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How could a new regional security architecture promote formal and informal arms control measures to manage military competition in the region?

Northeast Asia, described once as “ripe for rivalry,” is now careening toward conflict. A new regional security architecture is needed to advance cooperation and limit competition if potential confrontation is to be avoided or at least controlled. This architecture should address security beyond the military domain and help define the parameters of twenty-first-century strategic competition, including the rules that govern behavior across sectors, domains, and the time-intensity spectrum of conflict. Critically, it should also aim to bridge emerging divisions of alliances or blocs.

Such a regional architecture could promote formal and informal arms control measures. In particular, behavioral arms control measures could shape domestic and international social conditions in ways that limit how and when certain capabilities are employed. Further, a new architecture could facilitate dialogue to reduce misperceptions and promote a shared understanding of security developments, including the respective rationales for each country’s changing force postures and the way in which states view emerging technologies. Emphasis in the near term should be on reducing political tensions that exacerbate the multipolar regional security dilemma and limit the potential for productive engagement.

S. Paul Choi
S. Paul Choi is a principal at StratWays Group, a geopolitical risk advisory in Seoul. He specializes in political-military affairs, international security, strategy design, and deterrence.

The security architecture, which should include representation by nongovernmental organizations, could also ensure sustained attention to advance cooperation and publicly message areas of common interests between states such as public health and countering climate change. Even if such cooperation remains limited to these areas, it ensures relations are not defined solely by military competition and may mitigate domestic pressures to dismiss arms control efforts, or worse, prematurely use military force.

What sorts of quantitative or qualitative arms limitations are both desirable and feasible? And, what sorts of conventional and/or weapons of mass destruction (WMD) capabilities should be subject to limitations?

Amid increasingly tense China-U.S. relations and North Korea’s advancing military capabilities, geopolitical and technological realities challenge the feasibility of any traditional arms limitations. The regional architecture should therefore adopt a realistic agenda that acknowledges the likely continuance of regional force development programs. A nontraditional interpretation of “limiting” arms is most likely to succeed. The most probable sort of arms control is behavioral. It would be in the collective interest of all to shape political conditions in ways that discourage the decision to employ certain types of arms in particular ways. This includes strengthening mores against the use of nuclear and other WMD, as well as establishing common principles to govern the use of emerging technology such as autonomous weapons. These two examples are noteworthy given the trend toward fielding low-yield nuclear weapons and leveraging ambiguity regarding nuclear-conventional integration, as well as actual use of chemical and biological weapons this past decade, despite generally accepted principles against them. Common concern for the increased potential for conflict could be leveraged to promote greater transparency and exchange of information than has been the case in the past.

At the great power and nuclear levels, the new security architecture should explicitly acknowledge China-U.S. mutual vulnerability, recommit China to a “no first use” doctrine, and have the United States adopt a loosely defined “sole purpose” or “existential threat” declaratory nuclear policy—though much of this may depend on improvements in the regional political environment and geopolitics. Such positions, even when they belie force development and postures, would support norms that add to the burden of use. Socialization of such norms can influence strategic cultures and domestic political environments to help restrain the actual use of such arms during conflict. Messaging along these lines would also reinforce the January 2022 P5 statement on nuclear weapons.

The new architecture must then also address the increased risk of conventional conflict inspired by greater confidence in stability through mutual vulnerability at the nuclear level, and of a perceived weakening of U.S. extended deterrence guarantees by non-nuclear U.S. allies. In this context, it is important that force postures be analyzed holistically based on the threats they pose rather than aggregated simply by type. It is unrealistic and irresponsible to expect non-nuclear states to limit qualitative and quantitative conventional arms development when already forgoing nuclear means in a multipolar nuclear environment. Thus, it may be necessary to acknowledge the need of non-nuclear states, such as South Korea and Japan, to advance their conventional missile capabilities and avoid an oversimplistic framing of such armament as fueling an “arms race” with states that pose nuclear threats.

Finally, limiting competition in already-existing capabilities—such as hypersonic weapons—will be challenging, not least because of the dual civilian-military nature of these capabilities. Even the production of autonomous weapons is already too accessible, with the cost of production reportedly as little as $1,000, their parts purchasable online, and their code available for open-source download. Efforts should be made to subject the use of advanced technology, such as artificial intelligence, in weapons to certain limitations. States are unlikely to abandon their ongoing pursuit of integrating technology to more quickly close “kill-chains,” and may differ in their propensity to remove humans from the decisionmaking loop. The potential for automation to effectively enhance the lethality of conventional weapons into a platform of mass destruction could inspire a universal agreement on new rules of engagement or parameters for strike approval authorities when employing such technologies. Such an agreement could build on ongoing work by the UN Institute for Disarmament Research on lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS).

How could inter-Korean military limitations nest within a set of broader regional arms control measures, including those that would seek to temper U.S.-China military competition?

North Korea’s evolving nuclear and missile capabilities introduce specific challenges to inter-Korean military limitations and broader arms control measures. Specifically, advances in its capabilities that can increasingly threaten U.S. territory, and advances that portend a shift from a nuclear posture focused on deterrence to one that includes warfighting, together cause strains on U.S. extended deterrence guarantees. Relatedly, as a nuclear power, North Korea often views the United States—not South Korea—as its preferred counterpart for discussions on military limitations.

As South Korea continues to restrict its force development to conventional means, additional military limitations are more likely feasible if designed to address threats perceived by North Korea and South Korea or emanating from the former and perceived by Japan, rather than if the limitations are focused on any inter-Korean rivalry. Thus, while the United States works to address the increasing challenge to the credibility of its extended deterrence guarantees, it may agree to forgo options such as the redeployment or new deployment of low-yield nuclear weapons or certain intermediate range missiles on the Korean Peninsula, which in turn might help temper China-U.S. military competition. Although this will likely only strengthen the need for South Korea and Japan to develop and field new conventional capabilities, and increase demands to change other aspects of U.S. strategic operations (for example, planning with allies), these developments are arguably less tension-driving than a greater U.S. military footprint.

What are the main sources of crisis instability on the Korean Peninsula today, and are there shared perspectives on this in the region that should be addressed through a new architecture? And, how can crisis management mechanisms be incorporated into a new architecture?

The main sources of possible crisis on the Korean Peninsula today are potential domestic instability in North Korea and the escalation of inter-Korea conflict resulting from North Korean aggression, whether in the form of a traditional kinetic attack or one in the cyber domain. If there is at all a shared perspective on these contingencies it is merely that a common understanding of escalatory dynamics is nonexistent and that all states, including allies, are likely to have differing interests and priorities. At a more macro but fundamental level, these sources of crisis instability are derived from the lack of transparency and shared situational awareness regarding conditions in North Korea.

The uncertain domestic situation in North Korea, resulting from the pandemic and increasingly dire economic conditions, coupled with the potential perception of a distracted and constrained United States—polarized domestically, focused on China and on responding to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and now having to consider the direct threat North Korea poses to the continental United States—exacerbates this risk. A new architecture is needed to establish ready and practiced lines of communication among all states.

There is a dearth of engagement (and thus exposure and contact points) that could make any crisis more dangerous, including a domestic crisis in North Korea that might inspire intervention by external states. In addition, the two potential sources of crisis instability on the Korean Peninsula may be used to facilitate a more strategic regional discussion on how escalatory dynamics are perceived, particularly regarding cross-domain actions, and on changing doctrines regarding the use of military force and other national assets that pose security challenges to other countries.

A new architecture can incorporate improved crisis management mechanisms in its design by ensuring more varied agency representation and built-in multilateral pressures to maintain active channels of communication. Increased activity in the cyber domain, in addition to other gray-zone activities conducted by actors that may not formally be affiliated with the military, place a premium on crisis management mechanisms expanding beyond traditional military-to-military hotlines. Further, as states deliberately conduct activities in ways that allow them to deny culpability but that can trigger rapid escalation, it is imperative that they be compelled to maintain hotlines even when rejecting involvement.

Should these efforts largely be consultative; or should an architecture seek to promote, regulate, or prescribe a stabilizing military balance between regional players?

These efforts should aim at a minimum to be consultative bodies, seeking also to promote and regulate a stabilizing military balance between regional players. The former, more limited aim, however, is urgently needed, and its importance should not be dismissed. Given the rapid pace of defense modernization and increasing atmosphere of distrust, there is greater risk of misperceptions and misunderstanding.

The most fundamental question critical to the success of this architecture is whether regional actors can agree to a stable status quo. Unfortunately, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a devastating example of what can result from the absence of such an agreement. Further, like Russia, China and North Korea arguably perceive current system conditions as in need of revision. How confident is the People’s Republic of China, and Xi Jinping in particular, about the prospect of a peaceful reunification or absorption of Taiwan? Given the increasing proclivity of people in the Republic of China (Taiwan) to identify themselves as different from those in the People’s Republic and desire a fate different from that of Hong Kong, will Xi feel the need to upset any military balance to ensure the ability to forcefully take over Taiwan? For North Korea, is the mere existence of South Korea a threat to Kim Jong-un’s regime? How does North Korea perceive the increasing calls in South Korea and Japan for strengthening of U.S. extended deterrence, as well as advancing South Korean capabilities to counter North Korea’s nuclear and WMD threat? Finally, is the United States willing to accept a modus vivendi based on mutual vulnerability and competition with China and forgo seeking military superiority or dominance? These political questions will likely dictate the extent to which an architecture can facilitate a stabilizing military balance more than the design of the architecture itself.

Should a regional security architecture seek to promote deterrence stability? If so, how?

Despite contentious political issues, a regional security architecture can undoubtedly seek and even promote deterrence stability, even if only in limited ways. First, it could facilitate exchange to make communications clearer about how actions are or will be perceived and whether they cross “redlines” that would trigger a level of response greater than expected. Deliberate ambiguity to avoid inviting challenges up to these redlines, while intended to be strategic and have deterrent effects, have in the region more often merely invited actors to explore, test, and search for these thresholds. A more inclusive regional architecture can help create bridges at least in dialogue between emerging adversarial blocs. Additionally, as states become more confident in the capabilities they are developing, they may be more open to exchanging data on significant weapons tests that could serve the dual purposes of deterrence signaling and risk reduction via greater transparency. Further, the architecture can address the increasing integration of conventional and nuclear means in the doctrines and force postures of regional actors, in addition to the increasingly interconnected nature of systems across domains, which complicate normally disaggregated approaches to deterrence—whether across domains or conventional-nuclear levels of conflict—and now introduce heightened uncertainty and instability. Relatedly, as states and their militaries increase activities in space and cyber sectors—often with differing approaches and governing principles—the regional security architecture could promote deterrence stability by fostering a common understanding, specifically of how activities in these areas are perceived as destabilizing or strategic threats. Military exercises such as the Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC) should be expanded to these other domains to increase transparency and exchange in ways that temper other, more provocative intelligence collection activities that only fuel greater suspicion and challenge stability.