By Collins Chong Yew Keat
The old dogma of deterrence games is fast losing its luster and impact. Past containing strategies are now being used by Kim Jong-un to provide instant backfiring consequences. Strategic ambiguity no longer remains a useful option for the West.
President Xi Jinping will be happy for now to play the dual role of both keeping Kim in check to preserve its obligations as the regional hegemon in maintaining regional order, while at the same time keeping the opening in dictating Kim’s next moves as an effective cat and mouse game with the West. For as long as Kim is seen as towing the line and adhering to the grand bargain and strategic projection of Xi, he will be given the lifeline and implicit legitimacy in continuing the same tactic of escalation for de-escalation. All these will not be a static dependence however, as potential backfiring in the form of an escalating hardline stance by the affected parties in doubling down their demands and ultimatums to Pyongyang will only create further risks of miscalculations and bringing American and Japan offensive capacities ever closer to Beijing in using Pyongyang threat as the excuse and pretext.
The persistent threat from the THAAD in the South and the risks for greater penetration of Beijing’s increasingly solid anti access and area denial (A2/AD) capacity by the US through the combined power from the new integrated deterrence approach especially in synergizing capacities with Japan. Pyongyang is increasingly becoming a thorn rather than an effective long-term kryptonite for Beijing in stalling the containment maneuvers by the West and Xi is trapped in another paradox of gaining the needed trust and support in its own version of inheriting regional and global dominance transition while grappling with the risks involved in ensuring internal and national survival through the explicit measures that are also desperately needed. An emboldened Quad or upward determination for Kishida’s new impassioned call for greater nuclear umbrella guarantees from Washington as has been seen in the case of Suk-yeol will only entrap Kim’s maneuvering space further. Xi is further confined with the three-front encirclement from Tokyo and increasingly Seoul, with Taiwan being largely a confirmed permanent resident of Washington’s security backing periphery with the sealed fate of the long held strategic ambiguity dependence.
Xi is strategic in the sphere of maintaining current equilibrium with these in mind, fully aware of the potential double-edged sword posed by Kim and in calculating the cost-benefit balance in his current approach. Xi realizes that for as much as Kim will be able to delay and distract Tokyo and Washington in coming up with the right and effective approach in denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, Kim will face the ultimate looming fate of losing the long-term confrontation. This current mechanism is unsurprisingly costly and unsustainable for Pyongyang to sustain, without risking further irreparable damage to its economic and national survival, now further in the doldrum following the explosion of Covid-19 penetration. It remains costly both to his regime’s survival and to his nation’s tipping point. The numbers game has always been asymmetric in nature, and there is no viable path for Pyongyang other than the previous dependable first strike deterrence which Kim is fully aware that if he really was to go ahead with striking the first nuclear missile, he would also practically sign the death warrant to his regime with the subsequent unmatched retaliatory second-strike responses by Washington.
As it stands, current brinkmanship threats are defined from the lenses of exerting greater chips and cards and in reasserting greater concessions from the South and the US for now, with expectations for the equal recognition and physical support given for Kim to assert his own narrative and terms of shaping the agenda sitting framework either for peace building negotiations or in reducing barriers for non-military contact support and exchanges. While deemed as not a potential systemic and structural competitor and long-term sustaining threat to the survival of the current regional order and the ultimate staying power of the US unlike China, it remains a stubborn and indistinguishable headache and Achilles heel for the West and the affiliated parties keen to refocus their efforts on China.
The Quad will likely maintain its laser focus on China for as long as Kim is able to keep the composure and not to overstep the red line, as the four-nation group will need the structural and systemic justification and pulling factor in expanding its membership and role. Already facing greater countermeasures from China in stalling its regional outreach and where Beijing is keen to exert more divisive fractions in the pact by smart early bilateral approaches and reorientation of it charm offensive push, Quad will need further impetus to break the deep-rooted economic entanglement and grip Beijing has enjoyed for years with the regional players in order to create openings for the pivot. It finds greater momentum and unified internal confidence now, which will ease hampering barriers and stimulate greater efficacy of increased coordinated efforts in a more unified front.
If Kim decides to up his ante and oversteps his own charted strategic lines, Quad will be poised to be in the leadership role in the global and regional movement and voice in both the de-escalation and crisis management measures with Pyongyang. If push comes to shove and prospects of deterrence impact continue to deteriorate, the Quad with its existing synergized coordination and growing collective deterrence will likely still be the last dependable front in salvaging the order and status quo of the Indo-Pacific, lacking any credible alternative with the persistent moves by Beijing to prevent both the expansion of Quad and the formation of a new pact, even when the end target is intended for Pyongyang.
The new directions and foreign policy shifts with potential for early strategic reset and recalibrations in relations under the new leaderships of Marcos Jr and Anthony Albanese might provide some new balances in the current tightrope facing Beijing, further trapped by the increasing vocal stances and solidarity displayed throughout Biden’s charm offensive in the region. Otherwise, he faces the same fate of Kim in playing the losing game of holding out their staying power in the long run where Uncle Sam will still be having the last laugh, albeit reluctantly.
Kim might opt for the shorter-term strategic patience, intertwined with phased escalations in pushing Biden to maintain the current status quo with no systemic challenge to current calibrations of the peninsula’s sole offensive nuclear capacity projection. This is projected by Kim to be played out over the remaining two years of Biden presidency, pinning hopes for the anticipated return of Trump where Kim will be given the space and trust once again in setting the exit agenda on his pace and terms. Hard truth and reality on the long-term fate of his nuclear dependence have been lingering on Kim and he will look for the best strategic opening and avenue in dictating the exit on his terms with enough face saving and honorable tools that will also cement his legacy in the North and in the history books. Trump is the only option and persona that will be able to give him just that.
Collins Chong Yew Keat has been serving in University of Malaya for more than 9 years. His areas of focus include strategic and security studies, America’s foreign policy and power projection, regional conflicts and power parity analysis and has published various publications on numerous platforms including books and chapter articles. He is also a regular contributor in providing op-eds and analytical articles for both the local and international media on various contemporary global issues and regional affairs since 2007.