The ‘Lippmann Gap’ in Asia: Four Challenges to a Credible U.S. Strategy
Vice President Mike Pence struck a confident tone at last month’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. The South China Sea, he reminded the audience, “doesn’t belong to any one nation…the United States will continue to fly and sail wherever international law allows.” Pence’s was similarly upbeat on the Korean peninsula , noting that the administration’s strategy had “borne results. No more tests. No more missiles.” This message of resolve sought to reassure U.S. allies that America remains unwaveringly committed to its strategy. But should it be?
In both the South China Sea and North Korea, U.S. strategy has lost its way. Adm. Phil Davidson, commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, warned in senate testimony in April that China “is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war.” Similarly, a stream of reporting has confirmed that Kim Jong-Un’s weapons programs are alive and well. This gap between U.S. rhetoric and the realities on the ground has become impossible to ignore. It’s a position Samuel Huntington referred to as “the Lippmann gap”— a nod to Walter Lippmann’s argument that foreign policy becomes insolvent when a nation loses the equilibrium between its commitments and means. The United States has lost this equilibrium in North Korea and the South China Sea.
In each case, the United States staked out a status quo position without fully reconciling the interests, strategy, and resources necessary to credibly defend this stance. Then, as defending the status quo became costlier, the United States failed to make necessary course corrections to develop a more solvent policy.
Critiquing the shortcomings of U.S. strategy in North Korea and the South China Sea has become a frequent exercise of late. Individual analysis of each case can provide valuable insights, but overlooks important commonalities in how and why U.S. strategy went awry. This article points to four specific challenges that the United States faced in both Asian theaters an asymmetry of interests; the problem of incrementalism; imposing costs short of military action; and weak coalitions. Understanding how these geopolitical obstacles constrained and undercut U.S. strategy, and how to address these obstacles in the future, is important not just for bringing the United States to a more solvent position in North Korea and the South China Sea. It can also yield important lessons about the evolving landscape of competition in the Indo-Pacific and how the United States will need to adapt its strategy going forward.
Challenges to U.S. Strategy
The Interest Asymmetry Challenge
Perhaps the most fundamental problem for the United States in North Korea and the South China Sea has been defining its interests in a credible way. In many ways, this reflects U.S. strategists’ longstanding struggle over how to draw America’s forward defense line in Asia, which Michael Green suggests often made it hard for policymakers to identify America’s geostrategic interests on the Korean Peninsula and in Southeast Asia on their own terms.
Consecutive U.S. administrations have asserted strong national interests in maintaining a non-nuclear Korean peninsula and in the stability of the South China Sea. But the intensity of their rhetoric masked an underlying weakness in the U.S. position: There is a fundamental asymmetry between U.S. interests and those of China and North Korea. China and North Korea are pursuing interests they see as directed related to regime security. As early as 2010, China was referring to the South China Sea as one of its “core interests,” implicitly putting it on par with Taiwan, Tibet, and other territorial sovereignty concerns. Similarly, Kim has referred to North Korea’s nuclear program as a “treasured sword” that offers a “reliable war deterrent.”
By contrast, America’s primary concerns are broader interests : regional stability, freedom of navigation, nuclear non-proliferation, and the security of its East Asian allies. It’s only North Korea’s recent operational advances in its nuclear and missile programs that have brought more fundamental U.S. interests (protection of the homeland) into play.
This mismatch in commitment made it inherently harder for American strategy to be credible. Ultimately, Chinese and North Korean leaders were willing to risk more to change the status quo than Americans have been comfortable risking to preserve it. Over the past decade, this has frequently emboldened China and North Korea while creating a more risk-averse U.S. strategy that stood at odds with the resolve of U.S. rhetoric.
The Challenge of Incrementalism
Following from this problem is a second challenge: the failure to adequately adjust to China and North Korea’s “grey zone” strategies. Such strategies are expressly designed to alter the status quo in an incremental, ambiguous way that “stay[s] below the threshold of conventional war.” Because U.S. interests were broad, it became harder to precisely pinpoint how any particular action directly threatened them. This gave China and North Korea numerous paths to achieve their objectives.
In the South China Sea, the United States forcefully laid out a “national interest” in freedom of navigation, open commerce, and respect for international law. But China steadily undercut these interests with its salami-slicing tactics: stepping up maritime patrols and challenges to U.S. and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) vessels; establishing new legal regulations and administrative districts in disputed areas; and creating de facto maritime zones of control. While the United States vigorously objected to many actions and urged restraint, its neutral stance on sovereignty and unwillingness to more directly deter Chinese activities undermined the credibility of U.S. policy.
China’s incremental approach not only made it harder for U.S. policymakers to determine how to deter and respond to provocations; it also made it easier for China to hide the strategic impact of changes in the status quo until it was too late. Take, for example, China’s South China Sea land reclamation campaign. By the time the Department of Defense published the first full accounting of Chinese land reclamation in its 2015 Asia-Pacific Maritime Strategy, nearly 90 percent of current reclamation in the Spratly Islands was already complete. Although the United States continued to bang the drum and encourage more unified diplomatic opposition to reclamation, China had already moved on to militarization of its new islands.
North Korea has similarly used incremental nuclear and missile tests, sometimes disguised as “satellite tests,” to advance its operational capabilities. It has also employed a range of asymmetric provocations — for example, the 2014 Sony Pictures hack — to achieve its objectives. While these actions have had consequences, each on its own was unlikely to risk an outright war. This has allowed North Korea to quietly and steadily move toward its goals, repeatedly putting the United States back on its heels about how to address developments such as new ballistic missiles, the surprise reveal of an advanced uranium enrichment facility, and the apparent testing of a hydrogen bomb. Each successive step forward exacerbated America’s solvency problem, while increasing the costs of rolling back to a status quo ante. Equally damaging, these incremental tactics forced the United States into a defensive, reactive position, playing the strategic equivalent of whack-a-mole.
The Cost Imposition Challenge
The third challenge is that, absent a more credible military deterrent, the United States struggled to find adequate non-military means of deterring Chinese and North Korean actions or imposing costs for their provocations. Instead, the United States repeatedly turned to its military toolkit–— pursuing freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea and conducting strategic bomber overflights over the Korean peninsula.
In some cases, the problem was how to impose diplomatic costs without threatening other competing interests. This proved to be particularly difficult as the U.S.-China relationship expanded and grew to encompass a wider range of regional and global priorities. The Obama administration moved aggressively to increase economic sanctions on North Korea, but the desire to maintain some degree of cooperation from China limited more aggressive efforts to impose secondary sanctions on entities such as Chinese banks. The Trump administration’s early hesitance in taking a tougher line on the South China Sea while it was working to woo China over North Korea suggests a similar calculus. In other instances, America’s reluctance to become more directly involved — for example, the lack of clarity surrounding U.S. treaty commitments to the Philippines — limited its ability to more credibly deter changes to the status quo.
But a more fundamental challenge in both cases is that the United States has chronically under-invested in the non-military components of its foreign policy. This puts it at a distinct disadvantage in competing with China’s aggressive deployment of diplomatic and economic resources across the region. Even as the Obama administration enhanced U.S. force posture across Asia, a 2014 Senate Foreign Relations Committee report noted that funding for the State Department’s East Asia and Pacific Bureau had remained relatively flat. Since 2014, those funding levels have steadily declined, even as China has poured money into public diplomacy investments. In Southeast Asia, China has successfully wooed ASEAN member states such as Cambodia, while the Trump administration has yet to nominate an ambassador to ASEAN and has proposed cuts to USAID funding that would slash popular programs like environmental assistance. Similarly, the steady erosion of the U.S. foreign service corps has left the Trump administration scrambling for experienced diplomats to manage complex diplomacy on the Korean peninsula.
The Coalition Challenge
Finally, the lack of a stronger, more unified coalition of partners repeatedly hobbled American strategy. Unable to deter provocations and impose costs unilaterally, the United States needed a stronger multilateral coalition. But while it has a broad network of bilateral ties across the Indo-Pacific, it faces deep obstacles to building coalitions in the region.
In dealing with North Korea, the most capable party — China — did not share U.S. interests, and traditional allies were consistently reluctant to coordinate more closely with each other. Similarly, in the South China Sea, lack of unity among ASEAN claimants hampered the U.S. ability to pursue a more assertive diplomatic strategy. Compounding this problem, the Indo-Pacific lacks strong regional institutions that could provide a more effective platform to rally diplomatic pressure. In 2012, ASEAN ministers notoriously failed to issue a joint communique for the first time in history due to China’s effective pressure on Cambodia to prevent mention of the South China Sea.
The coalition challenge has military implications as well. Efforts to enhance trilateral cooperation in Northeast Asia — an important element of better deterring North Korean provocations — often foundered due to tensions between Japan and South Korea. Similarly, both the Obama and Trump administrations have endeavored to establish greater maritime domain awareness capabilities for Southeast Asian partners in the South China Sea, but U.S. partners’ reluctance to more fully share and network their capabilities has made this process more difficult.
Toward a More Credible Strategy
It’s of course easy to identify problems in hindsight. But it’s also easy to see how readily certain factors often tipped the scale toward strategic stasis. At various points, such as North Korea’s development of an intercontinental ballistic missile and China’s militarization campaign, the United States lacked clarity about the true depth of the problem, making it easy to underestimate how quickly incremental changes were creating new strategic realities and overestimate the U.S. ability to reverse the tide. Concerns about maintaining credibility with allies and emboldening other competitors incentivized U.S. policymakers to hold the line. In the South China Sea, officials were frequently reminded that U.S. actions were seen as a symbol of its broader commitments in the region.
However, the United States has fanned the flames of its own credibility problems by maintaining a rhetorical stance that has become increasingly misaligned with facts on the ground. In spite of his critiques of the Obama administration’s policies, President Donald Trump has done little to address this problem. If anything, the solvency gap is only deepening. The administration’s strong words are markedly at odds with China’s continued deployment of new capabilities in the South China Sea and North Korea’s ongoing production of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
The United States will need to reassess its approach if it wants to reverse current trends. The following questions can frame the beginnings of a needed debate about the contours of a more sustainable and competitive U.S. strategy — not just in North Korea and the South China Sea, but across the Indo-Pacific.
How Can the United States Reframe Its Interests More Credibly and Precisely?
America’s inability to precisely articulate a credible set of interests in North Korea and the South China Sea has significantly hampered its strategy. In some cases, the precise nature of U.S. interests and its willingness to defend those interests were unclear. Take, for example, America’s stated interests in freedom of navigation or and commerce in the South China Sea. U.S. policymakers repeatedly affirmed these interests without more specifically describing what types of activities were of particular interest to the United States— for example, uncontested fishing rights in international waters or free passage for commercial ships — or the consequences of impinging on these interests. As a recent report argues, this ambiguity played into China’s hands, allowing it to exploit U.S. ambiguity to undermine the credibility of its commitments. At other times, the problem was the failure to better reconcile competing interests. In North Korea, the U.S. goal of preventing proliferation directly clashed with the desire to maintain stability and avoid conflict in Northeast Asia, making it harder to secure either objective.
The United States needs to reassess its interests with greater precision going forward. Is “denuclearization” the most immediate U.S. interest in North Korea? Or is it preventing a devastating war? Must the United States eliminate potential nuclear threats, or is it sufficient to deter them? In the South China Sea, is militarization the most urgent priority? Or is it preventing coercion of allies and partners? There may be valid disagreements about the answers to these questions, but revisiting the issue forces an intentional discussion of where the United States should focus its attention and where it is willing to accept risk. Specifying which actions would provoke a U.S. response, an approach the Obama administration used in 2016 to warn China against reclamation at Scarborough Shoal, can also help bolster credibility. While these efforts won’t roll back current gains, they can at least help stabilize a new status quo.
Where Can America Play Diplomatic Offense?
Maintaining a status quo strategy in a more competitive environment forces the United States into a reactive position. In dealing with North Korea and China, the United States appeared perpetually on its back feet, chasing a response to the last provocation rather than deterring the next one. By contrast, instances when the United States managed to seize the diplomatic initiative — for example, the surprise coalition of nations Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rallied at the 2010 ASEAN Regional Forum, or the Trump administration’s unexpectedly forceful global push to enforce North Korean sanctions — proved some of the most successful instances of U.S. strategy.
The United States needs to become more comfortable with going on diplomatic offense and move away from the idea that maintaining the status quo is an end in itself. In a more contested environment, it will be both more efficient and more effective to pursue a strategy that seizes the initiative, defining the landscape and terms of competition in a way that play to America’s advantages.
The Trump administration appears to be warming to the idea of going on offense with its focus on great power competition. And it deserves credit for several savvy recent moves, including establishing funding for private sector-led infrastructure development, pushing a new transparency initiative, and pursuing a trilateral military access arrangement with Australia and Papua New Guinea. But it will also be important to for the United States to choose its moves wisely going forward. Strengthening government oversight of potential Chinese investments is an important step that helps protect U.S. technological advantages and can enhance American competitiveness. A more sweeping effort to decouple the U.S. economy from the Chinese economy, by contrast, would risk alienating U.S. partners and be far more likely to fail. As my former colleague Van Jackson has warned, competition can lead nations to overplay their hand, “misperceiving the interests at stake, making bets that have very low odds of paying off, and taking risks that outweigh rewards.”
What Are the Non-Military Pressure Points?
U.S. rhetoric tends to focus on the military dimension of the North Korea and the South China Sea threats. While the military questions are certainly significant, the United States needs to more fully utilize the non-military tools at its disposal, in the region and elsewhere. With a clear legal ruling in hand from the U.N. Permanent Court of Arbitration, the United States and allies ought to begin strategizing about how to support better enforcement of the court’s findings in the South China Sea. This could include imposing economic and diplomatic consequences on China for preventing Southeast Asian claimants from exploiting their own exclusive economic zones. Similarly, the United States could expand the scope of its negotiations with North Korea to include human rights and economic development, providing additional potential leverage points for negotiation.
The most important landscape for strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific will not be in the military realm, but in areas like economics, global governance, and technology. Under President Xi Jinping, China is advancing a national strategy to achieve dominance in artificial intelligence, reform global institutions, and pursue mercantilist economic policies across the Indo-Pacific region. If the United States does not revitalize its diplomatic and economic toolboxes, it will fail in meeting these challenges. Here too, the Trump administration has taken some positive steps to develop new initiatives, but its rather draconian approach to funding U.S. civilian agencies will undermine these efforts, if not reverse them. No amount of defense funding will substitute for a better-resourced diplomatic strategy.
How Can America Shore Up Its Team?
At a moment when China is actively challenging U.S. leadership in the Indo-Pacific, and the U.S. president is openly questioning the utility of treaty commitments, shoring up U.S. diplomatic relationships ought to be the top priority in the region. In conversations with regional partners, I often hear relief that the United States is taking a more assertive approach to China coupled with deep anxiety about the president’s commitment to U.S. allies. Ironically, regional anxiety about China’s rise and U.S. withdrawal has had an unexpected silver lining: It is driving some of the most significant efforts in years to bolster intra-regional cooperation, and pushing allies outside the Indo-Pacific, such as the United Kingdom and France, to play a more meaningful role in the region.
The United States can take advantage of these shifts. In the South China Sea, willing partners such as Australia, the United Kingdom, and France appear eager to coordinate more closely with the United States. But they will need to see a more substantial strategy than merely executing repeated freedom of navigation operations. As one Australian colleague explained to me: “Why should we stick our necks out for something like this without any indication that there’s a bigger plan?” Beyond the South China Sea, the United States has an opportunity to put a dent in its long-standing coalition challenges. Promoting closer ties between the United States, Australia, and Japan, as well as America’s Five Eyes Partners would help make strategic and operational coordination a more regular way of doing business in Asia. The president may see international relationships as transactional, but the path to successful competition in the Indo-Pacific will begin and end with the strength of America’s partnerships.
The South China Sea and North Korea cases should be seen as a warning sign, but they need not suggest impending doom. The United States has navigated similar solvency gaps and strategic uncertainty in the past. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates observed: “history’s dustbin is littered with dictators and aggressors who underestimated America’s resilience, will, and underlying power.” But the history of the Indo-Pacific is also replete with examples of strategic statis — in Korea, in Vietnam, and now in Afghanistan — that damaged American credibility and undermined its security interests.
The Trump administration deserves credit for pushing back on China’s problematic behavior in Asia. But continued problems in North Korea and the South China Sea suggest the need for a more robust debate about how America can best lead and compete going forward. As the region becomes more contested, simply reassuring partners that “America is in the Indo-Pacific to stay” will no longer suffice. Shifting power balances will give China, and other nations, an incentive to test and probe existing rules and arrangements more frequently. The United States cannot push back against every one of these efforts, nor should it. Going forward, the United States will need greater certainty in articulating what matters and why — to the American public, to its allies, and to China. Far from being a strategy of decline or defeat, this approach will sustain U.S. advantages by focusing its attention on those interests that matter most.
America retains tremendous political, economic, and strategic advantages in the Indo-Pacific. And allies and partners are eager to see the United States lay out a credible regional strategy that more effectively plays this hand. At the end of the day, dealing with Asia’s Lippmann gaps and crafting a more competitive approach won’t just serve U.S. interests. It will advance the security of the region as well.
Lindsey Ford is the Director for Political-Security Affairs and Richard Holbrooke Fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute. She previously served as a senior advisor on Asia-Pacific affairs in the Department of Defense from 2009 to 2015.
Image: U.S. Navy/David Flewellyn