Strategic Stability in Northeast Asia: An Interview with Dr. Brad Roberts

In January, I spoke with Dr. Brad Roberts, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear and Missile Policy, about strategic stability in Northeast Asia. Last summer, Dr. Roberts wrote a paper as as a visiting fellow at National Institute for Defense Studies in Tokyo.  The paper, appropriately titled Extended Deterrence and Strategic Stability in Northeast Asia , examined the strategic issues confronting the U.S.-China-Japan tripartite relationship.

To start off, I asked Dr. Roberts about the current status of Sino-American strategic stability. We're at an uncertain moment,  he responded. Whereas the U.S. and Russia have a long history and mutual understanding of strategic stability, with China we have no such history, we have no such experience, we have no arms control process ¦  Stability, therefore, remains uncertain due to the two states’ development of strategic postures and new forms of military competition in the cyber and space realms.  And, despite efforts by the Obama administration to establish bilateral strategic stability dialogues to come to a better understanding of these challenges,  the Chinese leadership has not shown interest in such engagement methods.

Why isn't China participating in strategic stability dialogues with the U.S.? Roberts offers two internal reasons:

1) Civil-military coordination problems within China. As he points out, when the presidents of U.S. and China make a commitment to do something and the People's Liberation Army doesn’t follow up, this raises a question of who's really in charge in Beijing. 

2) The traditional taboo towards nuclear policy and transparency. Strategic stability principally focuses on nuclear issues, which Roberts explains as a policy topic were a taboo in China for a very long time…it was really only after the Cold War that [China] began to be willing to talk ¦ or permit discussion inside China about nuclear policy.  Further, China remains skeptical towards strategic stability dialogues because they would require a level of transparency on concepts and, potentially, capabilities. China's military has adhered to the view that transparency could be dangerous for the weaker power; in Chinese strategic culture, the obligation to be transparent falls on the stronger power because it’s the hidden capabilities of the stronger power that can damage a weak power.  This logic loses credibility as China becomes a stronger global player and a military force to be reckoned with in East Asia.  Yet, the military still retains a cultural and traditional reluctance to engage in transparency.

There is, however, growing consensus that a shift is taking place in Beijing. Xi and Obama's commitment at Sunnylands to work towards a new type of major power relations  represents a shift away from the old type, ostensibly being one in which armed conflict is inevitable between a rising power and an established one.” So, how do Beijing and Washington forge a new relationship free of this kind of conflict? Roberts posits that one way is through moving these strategic stability dialogues forward  in a significant way  in order to address Chinese concerns regarding U.S. missile defense and conventional strike capabilities. He believes that there is a growing presence in the Chinese leadership advocating for these types of relationship building dialogues.

I then inquired on how the current tension between China and Japan might affect strategic stability. His response: Well, the potential for conflict in the maritime environment between Japan and China is a driver for dialogue.  The issue is that China and Japan have differing views on requirements for the U.S-Chinese strategic stability relationship. What China wants to hear from the United States is that the United States accepts mutual vulnerability as the basis of the strategic relationship, or that the Pentagon is not trying to develop the missile defenses and strike capabilities to think it could conduct a successful first-strike on China. Japan wants the opposite. Japan worries that mutual vulnerability would impact the U.S. extended deterrence policy, and that in a potential conflict with China over a Japanese interest, the United States would accept to be deterred and would not defend Japan.  While all three states are committed to strategic stability, the gap between the necessary requirements points to the urgency of dialogue, but the political situation being what is it between China and Japan, there will be no dialogue. 

Clear enough?  he asked. Indeed, his explanation and analysis is clear as day; it's the strategic future in Northeast Asia that remains opaque.

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Maeve Whelan-Wuest

is the Co-Founder and External Relations Director of China Focus. Originally from Chicago, she received her B.A. in Geography and Chinese from Middlebury College in Vermont. Her research at IR/PS is focused on Northeast Asian security issues, particularly China's role in shaping nonproliferation and nuclear security policies on the Korean peninsula. She is also the President of the China Focus student organization, Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Policy Solutions, and Co-Founder and Finance Director of IR/PS Women Going Global.

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