Asia-Pacific Flashpoints: Comparing Australian, Japanese, South Korean & UK perceptions
Asia-Pacific Strategic Risks

Asia-Pacific Flashpoints: Comparing Australian, Japanese, South Korean & UK perceptions

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Executive Summary

The risk of conflict in the Asia-Pacific is a growing concern for Australia, Japan, and South Korea and, to some extent, for countries with significant strategic interests in the region, such as the UK. Building on previous work, this report explores differing risk perceptions towards China and North Korea as potential obstacles to policy coordination between Australia, Japan, South Korea, and the UK.

This project examined the views of experts and civilian officials on escalation scenarios in the context of the Taiwan Strait and the Korean Peninsula. In in-depth interviews with 24 experts and 17 officials from the four countries, those interviewed provided their assessment of the likelihood of each escalation risk, and the level of impact on their own countries. The project identified three types of risk perception:

  • Acute: risks perceived as likely and as having a direct impact on national security if realised.
  • Serious: risks not perceived as likely, but as having a direct impact on national security if realised.
  • Latent: risks perceived as unlikely, and as having an indirect impact, at most, on national security if realised.

The project finds that there is some degree of consensus among participants from the four countries on the drivers of escalation risks in the Taiwan Strait. They all view this risk as either latent or serious, and unlikely to materialise in the short term. But participants are concerned about the risk of conflict around Taiwan increasing in the longer term.

Opinions diverge more notably between South Korean participants and the others regarding escalation risks on the Korean Peninsula. South Koreans consider this risk acute, whereas most others seem to consider the risk latent.

Participants from all countries underlined the critical role of the United States as a policy coordinator. Australia, Japan, and South Korea rely on the Americans as alliance managers, to set the security agenda and oversee extended deterrence priorities. Despite this reliance, some states question US resolve and hence seek to enhance their national military capabilities. The emphasis on deterrence — both nuclear and conventional — tends to diminish the importance of inclusive multilateral approaches to maintaining stability in favour of smaller, purpose-built security partnerships.

Given the limited experience these four countries have when it comes to managing security discussions among themselves, absent the United States, the report offers a few preliminary recommendations for how to address this deficiency.

Increasing alertness: continuously reassess strategic risks and remain aware of ‘moving targets’

  • Joint annual surveys that measure perceptions of escalation risks and record military developments could provide a useful basis for comparison and adjustment of policies.
  • Continuously modelling the interplay between emerging technologies and their impact on escalation, strategic stability, and policy coordination is a necessary part of this broader task.
  • Multi-year projects that engage security partners in comparative risk assessment at the Track 2 and Track 1.5 levels can help develop better policies to address rapid strategic change in Northeast Asia and adequately deal with these ‘moving targets.’

Improving coordination: enhance capacity-building and networking among experts

  • Analytical capacity-building is needed to address deterrence challenges, including via dialogue that aims to increase predictability among security partners, and discussion on the types of assurances that are needed to reduce tensions with China and North Korea.
  • Experts should analyse how legal and normative frameworks, such as the nuclear non-proliferation regime, can be better used to reduce tensions around North Korea and Taiwan.
  • Scenario-based exercises in Track 2 formats should be used to improve understanding between the three Asia-Pacific countries when it comes to their thinking on risks, and to develop instruments to reduce escalation risks in crisis situations. Exercises should address US retrenchment scenarios and test the participants’ responses to signals from Chinese and North Korean leaders. The UK, as an actor from outside the region, could host such games in neutral locations.

Updating the security agenda: bring North Korea back

  • Policymakers must refocus their attention on North Korea’s nuclear activities. The tendency among experts and officials in Australia, Japan, the UK (and the US) to treat nuclear risks on the Korean Peninsula as secondary to those in the Taiwan Strait appears to have cultivated a sense of resignation in South Korea that it must ‘go it alone’.
  • Bringing North Korea back on the security agenda could reduce proliferation pressures in South Korea and help bolster strategic stability in Northeast Asia.
  • Towards this end, regional partners and the UK, should combine more explicit positive guarantees towards South Korea with incentives for North Korea to curtail nuclear activities and provocative policies.

About the Authors

Joel Petersson Ivre is Policy Fellow at the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network.

Rishi Paul is Senior Policy Fellow at the European Leadership Network.

Alice Saltini is Policy Fellow at the European Leadership Network.

Tanya Ogilvie-White is Senior Research Adviser at the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network.

Oliver Meier is Research and Policy Director at the European Leadership Network.

The opinions articulated in this report represent the views of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network and the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network, or any of their members, boards or funders.

Image: iStock

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