The United States has begun modernizing its nuclear program even as the Trump administration continues to inject new uncertainties into the future of U.S. nuclear policy and the U.S.-China nuclear and strategic security relationship. Efforts to maintain strategic stability between Washington and Beijing are also facing challenges from U.S. allies in the region. Japan worries that a stable U.S.-China nuclear relationship would embolden China to take more aggressive military action against Japan and other regional actors. South Korea has also expressed concerns over how the U.S.-China relationship may impact U.S. deterrence and security guarantees for South Korea.

Carnegie–Tsinghua Center Fellow Tong Zhao moderated a discussion with Li Bin, Han Hua, Wu Riqiang, and Lora Saalman on the ways in which Japan and South Korea are influencing the U.S.-China strategic relationship and how the United States and China can maintain stability in the Asia-Pacific region. 

Discussion Highlights

  • Regional Perceptions of China: One panelist argued that some U.S. strategic allies have exacerbated tensions in the Asia-Pacific. They offered as examples Japan and South Korea, which are concerned about China’s growing nuclear capabilities, which have expanded thanks to the previously stable relationship between Washington and Beijing. Japan’s foreign policy, a panelist said, has been driven in recent years by the fear that China could adopt a more aggressive behavior in East Asia. As one of the key U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific, they added, South Korea also has a vested interest in maintaining strategic stability. But some panelists argued that newly-elected President Moon Jae-in’s decision to activate the terminal high altitude area defense (THAAD) missile system as strategy defense mechanism against North Korea has raised alarms in the region, particularly from China. Given the fragile balance in the region and nuclear threats coming from North Korea, many panelists called for diplomatic dialogue among all of the actors involved.
  • China’s Viewpoint: Some panelists argued that China’s perception of local instability is a result of the United States exerting influence over South Korea and Japan. The discussants agreed that part of the uncertainty extends from an increase in U.S. nuclear operations, which the panelists said would not cause alarm if they were conducted in the United States. A panelist said that China is advocating that the United States withdraw its protection over both Japan and South Korea.
  • Balancing Alliances in the Asia-Pacific: Vulnerability in U.S.-China nuclear relations hinders a dialogue between both the two actors and U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific, one panelist said. The United States should consider the concerns raised by Japan and South Korea, a panelist added. Panelists warned that the United States now risks losing its credibility as a security provider, in part due to internal difficulties within the new U.S. administration and also because of its lack of assuring its strategic allies that it would come to their defense.

Tong Zhao

Tong Zhao is a fellow in Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Program based at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy.

Li Bin

Li is a senior fellow working jointly in the Nuclear Policy Program and the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 

Han Hua

Han Hua is an associate professor at Peking University and director of the Center for Arms Control and Disarmament in the university’s School of International Studies. 

Wu Riqiang 

Wu is an associate professor at the School of International Studies at Renmin University.

Lora Saalman

Lora Saalman is a senior associate and director, China and Global Security Project, at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).