Asia has an opacity problem that increases the risk of conflict virtually everywhere. Whatever U.S. military and diplomatic solutions are brought to bear in the region as part of the ongoing policy of rebalancing to Asia, they should be guided by a simple heuristic: reduce, or at least don’t exacerbate, the opacity of a dimly lit environment.
It’s well understood that trust among Asian states is historically absent, while outstanding disputes among them are ever present. At the same time, military modernization is a recurring theme in even the poorest Asian governments, and in many cases military spending is on the rise.
For Asian states, the structure of the regional security environment stunts cooperation, exacerbates political misunderstandings, tempts military accidents, and incidentally creates cover for surreptitious forms of coercion by opportunistic or expansionist states. Central to all of these problems is opacity, whether last month’s mini-crisis between North and South Korea, Japanese fighter jets scrambling to protect Senkaku island airspace, or China’s many gray zone challenges to the status quo in the South China Sea.
In every instance of potential conflict, there exist at least two types of opacity.
One is operational; where forces are located, what they are doing, and what they are trying to signal is often in question, leaving decision-makers having to make judgment calls with imperfect information. Is that a reconnaissance drone, or is it armed? Is China blocking Filipino resupply ships with a Coast Guard vessel or a PLA Navy vessel? Is its fire-control radar about to fire, or simply communicating a warning signal by locking on to a Japanese target?
The other type of opacity is strategic; the intentions underlying the decision-making of others is often unclear. Is North Korea developing nuclear weapons as part of an assured retaliation strategy? Is China a revisionist state willing to use military force to upend the regional status quo?
Both types of ambiguity are connected in the sense that reducing opacity about the operational level can also reduce it about the strategic level. The conceptual solution to a problem of opacity is thus transparency.
This may seem counter-intuitive to advocates of deterrence. In the literature on coercion, opacity is built into what’s supposed to be effective manipulation of an opponent. Thomas Schelling famously wrote of the “threat that leaves something to chance” as a means of preventing an opponent from taking some proscribed action. Strategic ambiguity has long been the de facto U.S. approach to its commitment to Taiwan. And North Korea’s strategy of brinkmanship during crises has depended on exploiting U.S. and South Korean risk aversion to conflict; even though the likelihood of North Korea launching an all-out war has been incredibly low, the lack of 100 percent certainty about the possibility strengthens North Korean deterrence (at least in theory).
But coercion everywhere and at all times isn’t a very compelling basis for U.S. Asia policy; even in the unlikely event it’s successful it would create an environment in which the slightest perception of U.S. weakness or disadvantage could lead to a collapse of regional order. There are times when opacity of one type or another can serve U.S. purposes, but it inevitably entails more risk than U.S. policymakers are usually willing to bear, making it a tenuous foundation for U.S. strategy toward Asia.
By contrast, and as a general rule, transparency measures stand to benefit the United States and regional stability in several ways.
The first is that military adventurism and outright aggression have fewer opportunities to flourish in a more transparent environment. Even North Korea doesn’t want to be seen as an aggressor, and tends to tailor its provocative behavior in ways that allow it to adopt a reactive and defensive frame for interpreting its actions. Second, if we assume that nobody actively seeks conflict—which is itself debatable—then the most likely paths to conflict all involve inaccurate judgments or misunderstandings. In a hypothetical environment of perfect information, the probability of inaccurate judgments by definition approaches zero. Third, even if transparency measures reveal a state to be aggressive, a more common view of what’s happening where and when may facilitate a convergence of threat perceptions among neighbors over time, making it easier for security-seeking states to band together against aggression, even if just diplomatically.
The question facing policymakers is simply how to render Asia more operationally and strategically transparent, and when to make exceptions. In this regard, non-state initiatives leveraging satellite imagery—38 North and the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, for example—nudge the region in the right direction. So does the Department of Defense’s recent Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy, which emphasizes enhanced maritime domain awareness among U.S. allies and partners.
Transparency is no panacea, and opacity isn’t always the same thing as uncertainty, a distinctly vexing problem in international relations. Moreover, how the United States and others go about the task of reducing regional opacity matters; U.S. unilateral transparency measures without reciprocity may simple render the United States more vulnerable without changing the regional environment. But I find some modest cause for optimism as long as transparency remains a guiding principle of U.S. policy.