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U.S.-China Competition and Implications for the Korean Peninsula

A picture of Abraham Denmark in front of green foliage

Abraham M. Denmark's remarks to the Seoul Defense Dialogue 2018 Plenary Session II: Strategic Balance in Northeast Asia: Cooperation and Confidence Building

U.S.-China Competition and Implications for the Korean Peninsula

On September 13, 2018 Asia Program Director Abraham M. Denmark spoke at the Seoul Defense Dialogue 2018 for Plenary Session II: Strategic Balance in Northeast Asia: Cooperation and Confidence Building.  Below are his prepared remarks.

US-China Competition and Implications for the Korean Peninsula

Good morning. Ladies and gentlemen, it is an honor to be ask to come again to the Seoul Defense Dialogue. The issue being discussed during this session is critical to the future of the region, and I would like to thank the organizers of this conference for including me in such a distinguished panel. I should note at the outset that these are my views alone, and not those of the Wilson Center or of the U.S. government.

In the first decade of the 21st century, China’s remarkable, historically unprecedented rise led to what some called a “dual-hierarchical” order in the Asia-Pacific: an uneasy pattern whereby China became central to the region’s economic prosperity while the United States remained central to the region’s security.[1]

Asia’s middle powers found solace in this balance of power because it allowed them to engage China and share in the benefits of its remarkable economic development without fear of domination from Beijing or overdependence on the United States.

But Asia’s “dual hierarchy” appears increasingly unsustainable. China’s geopolitical power increasingly involves military as well as political and economic tools, and Beijing has in recent years demonstrated a greater willingness to accept tension and turbulence with its neighbors in the pursuit of its interests. Moreover, questions about the sustainability and reliability of American power, though persistent since the 2008 financial crisis, have intensified since the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States. Nuclear weapons and emerging military technologies have become more salient to regional security dynamics.  Defense spending is on the rise in countries large and small. Competition between the region’s largest powers has supplanted cooperation as the geopolitical basis for relations between China and the United States.

And Asia’s liberal democracies are all facing hard strategic choices as the existing liberal order shows signs of weakness. 

The long-simmering geopolitical competition between China and the United States has recently burst out into the open. The dynamics of competition between Beijing and Washington will have profound implications for the Indo-Pacific generally, and for the Korean Peninsula in particular.

Although competition had been discussed as a feature of U.S.-China relations for several years, it was explicitly placed at the center of the relationship when the Trump administration published its National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy. By stating that China is challenging American power, influence, and interests across the region, and that inter-state strategic competition was prioritized above terrorism as the primary concern in U.S. security, the Trump administration made clear its assessment of the state of U.S.-China relations.[2]

The Trump administration’s acknowledgement of geopolitical competition is – in my opinion – well founded. As China’s economy has grown, it has successfully built significant political influence across the region and built an advanced military capability that may soon challenge American military primacy in Asia. Yet more significantly, Beijing has begun to utilize its power to construct alternative – and often illiberal – political and economic architectures that circumvent established institutions and reflect Beijing’s interests and prerogatives.

China today is a confident economic and political power that is charting its own path in both domestic and international affairs. It is increasingly assertive in international affairs and is willing to tolerate turbulence and risk in the pursuit of its interests. Moreover, China is investing in advanced technologies and military capabilities that will put it in the economic driver’s seat for the coming decades, and has demonstrated an ability to use all elements of national power in the pursuit of its strategic goals.

This places China in direct geopolitical competition with the United States, which seeks to both preserve its own power and influence in the region while also preserving a liberal order that has enabled stability and prosperity to develop across the region for decades.

Competition between China and the United States is likely to play out across the Indo-Pacific and over every aspect of national power. In this context, I expect that neither side continues to hold faith in the idea that cooperation will significant reduce distrust or will build habits of cooperation. Instead, cooperation will likely be focused on single issues areas in which the national interests of both sides converge. In this sense, confidence-building measures should focus on agreements and mechanisms that enhance stability and strengthen each sides’ ability to manage crises.[3]

These dynamics will have significant implications for the Korean peninsula. Thought leaders in both Beijing and Washington increasingly view dynamics on the Korean Peninsula through the lens of major power competition, which will fundamentally define the options that each side pursues.

As a result of major power competition, I expect that China’s objectives on Korean peninsula have expanded beyond traditional concerns about avoiding war and opposing a nuclear North Korea to include broader ambitions to diminish American power in the region and circumscribe its role on the Korean peninsula. Thus, any initiative to enhance the U.S.-ROK Alliance will be seen by many in Beijing as counter to China’s interests, even if these initiatives may be a completely justified reaction to North Korean belligerence that does nothing to impact Chinese interests beyond its implications for the continued strength and relevance of American regional power.

For its part, many in Washington see China behind the persistent challenges it faces in negotiations with North Korea. Recall that President Trump has repeatedly – and, in my opinion, unfairly, blamed China for North Korea’s lack of progress toward denuclearization.[4]

This will put countries like the ROK – who seek positive relations with Beijing while also maintain a robust and essential alliance with the United States – in an increasingly uncomfortable position. It has long been the position of American policymakers that the U.S. does not seek to force any nation to choose sides, and that countries should be able to enjoy positive and productive relations with both China and the United States. Indeed, the United States and China alike would be making a huge strategic error should it attempt to force any country to make such a choice. This is not a Cold War.

Still, when talking about major power competition in Seoul, we must be clear that the ROK’s relationship with China – though incredibly important – cannot compare with its relationship with the United States. We have a decades-old Alliance, and our military service-people stand side-by-side to this day to deter conflict and defend against an adversary to the North that remains incredibly dangerous and unpredictable. The United States is committed to defend the ROK, is willing to pay an unimaginable price to live up to the commitment, and we have already demonstrated our willingness to follow through on our commitments. China has no commitments. No troops on the line. No interests at heart other than its own.

As we saw with the decision to deploy THAAD to the Korean peninsula, China made a significant strategic error when it sought to force Seoul to sacrifice its own security in deference for China’s prerogatives.

As the Indo-Pacific’s regional order continues to evolve, the region’s middle powers must navigate between their own national interests and the interests of the major powers. A fundamental strength of American power since the end of World War II has been the instinct to empower allies and allow them to chart their own path with the confidence that the United States has their back. As such, the U.S.-ROK Alliance will be critical – not just in the event of aggression from the North, but also as a bulwark supporting the ROK’s geopolitical power in an increasingly complex and competitive strategic environment.

[1] See G. John Ikenberry, “Between the Eagle and the Dragon: America, China, and Middle State Strategies in East Asia,” Political Science Quarterly Vol. 131, no. 1 (2016), 9-43.

[2] Donald J. Trump, The National Security Strategy of the United States of America (2017),; James Mattis, The National Defense Strategy of the United States of America (2017),

[3] See, for example, Michael D. Swaine, Tuosheng Zhang, Danielle Cohen, eds. Managing Sino-American Crises: Case Studies and Analysis (Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2006).

[4] Donald Trump [@realDonaldTrump]. (2018, July 9). I have confidence that Kim Jong Un will honor the contract we signed &, even more importantly, our handshake. We agreed to the denuclearization of North Korea. China, on the other hand, may be exerting negative pressure on a deal because of our posture on Chinese Trade-Hope Not! [Tweet]. Retrieved from

Image: SDD2018

About the Author

A picture of Abraham Denmark in front of green foliage

Abraham Denmark

Former Vice President of Programs and Director of Studies; Former Senior Advisor to the Asia Program; Former Senior Fellow in the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States
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