korea and Japan were ready to fight “a full-scale war” to stop it.

However, any unilateral military action by Washington would “impose a serious direct risk” upon the other two countries, both in range of North Korea’s current missiles while the US does not currently face a direct threat.

“If the US acts unilaterally, it will in effect force its allies to immediately bear the very heavy costs of mitigating threats to the US that are still theoretical or putative, and this will cause grievous political damage that could undermine trust in the US well beyond North East Asia.”

Kausikan argued sanctions do not work, with North Korea already one of the most sanctioned countries in the world, while Beijing’s leverage over Pyongyang is tempered by domestic considerations in protecting the stability of its own regime.

“At a time when the CCP is feeling a bit insecure, can Beijing really be complicit in the destruction of another and neighbouring Leninist system, without giving the Chinese people inconvenient thoughts about their political system?”

Deterrence the best approach

There are no good options, he said, for dealing with North Korea.

“Denuclearisation is a pipe dream, it's not going to happen - any realistic approach must accept that the DPRK is here to stay, and it will eventually have nuclear-capable ICBM capability.”

One approach, to negotiate a peace treaty in exchange for a verifiable freeze on the testing programme, was unlikely to pass the political palatability test.

Instead, deterrence - “the means by which every nuclear weapons state has hitherto been dealt with” - was the most plausible solution.

“North Korea may be very bad, but it’s not mad - they are rational.”

However, that had its own implications, with Japan needing to consider its own nuclear deterrence options to protect its interests - something it has been quietly working on with American “aid and acquiescence” for decades.

“I believe it’s only a question of when, and nor whether, Japan will become a nuclear weapons state,” Kausikan said.

While neither the US nor Japan were keen on the idea, “for both, this will eventually be the least bad option”.

And, said Kausikan, “where Japan goes, South Korea must follow” with its own nuclear efforts.

The final outcome? “A balance of mutually assured destruction in North East Asia...not a satisfactory situation for anyone, but it will not necessarily be unstable.

“In fact it will be more stable I think than the current situation.”

However, that would act as “an absolute obstacle” to China’s goal of becoming the apex of a new East Asian order - yet another issue to be navigated in the US-China relationship over the coming years.