The deteriorating global security environment, including in the Asia-Pacific region, risks undermining the existing nuclear order. Regional policy-making is shaped by heightened threat perceptions due to factors such as North Korea’s aggressive nuclear and military activities, China’s assertiveness in the region, and a worsening strategic competition between the United States and China.
In an increasingly volatile regional environment, the governments of Australia, Japan, and South Korea are making strategic choices to address the risks that these developments pose to their national security. Meanwhile, the UK is working to strengthen its engagement in the Asia-Pacific. Understanding how actors in the Asia-Pacific perceive and react to evolving strategic risks is important to promote regional and global stability and reduce negative impact on the non-proliferation regime.
In the framework of a joint APLN-ELN project funded by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), experts and officials from Australia, Japan, South Korea, and the UK identified strategic risks emanating from a shared set of concerns, notably North Korea’s nuclear posture and China’s assertive behaviour, as well as twin concerns over a potential US retreat from the region and the risk of entrapment in a conflict of somebody else’s choosing. Yet, there was disagreement on the relative immediacy and significance of these threats as well as on their impact on the global nuclear order.
All four states view North Korea’s aggressive nuclear posture as a “strategic” risk, though they disagree on its degree of immediacy. South Korea perceives potential North Korean military aggression as the most direct threat, as does Japan, which would be a likely target for a North Korean nuclear strike in such a conflict scenario. The UK is, for geographical reasons, less concerned about any direct threat from North Korea than about the impact of Pyongyang’s policies on nuclear risks in the region more broadly. Australia is assured that the US presence in the region suffices to manage the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, which it ranks below concerns over China’s military expansion and assertiveness in the region.
In contrast to the perception of North Korea as a relatively narrow nuclear threat, the findings of this project suggest that Australia, Japan, South Korea, and the UK see much broader “strategic” risks emerging from China’s assertive foreign policy, which is backed up by its economic clout and expanding nuclear arsenal. Australia and Japan are most concerned about the direct threat posed to their sovereignty by Chinese behaviour, particularly around Taiwan, and the risk of being dragged into an armed conflict with China. By contrast, South Korea and the UK are more apprehensive of the wider disruptive effects of a confrontation involving China on regional stability, based on economic as well as security and proliferation concerns.
In light of the perceived strategic risks stemming from China and North Korea, the three Asia-Pacific states seek to balance their desire for US assurance against their fear of entrapment. Mirroring these sentiments, most British participants considered the US presence in the region a stabilising factor, but some also warned against forcing regional states to choose sides.
While the war in Ukraine is perceived as a direct strategic risk by the UK, it serves as an additional prism through which Australia, Japan, and South Korea assess their security environment. However, they disagree on its implications for the region. Some are concerned that North Korea and China might seek to replicate the way in which Russia has used nuclear threats to shield its war of aggression against Ukraine, while others believe that the war has demonstrated the costs of aggression. Consequently, there is also no consensus on whether the Russian invasion of Ukraine has made a Chinese invasion of Taiwan more or less likely.
British, Japanese, and Australian participants were apprehensive of both regional proliferation and broader stresses on the non-proliferation regime. South Korean analysts appeared comparatively less concerned. Throughout the project, many raised concerns over the viability of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The Chinese nuclear modernisation was perceived as undermining the NPT, but potential South Korean proliferation and a subsequent domino effect on Japan were also mentioned as a potential risk. The Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) security pact was not viewed as a proliferation concern by any of the four countries, but some analysts acknowledged that it had become a divisive issue that could undermine international unity on non-proliferation issues.
- Australia, Japan, South Korea, and the UK should coordinate their efforts in groups such as the G20, the G7, and the P5 to call for high-level US and Chinese commitments to an official Track 1 dialogue. Australia, Japan, South Korea, and the UK should also encourage engagement with China on the value of crisis communication channels and seek the resumption of military-to-military crisis communication channels between the United States and China or set up their own bilateral or multilateral channels with China.
- Within the NPT framework, Australia, Japan, South Korea, and the UK should encourage the launch of a new working group (or groups) as part of the current review cycle to develop targeted risk reduction measures, including through discussions on risk escalation scenarios and by exploring synergies between existing risk reduction initiatives.
- The UK, supported by Australia, Japan, and South Korea, should engage China on disarmament verification by sharing their experience from participating in verification initiatives and by facilitating the development of cooperative disarmament verification initiatives for the region.
- To address South Korea’s primary security concern – the risk of direct aggression from North Korea – the UK and Australia should provide additional support to Seoul on the basis of a clearly articulated condition that it does not take any concrete steps towards acquiring its own nuclear weapons. Such aid could take the form of continued low-key military cooperation with South Korea. The UK, in particular, could also take a greater role in working with South Korea on technological developments, and intelligence and cyber-security issues.
- Australia, Japan, and the UK should use existing diplomatic channels to communicate the economic, political, and security implications of nuclear armament to South Korea. In particular, they should make clear that any move towards nuclear weapons acquisition or development will be met with tough sanctions, especially against the South Korean nuclear industry.
- The South Korean and Japanese administrations should build on the current positive momentum to solidify a bilateral framework that includes regular exchanges on both senior and working levels.
- As Japan shares South Korea’s concern over North Korean aggression, while also being apprehensive of South Korean calls for nuclear armament, both countries should consider developing exchanges on potential scenarios and responses to a North Korean attack. Eventually this could enable Japan to agree to provide some form of aid (whether troops, arms, or medical care) to South Korea in the case of North Korean aggression – on the strict condition that Seoul does not take any steps towards nuclear armament.
About the Authors
Anna Clara Arndt is a Policy Fellow for Global Security and Nuclear Policy at the European Leadership Network (ELN). Her research interests include nuclear policy and strategic stability issues as well as transatlantic security.
Dr Maximilian Hoell is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Center for Global Security Research at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and previously a senior policy fellow at the European Leadership Network.
Joel Petersson Ivre is a Policy Fellow at APLN. His research interest lies in Asia-Pacific security issues, with a focus on Chinese politics and foreign policy and nuclear issues on the Korean Peninsula.
Alice Saltini is Research Coordinator for the European Leadership Network, where she contributes to research projects on arms control, strategic risk reduction and emerging technologies, and a CTBTO-CENESS research fellow.
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.