The Global Zeitenwende
How to Avoid a New Cold War in a Multipolar Era
Asia is trending in a dangerous direction. Across the continent, advanced missile technology is proliferating among U.S. friends and rivals alike. Nuclear powers are undertaking expansive nuclear modernization efforts. Democratization is stalling and, in some cases, rolling back. And the economic influence of the United States is waning while that of authoritarian China is growing.
The United States is not the cause of these troubling trends, but its overly militarized approach to Asia is making them worse. By surging troops and military hardware into the region and encouraging its allies to enlarge their arsenals, Washington is heightening tensions and increasing the risk of an avoidable conflict. Even worse, by treating the Chinese and North Korean military threats as Asia’s only real problems, the United States is ceding the economic playing field to Beijing and relinquishing its ability to address inequality, climate change, and other underlying causes of regional insecurity through nonmilitary means.
Washington’s approach to Asia has long been overmilitarized. Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump both sought to shore up what remained of U.S. hegemony in the region—the former with his signature “pivot to Asia” and the latter with his objective of a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” Both initiatives saw a threat in China’s growing wealth, political influence, and military power, and both came to be associated almost entirely with Pentagon pronouncements and efforts to preserve U.S. military superiority. President Joe Biden is continuing this military-first tradition in Asia.
In a bid to counter China’s rapid naval modernization, the Biden administration has embarked on an ambitious set of defense initiatives in what it now calls the “Indo-Pacific.” It has encouraged Japan to develop hypersonic weapons and extend the range of its antiship cruise missiles and other autonomous long-range missiles. It has pushed for $2.6 billion in new arms sales to the Philippines (on top of $2.4 billion in sales since 2016), despite congressional concerns about human rights abuses there. It has agreed to transfer cruise missiles to Australia and to support Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines as part of a three-way defense-technology pact with Australia and the United Kingdom known as AUKUS. And it has announced plans to expand the U.S. military presence across Oceania, including with a new base in the Federated States of Micronesia, an expanded presence in Guam, a new base in Papua New Guinea to be shared with Australia, and new radar systems in Palau.
The Biden administration has embarked on an ambitious set of defense initiatives in the Indo-Pacific.
The Biden administration’s response to China’s nuclear expansion has been similarly militarized. During Trump’s presidency, Pentagon officials warned that China might be abandoning its traditional strategy of deploying just enough nuclear weapons to deter an attack by an adversary. Partly in anticipation of that shift, the Trump administration drew up plans for a three-decade nuclear modernization effort that would cost between $1.2 and $1.7 trillion. The United States maintains a large margin of nuclear superiority over China, but Biden has nonetheless supported his predecessor’s plan for enormous investments in submarine-launched nuclear cruise missiles and a new “low-yield” nuclear warhead called the Trident D5, additional missile defenses for Northeast Asia, and a fleet of 145 B-21 stealth bombers—more than six times as many planes as the current B-2 bomber force commands.
Biden has also pursued a strictly military approach to North Korea, which has continued its nuclear and missile buildup, most recently by developing tactical nuclear weapons, hypersonic glide vehicles capable of evading missile defenses, and ballistic missiles that can be launched from railcars. In a reprise of the so-called strategic patience of the Obama years, when the United States sought to convince North Korea to denuclearize by piling on sanctions and beefing up its military presence in lieu of negotiations, the Biden administration has emphasized defense activities over diplomacy.
In May, Washington and Seoul jointly announced that South Korea no longer has to restrict the range and payload capabilities of its domestically produced missiles, lifting restrictions that dated back 42 years and aimed to curb regional missile proliferation. The Biden administration has also stood by its South Korean ally as it fields its own submarine-launched ballistic missiles and as calls for developing an indigenous nuclear capability grow within Seoul’s discontented political opposition. And Biden has continued the policy of his two immediate predecessors of aiding South Korea’s military as it develops precision-guided conventional missiles that it advertises as being capable of preemptive and “decapitation” strikes against North Korea’s leadership.
The United States should not be blamed for the actions of China and North Korea, both of which are advancing their nuclear and missile capabilities of their own volition. The Biden administration, like the Trump and Obama administrations before it, must respond to its rivals’ military buildups. But the fact that the United States must do something does not mean that the Pentagon must do it. Mobilizing more military hardware, stationing U.S. forces closer to opponents, and spurring weapons proliferation among allies only makes the region more of a powder keg.
Biden’s approach brings antagonistic military forces into closer proximity, heightening the risk of preventable accidents that could spiral into conflict. It also threatens the leadership and nuclear arsenals of China and North Korea, incentivizing both to invest in improved military hardware that can hold U.S. forces at a greater distance. Predictably, Beijing and Pyongyang have embraced an arms-race logic, responding to U.S. posturing by expanding their own military forces, coercing U.S. allies and partners to halt cooperation with Washington, and attempting to project power farther from their borders.
The fact that the United States must do something does not mean that the Pentagon must do it.
China’s recent nuclear expansion is clearly a response to the gratuitous, unrestrained nuclear policies of the Trump administration. Even before the planned modernization and expansion of U.S. nuclear forces, the United States had 3,750 nuclear warheads compared with China’s 350 (at most). Given this enormous advantage, China’s nuclear advancements should be understood as an effort to catch up to and counter the United States—not to overtake it or launch a bolt-from-the-blue surprise attack. Massively outgunned, China is acting rationally and predictably. Less rational is Washington sitting in a position of advantage, observing China’s clear track record of seeking to counter U.S. nuclear modernization, and then proceeding as if Beijing won’t do so in this case. By modernizing its nuclear force, the United States is giving China every reason to expand its own.
Washington’s conventional arms competition with Beijing is similarly risky and self-defeating. Beijing may perceive a U.S.-supported Australian submarine fleet as a threat to its shipping lanes, just as it might come to see Japanese long-range cruise missiles and South Korean ballistic missiles as tools for striking China’s leadership or its nuclear arsenal. Moreover, Chinese officials have long argued that U.S. ballistic missile defense systems are intended to neutralize China’s much smaller second-strike capability. Their fears are likely heightened by the Pentagon’s recent boasts about converting ship-based anti-air missiles from defensive to offensive weapons and by Washington’s refusal to publicly admit that neither it nor Beijing has the ability to disarm enough of the other’s nuclear arsenal to prevent a retaliatory strike—a mutual vulnerability that it acknowledges with Moscow.
The United States’ military excesses are also reshaping the Korean Peninsula in dangerous ways. The dramatic imbalance between U.S. forces and the North Korean military incentivizes Pyongyang not only to continue to expand its nuclear weapons arsenal but to consider using it first in a crisis. Worse, the two Koreas—with help from the United States—have begun an unconventional asymmetric arms race: both are increasing the range and payload potentials of their missiles and both are developing sea-launched ballistic missiles (though neither really needs them). All of this adds up to a uniquely volatile form of one-upmanship with no clear exit.
Washington’s overmilitarized approach not only increases the risks of war and arms racing but also reduces the prospects for stability and prosperity in Asia. The game that matters most in the region does not involve armies and navies but rather development, trade, and investment. Yet the United States has largely neglected Asia’s economic needs, allowing China to make enormous gains at its expense.
While Washington has busied itself with new arms sales and expanding its force posture, China has become the region’s economic hegemon. Chinese trade with the rest of Asia dwarfs U.S. trade with the region, and China’s infrastructure loans and investments have outpaced those of the United States for years. Beijing has also helped forge a complex web of multilateral institutions and agreements that privilege China and marginalize the United States. These advantages validate a narrative, already accepted by many Asian political elites, of China’s ascendance and the United States’ relative decline.
There are better, more stabilizing alternatives to the crude militaristic approach that the Biden administration is currently pursuing. Instead of fueling an arms race to nowhere, the Biden administration could limit its military investments to capabilities that erode its adversaries’ ability to project power while refraining from threatening their territory or nuclear forces. But even an optimal defense policy can only establish the geopolitical conditions in which it is possible to build a more secure region by nonmilitary means. By reducing foreign policy to defense initiatives, the United States is forsaking any meaningful attempt to arrest the underlying causes of future regional insecurity, including extreme inequality, environmental degradation, and kleptocracy. The United States should be working tirelessly to shrink the widening gap between Asia’s haves and have-nots, to subsidize climate adaption policies in countries with at-risk populations, and to penalize corruption and strongman politics. It is through these measures that the United States can help prevent tragedies such as the ongoing civil war in Myanmar, India’s slide toward illiberalism, and the human rights crisis in the Philippines.
Unfortunately, the Biden administration has largely ignored the conflict in Myanmar. It has mostly refrained from speaking out against the abuses of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government in India in favor of touting its importance to the regional balance of military power. And it continues to proudly provide security assistance to the Philippines, even as that country’s authoritarian leader has silenced journalists, allegedly taken payoffs from China, and ordered extrajudicial killings now being investigated by the International Criminal Court.
In short, the United States is sabotaging Asia’s future—and by extension, its own. By treating security as something that only missiles and submarines can ensure, allowing its economic position to weaken, and forfeiting opportunities to address underlying sources of violence, the United States is helping create a perilous situation in the Indo-Pacific. If the Biden administration doesn’t shift gears, it will be culpable in Asia’s next tragedy.