Extended Deterrence in Europe and Northeast Asia: A comparative approach

On 18 and 19 November 2019, the Institute for European Studies of the VUB convened a closed-door expert meeting and a public roundtable on current challenges to extended deterrence in Europe and East Asia.

The closed-door meeting on 18 November was attended by a number of policy-makers and experts from Europe and East Asia, and held under the Chatham House rule. Experts discussed the future of extended deterrence in Europe and East Asia from the perspective of the US allies. 

US alliances and extended deterrence guarantees play a critical role in the security architecture of Europe and East Asia. Discussions on the future of extended deterrence have picked up in recent years both in Europe and in East Asia, partly due to Russian revisionism and China’s growing military capabilities and assertiveness, but also due to increasing pressure from the United States relating to alliance burden-sharing. Discussions focused specifically on how US alliances and extended deterrence guarantees in Europe and East Asia are linked; what similarities and differences can be observed regarding how the alliances are managed; how threats and challenges are addressed, and how the United States deals with its allies in two different theaters. Particular attention was paid to NATO and the US-Japan alliance. 

The first debate focused on the evolution of the US-led alliance systems in Europe and East Asia. It focused on the similarities, differences and possible connections between these two alliance systems; the extent to which threats in one region affect US allies in the other region, whether directly or indirectly; and the kind of support (if any) that Asia-Pacific allies expect from US European allies in addressing their security concerns and vice versa. US expectations in that regard (as perceived by allies) were also addressed. References were made to the fact that the US alliance systems in Europe and East Asia are undergoing an important process of adaptation. The traditional concepts of “multilateralism” and “hub-and-spokes” appear to be inadequate to describe how the European and East Asian systems operate today. Both systems seem to be converging towards a hybrid structure that combines elements of multilateralism and bilateralism. This change is by and large related to changes in the regional threat environment. In Europe we see a more diverse threat environment compared to the Cold War, when the Soviet Union posed an overarching threat. That leads different allies and partners to cluster around sub-regional groupings with those countries that are closer to them in terms of threat perception. In East Asia, we observe the opposite trend: a simpler threat environment, increasingly defined by China’s geostrategic rise and military modernization, as well as North Korea’s nuclear program (which poses a regional as opposed to a Korean-peninsula only threat). Greater convergence amongst East Asian allies and partners in terms of threat perception is spurring greater connectivity within the regional alliance system. References were made to the important role of Japan in that context, especially in terms of furthering defense links with other US allies (such as Australia or the Republic of Korea) as well as other partners alongside the Indo-Pacific (e.g. Vietnam, Philippines, India).

The second debate focused on extended deterrence proper. Discussions revolved around European and East Asian perceptions of US extended deterrence guarantees in the age of ‘America First’. Experts also discussed the question of how to improve deterrence in both regions in a context defined by Russian revisionism in Europe, and mounting Chinese assertiveness and the North Korean nuclear threat in East Asia. Much emphasis was placed on the threat posed by theater-range missiles and the proliferation of Anti-Access and Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities in both regions. This becomes particularly pressing following the demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Experts also alluded to the fact that their progress in fielding theater-range missiles and A2/AD capabilities is enabling Russia and China to behave more aggressively while remaining below the Article V threshold (i.e. by engaging in “hybrid” or “grey” forms of warfare). In that context, discussions revolved around how to counter the impending missile challenge in Europe and East Asia, and the pros and cons of deploying theater-range US missiles in both regions (i.e. post-INF). Experts also discussed the possibility.

The public roundtable of 19 November discussed the theme of ‘Deterrence in an Era of Great Power Competition: Views from Europe and East Asia’ in an open format. 

The Trump administration has identified the return of great power competition in Europe and East Asia as the defining issue in international politics. It has identified Russia and China as “long-term strategic competitors” of the United States, which threaten the balance of power in Europe and the Indo-Pacific. After decades of focusing on transnational threats like terrorism, proliferation or organized crime, the return of great power competition raises questions about the future of (extended) deterrence and security in both Europe and East Asia. Interestingly, the fact that the United States is facing two different great power competitors (Russia and China) in two different regions brings up the question of which competitor – or region – should be afforded priority. Against that backdrop, the debate focused on the following questions:

How can European and East Asian allies strengthen deterrence in their respective regions? What are the similarities, differences and possible connections between US alliances in Europe and Northeast Asia? Is the credibility of U.S. military protection for European allies connected with that for Asian allies? What are the perceptions of credibility of US extended deterrence that abound in Europe and Northeast Asia? 

The debate was launched by Makita Shimokawa, Japan’s Ambassador to the Kingdom of Belgium and NATO, who provided an opening keynote, outlining ongoing challenges to deterrence and alliance-cohesion in East Asia and Europe, and reminding us of the interests and values that bring Europeans, Japanese and Americans together. 

Ambassador Shimokawa’s opening remarks set the stage for the following panel discussion, chaired by Prof. Luis Simon (IES-VUB). Professor Yuichi Hosoya (Keio University) discussed the current challenges to the US-led alliance system in East Asia, focusing specifically on the evolution of the US-Japan and US-ROK alliances; and zooming in on Japan’s expanding security role in the Indo-Pacific region.  Hideshi Tokuchi (Senior fellow at GRIPS and former Japanese Vice Minister of Defense for International Affairs) zoomed in on the main challenges to extended deterrence and regional security in East Asia, and discussed some possible ways to overcome such challenges. For her part, Dr. Benedetta Berti (Head of Policy Planning at NATO), provided an overview of Europe’s extended deterrence picture, the challenges going forward and what NATO was doing to address such challenges. Finally, Ms. Linde Desmaele (a researcher at IES-VUB) looked at the broader question of how and why the United States prioritized its strategic attention between Europe and East Asia in a context defined by dwindling national security resources and mounting strategic competition in both regions simultaneously.