U.S. Options for Basing Forces to Deter North Korea

Mark Loncar is retired from the United States Air Force and is a graduate of the Defense Intelligence College, now called National Intelligence University.  He served in South Korea for 23 months.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

National Security Situation:  The U.S. faces a growing existential Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) threat from North Korea’s nuclear weapons development program.

Date Originally Written: August 1, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  September 18, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article is written from the point of view of a U.S. foreign policy advisor.

Background:  North Korea recently tested another ballistic missile, the second major test in a month, as part of a nuclear weapons program that, if brought to fruition, could threaten the U.S.  Policymakers in the U.S. are understandably reticent because of the serious threat that North Korea may respond with aggressive military action against South Korea and bring the U.S. into another Korean conflict.

The U.S. security commitment to its South Korea ally has not been in doubt since the Korean War started in 1950.  However, the positioning of U.S. forces in South Korea has been debated, and over the years, the number of U.S. troops has decreased from the mid-30 thousands before the North Korean nuclear program started in the 1990s to around 28,000 today.  Amid the present North Korean nuclear challenge, it is time to reexamine the utility of keeping U.S. forces in South Korea.

Significance:  The Korean peninsula is no longer the center of gravity in any hostilities between North Korea and the U.S. as North Korea’s ICBM capability, according to media reports, could reach Honolulu, Anchorage, and Seattle.  U.S. policy must adapt to this drastic expansion of the threat in order to end the impasse that characterizes U.S. dealings with the North Korean ICBM challenge.  In expanding his nuclear capability to ICBMs, North Korean President Kim Jong-un has turned what was a Korean peninsula-centric issue into more of an eyeball-to-eyeball existential threat to the U.S..

Option #1:  U.S. forces remain positioned in South Korea.

Risk:  U.S. policy options concerning the North Korean nuclear program will continue to be limited due to the risk of war to South Korea.  The presence of U.S. forces in South Korea preserves the status quo, but does not move the U.S. closer to a solution to the North Korean nuclear challenge.  Having U.S. forces in South Korea also complicates U.S. – South Korea relations and gives South Korea leverage in how the U.S. should respond to the North Korean nuclear issue, further constraining U.S. freedom of movement to respond to North Korea.

Gain:  The presence of U.S. forces in South Korea signals U.S. resolve in the Korean Conflict through a sharing of risk with South Korean allies.  This option maintains a U.S. capability to respond quickly and forcibly to North Korean conventional incursions and other hostile actions against South Korea.

Option #2:  U.S. forces redeploy from South Korea to present cleaner options for dealing with North Korean nuclear weapons threat.  The policy would relocate U.S. forces from South Korea to Japan and other countries and bases in the region.  A continued U.S. military presence near the Korean peninsula will help to reassure South Korea and Japan that the long-time security commitments will abide.  The redeployment would also represent a continuation of major U.S. conventional capability in the area to counter any North Korean conventional aggression.

Risk:  Perception of outright appeasement by U.S. allies.  How could the U.S. proceed with redeployment of forces from South Korea without communicating to friends and adversaries that it would be engaging in all-out appeasement of the North Korean regime and surrendering important U.S. and allied interests in Northern Asia to the People’s Republic of China (PRC)?

Gain:  The removal of U.S. forces from South Korea would be a major inducement for North Korea to scrap its nuclear weapons program or for the PRC to pressure it to do so.  Indeed, North Korea’s paranoia concerning U.S. – South Korea intentions toward its regime could be significantly pacified by moving U.S. forces off the Korean peninsula.  At the same time, the stakes would be raised for Kim Jong-un and his PRC benefactors to change behavior on terms attractive to all parties—agreeing to a peaceful denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and a reduced threat of war on the peninsula.

Second, removing the threat to U.S. forces on the peninsula would present less cumbersome options for the U.S. with respect to the North Korean nuclear weapons challenge, especially concerns about war on the Korean peninsula.  The U.S. would also be less constrained in deciding to preempt or respond directly to North Korean nuclear aggression.  This is the real capability of such a redeploying U.S. forces from South Korea.  North Korea and the PRC would be on notice that if North Korea continued its nuclear weapons ICBM development after a redeployment of U.S. forces off the Korean peninsula, the regime’s action may be met with the gravest of responses.

Third, this option would deny North Korea a pretext for attacking South Korea should the U.S. strike Kim Jong-un’s nuclear facilities.  Such a U.S. strike on North Korean nuclear facilities would come only after a U.S. redeployment from the peninsula and the North Korean regime’s obstinate refusal to scrap its nuclear weapons program.  In this security construct, any North Korean attack below the 38th parallel in retaliation for a U.S. strike on North Korean nuclear facilities would likely elicit the immediate destruction of the North Korean state.

Other Comments:  An opportunity is in reach to have a return to the status quo without a Korean peninsula-centric relationship.  This relationship would be more North Korea-South Korea focused, with the U.S. and the PRC overseeing the relationship.  The U.S. would no longer be in the middle of the mix with its own forces physically present in South Korea.  It may not be the best the U.S. could hope for – that would be a democratic government in North Korea if not an eventual unification of North and South Korea.  However, a U.S. redeployment to incentivize peninsula denuclearization and present cleaner options concerning North Korea’s nuclear weapons program may be a more viable alternative than accepting and having to deter a North Korean global ICBM capability, or to fight another war on the Korean peninsula.  In the end, by removing U.S. forces from South Korea, friend and foe should understand that if North Korea refuses to scrap its nuclear weapons capability, it will be the North Korean regime alone against the overwhelming power of the U.S..



China (People's Republic of China) Mark Loncar North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) Option Papers South Korea (Republic of Korea) United States Weapons of Mass Destruction

Assessment of the United States-China Power Transition and the New World Order

Ray Leonardo previously worked in the defense industry.  He presently works as a graduate researcher in international relations with interests that include power transition, alliance structure, great power politics, and conflict.  He can be found on Twitter @rayrleonardo and writes for rayrleonardo.com.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group. 

Title:  Assessment of the United States-China Power Transition and the New World Order

Date Originally Written:  July 28, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  September 11, 2017.

Summary:  The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) overtaking of the United States as the largest global economy will bring difficult and potentially dangerous consequences.  Continued peace will depend upon the PRC’s satisfaction with the current international system created by the United States, among others.  History and PRC foreign policy indicate the odds of a peaceful power transition may be lower than expected.

Text:  “…[T]he United States welcomes the rise of a China that is peaceful, stable, prosperous, and a responsible player in global affairs[1],” was often stated by United States’ President Barack Obama during his multiple summits with PRC President Xi Jinping.  The United States has little influence in slowing the rapid economic growth of the PRC.  Most forecasters predict the PRC will overtake the United States as the largest economy sometime during the first quarter of this century.  According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the PRC is expected to surpass the U.S. as the world’s largest economy in 2021[2].  Many scholars and practitioners in the field of international relations are concerned that the rise of the PRC will not be so peaceful and their concerns are backed up by theory.

History has shown that rising powers who challenge the status quo, and, or hegemonic nations often create a fertile environment for conflict.  Historical cases indicate that it is power parity (balance of power), rather than a dominated or disproportional relationship (hegemony), that increases the likelihood of war.  This research falls under the theory of Power Transition[3].  Power Transition theory is directly at odds with the often accepted Balance of Power theory, the latter of which states that a balance of power among nations leads to peace[4].  Various theories including nuclear deterrence have formed under the Balance of Power pretext, but the historical data does not back this theory.  Conflict is more apt to break out under conditions where states are about equal in relative power.

Research on power transitions shows that the potential for conflict is dependent on several variables, two of which include relative power and the satisfaction of the rising power[5].  Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is a common measurement for state power but measuring a state’s satisfaction within the international system is a more challenging task.  Regardless of statistical models, one can see through previous cases of great power transitions that conflict is most likely once the rising power has overtaken (regarding relative power) the previously dominant state.  Conflict is even more plausible when the rising power is highly dissatisfied with the current international system.  This is assuming, as is the case today, that the dominant state (The United States), has created an international regime that of which mirrors its own political and economic systems (Bretton Woods), but also mirrors the dominant nation’s socio-political philosophy and values.

Many factors play into a country’s satisfaction.  One can look at the PRC’s rapid economic rise as proof that they have found a way to be successful in an international system created by the West, particularly by the United States.  However, even as the PRC’s economics can be closely aligned with most of the world under the guise of “capitalism,” it must not be ignored that the PRC has very differing views on political systems, individual rights, and traditional western socio-political values.  The PRC government adopts a foreign policy that is textbook realism in so much that its use of force will never be used to promote “Chinese” or “eastern” values abroad.  The PRC has little concern for human rights domestically, never mind protecting human rights on the international stage.

Twenty-first century conflict in East Asia will be fought on water.  The PRC’s recent build up of artificial islands and claims to various islands in the South China Sea are constant and increasing[6].  This is due to many factors, most of which impact their economy and security.  The PRC’s actions show a consistent effort to leverage regional neighbors, particularly those who lay claim to various land masses throughout the South China and East China seas.  The PRC’s regional foreign policy is not surprising; however, the United States and its allies should be questioning how the future global policy of the PRC will look.  Will the PRC’s aggressive regional policy in the early parts of this century be thought of as a microcosm for their mid-century global policy?  The PRC’s aggressive policy toward countries like Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia shows a strong dissatisfaction with the regional status quo.  The PRC understands the leverage that it has over many of its smaller neighbors and seeks to capitalize on it sooner rather than later.

There is no reason why U.S. officials should assume the PRC will peacefully rise through the international system without leveraging the power and control that comes with being the hegemonic nation.  The PRC will seek to advance their interests even as it may be on the backs of other smaller or even major powers.  With the PRC calling more of the shots regarding our international institutions, capitalist economies will still flourish, the bilateral and multilateral trade will continue to grow, but the principles and values that of which upon these institutions were built will continue to erode.  Human rights will take a back seat on the world stage, and over time few nations will care about the well-being of their trade partner’s people.


[1]  Office of Press Secretary, The White House (2015, September 25). Remarks by President Obama and President Xi of the People’s Republic of China in Joint Press Conference Retrieved July 25, 2017, from https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2015/09/25/remarks-president-obama-and-president-xi-peoples-republic-china-joint

[2]  OECD Data (Edition 2014). GDP Long-term Forecast Retrieved July 25, 2017, from https://data.oecd.org/gdp/gdp-long-term-forecast.htm#indicator-chart

[3]  Kugler, J., & Organski, A.F.K. (1989). The Power Transition: A Retrospective and Prospective Evaluation. In Manus I. Midlarsky (Ed.), Handbook of War Studies (1st, pp. 171-194). Winchester, MA: Unwin Hyman, Inc.

[4]  Schweller, R. L. (2016, May). The Balance of Power in World Politics Retrieved July 25, 2017, from http://politics.oxfordre.com/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190228637.001.0001/acrefore-9780190228637-e-119

[5]  Kugler, J., & Organski, A.F.K. (1989). The Power Transition: A Retrospective and Prospective Evaluation. In Manus I. Midlarsky (Ed.), Handbook of War Studies (1st, pp. 171-194). Winchester, MA: Unwin Hyman, Inc.

[6]  Ives, M. (2017, August 4). Vietnam, Yielding to Beijing, Backs Off South China Sea Drilling Retrieved August 4, 2017, from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/04/world/asia/vietnam-south-china-sea-repsol.html

Assessment Papers China (People's Republic of China) Power Transition Ray Leonardo United States

United States’ Options to North Korea Missile Development

Mike Dyer is a research assistant at a Washington-based international policy think tank.  He can be found on twitter @mikeysdyer.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

National Security Situation:  United States’ Options in response to North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile developments.

Date Originally Written:  July 22, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  July 31, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article is written from the point of view of a senior defense/foreign policy advisor to the Trump Administration.

Background:  After decades of development, for the first time in the history of the Korean conflict, North Korea is nearing the capability to hold U.S. population centers on the continental United States at risk with a small nuclear weapon[1].  Nearing this inflection point requires a reexamination of U.S. policy vis-a-vis Northeast Asia.

Significance:  If North Korea’s Kim regime believes it has an effective deterrent against the United States, it may become emboldened to pursue more provocative and dangerous polices.  Such brinkmanship could lead to disaster.  This new fact threatens U.S. extended deterrence commitments to both Japan and South Korea (Republic of Korea (ROK)), depending on the Trump Administration’s policy response.  The Kim regime, while rational, is certainly volatile, and engages in behaviors well outside of international norms.

Option #1:  The United States accepts the reality of North Korea as a nuclear power while maintaining demands for denuclearization.  This option may require adjustments to U.S. defense posture, namely the reintroduction of tactical nuclear weapons to the Korean peninsula or the expansion of the ballistic missile defense programs.

Risk:  First, the most salient risk the United States would face is relying on deterrence against a regime for which it lacks an acute understanding.  Relying on deterrence to keep the peace on the Korean peninsula is risky because the Kim regime derives power and legitimacy from propping up the United States and others as an aggressive enemy.

Second, even if the United States does nothing, the Kim regime would still be incentivized to provoke the United States and the ROK if only for domestic reasons.

Third, as previously mentioned, North Korea could work to weaken U.S. extended deterrence commitments by credibly threatening the U.S. homeland.  The United States could work to reduce this risk by demonstrating the effectiveness of its missile defense shield.

Gain:  This option does not risk conflict in the near to medium terms, thus it continues to “kick the can down the road.”  This policy trades tactical and operational risk for increased strategic risk over the long-term.  Otherwise, this option gains nothing.

Option #2:  The United States conducts a pre-emptive strike on North Korea’s known nuclear and ballistic missile sites.

Risk:  First, this option risks large-scale retaliation against the ROK and Japan and the U.S. forces stationed there.  There is a significant chance a military strike would miss known or hidden weapons sites or leave North Korea with the capability to deliver a conventional counter strike[2].

Second, a military strike on North Korean nuclear sites is likely to cause an environmental and humanitarian disaster to some degree.  This could result in unnecessary civilian loss of life, increased pan-Korean nationalism at the expense of the U.S.-ROK alliance, and generally loss of support for U.S. leadership/presence in the region.  The illicit transfer of unaccounted for nuclear materiel could also result.

Gain:  If a strike were successful, the Kim regime would effectively be disarmed.  Such a blow to North Korea could lead to a coup against the Kim regime or to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) intervening to stabilize the situation.

Option #3:  The United States increases economic sanctions on the regime to either bring North Korea to the negotiating table or cause the regime to collapse.  This option is not possible without increased support from the PRC a because of its importance to the North Korean economy.

Risk:  First, sanctions need years to take full effect.  During this time, North Korea’s capabilities could grow and the regime would have opportunity to degrade the situation in its favor.

Second, it is unknown what the Kim regime would do if faced with collapse and loss of power.  Some North Korean interlocutors have made the point that North Korea did not build its nuclear weapons only to watch them go unused as the regime collapses.

Third, the regime values security, prestige, and power over a growing economy, it has effective control over its people and they are discouraged from speaking out against the regime even in private.

Gain:  If successful, sanctions have the potential to accomplish U.S. objectives without risking conflict.  Given the Kim regime’s hierarchy of values however, this option is unlikely to work.

Option #4:  The United States and the ROK negotiate a peace treaty with North Korea.  This option accepts the reality of North Korea’s newfound nuclear capability and gives up on past demands for complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of the North’s nuclear program prior to peace negotiations.

Risk:  First, for a durable peace to exist between the United States and North Korea, both sides would have to reach a mutually acceptable political solution, this may mean both North Korea and the ROK giving up on their objectives for reunification—something both states are unwilling to do.  Durable peace would also require security for all concerned and trust that does not currently exist.

Second, negotiating peace without denuclearization would weaken the nuclear nonproliferation regime and cause allies to lose faith in United States’ security commitments.  This option could result in greater nuclear proliferation across Northeast Asia.

Gain:  The gain is limited by the risk of failure, but a peaceful Korean peninsula would benefit regional security and ease the burden on U.S. defense commitments.

Option #5:  The United States undermines the Kim regime by encouraging the flow of information into and out of North Korea.  The United States works with the PRC and ROK to encourage the further development of independent (black) markets in North Korea at the expense of regime control on civil life.

Risk:  First, this policy would require years to fully carry out, allowing North Korea to expand its weapons program in the meantime.

Second, this policy may just raise the quality of life of the North Korean people and expand the regime’s tax base while not convincing the people to push-back against the regime.

Third, as previously mentioned, destabilizing the regime raises the risks of conflict.

Gain:  If successful, this policy could chance the character and policies of the North Korean regime, ultimately leading to peace and reconciliation.

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


[1]  Ackerman, S., & Jacobs, B. (2017). US commander not confident North Korea will refrain from nuclear assault. the Guardian. Retrieved 22 July 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/apr/26/north-korea-nuclear-attack-south-korea-us-navy

[2]  Your Bibliography: Peters, R. (2017). A New Approach to Eliminating North Korean Weapons of Mass Destruction Is Needed. Washington: The U.S. Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins SAIS. Retrieved from http://www.38north.org/wp-content/uploads/pdf/NKIP-Peters-WMDE-062017.pdf  Also see, Bennett, B. (2013). Preparing for the Possibility of a North Korean Collapse. Rand Corporation.

China (People's Republic of China) Mike Dyer North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) Nuclear Issues Option Papers South Korea (Republic of Korea)

People’s Republic of China Options Toward North Korea

Paul Butchard is a graduate student in the Department of War Studies at Kings College London in the United Kingdom, where he is pursuing his master’s degree in Intelligence and International Security.  He also holds a bachelor’s degree in International Relations and Politics.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

National Security Situation:  Options for the foreign policy of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) toward North Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK).

Date Originally Written:  July, 15, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  July 24, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article is written from the perspective of foreign policy advisor to the PRC government.

Background:  Since January 2016, the DPRK has conducted two nuclear weapons tests and ten missile tests.  Such actions, coupled with increasingly bombastic rhetoric, displays a more aggressive posture for the DPRK than previous years[1].

Significance:  For the PRC, their relationship with the DPRK is a regional policy issue and a central element of PRC-United States relations.  President Xi Jinping is forging an outgoing, “Striving for Achievement” foreign policy for the PRC[2].  Simultaneously, the PRC has displayed more public disapproval of Pyongyang’s destabilising behaviour than previous years[3].  The course of action the PRC adopts towards the DPRK will play a major role in the relationship between Beijing and Washington in years to come, influencing events globally.

Option #1:  The PRC maintains/increases military, economic and diplomatic aid to the DPRK.  This option sees the PRC continuing or building upon its current course of action, providing vast military and economic aid and diplomatic protection to bring the DPRK’s behaviour in line with the PRC’s wishes.

Risk:  The PRC risks appeasing the DPRK, encouraging it to continue along its current path, one that is increasingly casting the PRC as a suzerain unable to rein in a vassal state, to the casual observer.  The DPRK would view such action as capitulation and an acknowledgment by Beijing that Pyongyang cannot be penalised for actions and policies even when they harm the PRC’s interests[4].  The DPRK is conscious of its strategic importance to Beijing and able to take PRC aid without granting concessions.  The PRC risks escalating confrontation with the United States if the latter perceives the PRC as unwilling to act or enabling the DPRK’s current destabilising behaviour, a possibility given recent remarks by President Trump[5].

Gain:  This option enables the PRC to sustain the DPRK regime, avoiding a humanitarian crisis on its border because of regime collapse, maintaining the tense but peaceful status quo.  The PRC avoids being labelled a United States puppet as the DPRK has previously implied[6].  United States’ sanctions related to the DPRK have so far been limited to private companies and individuals, not the PRC government[7].  This option thus avoids igniting military, diplomatic or economic confrontations with the United States.

Option #2:  The PRC decreases/ceases military, economic and diplomatic aid to the DPRK.  This option sees the PRC ‘sanction’ the DPRK by reducing or halting military, economic or diplomatic aid to alter its behaviour to suit PRC preferences.

Risk:  This option risks the collapse of the DPRK regime due to the PRC being its main economic trading partner.  The PRC also risks economic self-harm due to the vast natural resources it imports from the DPRK[8].  The collapse of the DPRK brings unparalleled security concerns for the PRC from uncontrolled nuclear materials and mass immigration to the potential of a United States ally on its border.

Gain:  By reducing aid the PRC would be acting against the DPRK’s unpredictable actions, potentially slowing its development of an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), increasing its international standing, a cornerstone of President Xi’s foreign policy.  Such action would be seen favourably by the Trump administration increasing the likelihood of favourable trade deals or relative acquiescence to PRC actions in the South China Sea.

Option #3:  Regime change.  This option would see the PRC pursue regime change within the DPRK by means of supporting a coup d’état or palace coup of some description rather than overt military action of its own.

Risk:  The DPRK government and society revolves fully around the Kim dynasty, the removal of the deity that is Kim Jong Un and the Kim lineage risks the total collapse of the state.  There is no clear successor to Kim due to the autocratic nature of the DPRK and any successor would likely be considered a PRC puppet and usurper.  Subsequent destabilisation would result in the aforementioned humanitarian and security crisis’ posing a grave national security threat to the PRC.  Such action would be logistically and strategically difficult to accomplish, requiring multiple sections of the DPRK military and governmental apparatus being coordinated by a vast human intelligence network operated by the PRC.  As such, and due to pervasive North Korean surveillance even of its elites, a coup risks discovery long before execution.  United States and South Korean forces may see any attempt at regime change as an opportunity to launch their own military offensive or as evidence of PRC expansionism and a threat to the South.

Gain:  Replacing Kim Jong Un could lead to increased stability for the PRC’s regional development objectives.  The PRC could avoid total DPRK state collapse due to external pressure and avert the potential national security threats to the PRC mainland.  This option also raises the possibility of enhancing United States-PRC relations, buying the PRC the aforementioned political capital.  A new DPRK regime, allied with the PRC, that tempers its actions toward the United States, also raises the possibility of the removal of the United States’ Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defence system from South Korea, which the PRC views as a national security threat.  This option also presents the potential for the reduction of United States troop numbers in South Korea due to increased stability and a reduced threat from the DPRK.

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


[1] Council on Foreign Relations, (2017) North Korea Crisis. Retrieved July 13, 2017 from https://www.cfr.org/global/global-conflict-tracker/p32137#!/conflict/north-korea-crisis

[2] Yan, X. (2014). From Keeping a Low Profile to Striving for Achievement. The Chinese Journal of International Politics,7(2), 153-184.

[3] Perlez, J. (2017, February 24). China and North Korea Reveal Sudden, and Deep, Cracks in Their Friendship. Retrieved July 14, 2017, from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/24/world/asia/china-north-korea-relations-kim-jong-un.html

[4] Pei, M. (2017, March 14). North Korea: What Is China Thinking? Retrieved July 14, 2017, from https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/03/china-north-korea-kim-jong-un-nuclear-beijing-pyongyang-thaad/519348/

[5] Weaver, M., Haas, B., & McCurry, J. (2017, April 03). Trump says US will act alone on North Korea if China fails to help. Retrieved July 14, 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/apr/02/donald-trump-north-korea-china

[6] Sang-hun, C. (2017, February 23). North Korea Accuses China of ‘Mean Behavior’ After It Tightens Sanctions. Retrieved July 14, 2017, from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/23/world/asia/north-korea-china.html

[7] Aleem, Z. (2017, June 29). Why Trump just slapped new sanctions on Chinese banks. Retrieved July 14, 2017, from https://www.vox.com/world/2017/6/29/15894844/trump-sanctions-china-north-korea-bank

[8] Perlez, J., & Huang, Y. (2017, April 13). China Says Its Trade With North Korea Has Increased. Retrieved July 14, 2017, from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/13/world/asia/china-north-korea-trade-coal-nuclear.html 

[9] Reuters. (2017, February 28). China reacts with anger, threats after South Korean missile defense decision. Retrieved July 15, 2017, from http://www.reuters.com/article/us-southkorea-usa-thaad-china-idUSKBN16709W

China (People's Republic of China) Leadership Change North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) Option Papers Paul Butchard South Korea (Republic of Korea) United States

Options to Counter Piracy in the Horn of Africa

Captain Robert N. Hein (U.S. Navy, Retired) was a career Surface Warfare Officer in the U.S. Navy.  He previously commanded the USS Gettysburg (CG-64) and the USS Nitze (DDG-94).  He can be found on Twitter @the_sailor_dogClaude Berube teaches at the United States Naval Academy, was a 2004 Brookings Institution LEGIS Congressional Fellow and a 2010 Maritime Security Studies Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.  He can be found on Twitter @cgberube.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.  

National Security Situation:  After lying dormant for a few years, following a large international response, piracy off the Horn of Africa is again threatening the free flow of global commerce.

Date Originally Written:  May 29, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  June 19, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  Claude Berube has operated off the Horn of Africa, and has written extensively on piracy and private maritime security companies.  Bob Hein has hunted pirates off Somalia.  Bob’s final assignment was the Deputy Director of Strategy on the U.S. Navy Staff.

Background:  Somali piracy threatens major trade routes.  Over 30,000 ships transit the Gulf of Aden annually.  At its peak in 2007, the cost of Somali pirate attacks to the shipping industry was $7B.  The cost decreased to $1.3B in 2015, and climbed to $1.7B in 2016[1].  In May 2017, the Commander of U.S. Africa Command, U.S. Marine Corps General Thomas Walderhauser, indicated as many as six piracy attacks occurred in the last month[2].  Given the expanse of unpatrolled waters in the region and opportunities for criminal and pirate networks to exploit maritime security gaps, there will inevitably be more attacks.

Significance:  Since the Romans and Carthaginians raised their Navies against each other in the Punic Wars, the purpose of Navies has been to protect the coast, and protect maritime commerce.  Prior to that, Thucydides mentions piracy in History of the Peloponnesian War.  The actions of pirates in Africa led to the establishment and deployment of the U.S. Navy in the early 19th century.  A resurgence in Somali piracy represents a renewed threat to global trade, and the stability of Somalia.

Option #1:  The U.S. cedes the constabulary role for counter-piracy activities to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) People’s Liberation Army (Navy) (PLA(N)).  In April 2017 the PRC deployed its 26th anti-piracy flotilla to the Horn of Africa.  In that time, the PRC escorted 5,900 ships in the region[3], and established a base in nearby Djibouti to maintain a mission to not only protects the PRC’s “One Belt” initiative, but give PRC Naval Commanders experience operating far from home.

Risk:  Taking over this mission allows the PRC to gain experience in operating far from home, a key attribute for an historic land power seeking increased influence abroad.  Prior to its first anti-piracy flotilla in 2008, the PLA(N) had been largely absent in international waters for five centuries.  The PRC may also give a false sense of security to those areas where it does not have a direct interest.  By ceding additional maritime security missions to the PLA(N), the U.S. and its partners empower PLA(N) overseas capabilities and the possibility that regional powers will become more reliant on the PRC.  For example, in 2015 the PRC was able to evacuate its citizens from the growing crisis in Yemen due, in part, to their enhanced capabilities from long-range operations in the region and newer platforms[4].

Gain:  The PRC does provide a short-term solution with a modern navy.  It has the motivation to prove itself as a guarantor of maritime security, not just a consumer.  The PRC has the capability and the desire to contain and curtail piracy in the Horn of Africa if not to simply secure shipping then for longer-range operational and strategic goals.

Option #2:  The U.S. builds capacity in the Somali maritime forces, and trains nascent Somali governments with the tools required to ensure domestic maritime security.  Local Somali governments have had some recent success in counter-piracy activity, rescuing eight Indian mariners captured by Somali pirates[5].  Introducing counter-piracy training, maritime domain awareness and intelligence sharing would go far in allowing regions of Somalia to work together to stop what should be a Somali law enforcement issue.

Risk:  The threat of corruption is a major concern; also the responsibility for building maritime law enforcement capacity would be a political minefield for any host nation.

Gain:  Using the dictum of “Teach a man to fish,” places Somalia in a position to police its waterways will provide a permanent solution to the piracy problem.  It will also ensure illegal fishing or overfishing by other states does not further deplete local fishing grounds[6].  Piracy in Somalia was born of frustrated fisherman who had no recourse against foreign fishing boats poaching their grounds.  Giving Somalia the ability to not only deter piracy, but also police their waters against illegal fishing should provide a complete long-term solution.

Option #3:  The U.S. continues to enable Private Maritime Security Companies, (PMSCs), to provide on-board armed guards at the shipping companies’ discretion.  To date, no ship with an armed team aboard has been successfully taken by Somali pirates.

Risk:  PMSCs are subject to market fluctuations.  As piracy rose in 2006-2008, PMSCs proliferated providing a wide spectrum of cost, capabilities, and legitimacy.  Ceding full maritime security control to unregulated PMSCs or to PMSCs from non-partnered nations could have other consequences as well, such as future military operations employing a trained, unaligned and unregulated force.  Additionally, many of the smaller shipping companies, favored by pirates, cannot afford PMSCs thus potentially identifying the smaller shipping companies as soft targets.

Gain:  Working with shipping companies and PMSCs would ensure the U.S. and its partners contribute to regulation of legitimate and capable PMSCs and would deny the PLA(N) an opportunity to enhance its capabilities through gaining experience in counter-piracy operations.

Option #4:  Coalition operations in the region continue.  In addition to independent operations, Somali piracy resulted in the creation of several key partnerships including Combined Task Force 151, the European Union’s Operation ATALANTA, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Operation OCEAN SHIELD.

Risk:  Coalition investment of time, money, staff, and platforms for any operation takes away from other missions.  If other missions such as North Korea, Iran, and threats in the Mediterranean Sea have a higher immediate priority, then coalition ships might not be available if the pirate threat level is assessed as low.  In November 2016, for example, NATO concluded Operation OCEAN SHIELD as it shifted resources to the Baltic and Black Seas[7].

Gain:  Coalition operations enhance interoperability between traditional and new partners.  The larger the coalition, the fewer resources each nation has to contribute.  In most maritime operations, few countries can go it alone.

Other Comments:  While the options are limitless, the options presented here are those the authors assess as being the most feasible and acceptable.

Recommendation:  None


[1]  CNBC Int’l, Luke Graham, “Somali Pirates are Back,” 03 May 2017

[2] The Trumpet, Anthony Chibarirwe, “Somali Pirates are Back,” 19 May 2017

[3]  The Diplomat, Ankit Panda, “As Somali Pirates Return, Chinese Navy Boasts of Anti-Piracy Operations,” 16 April 2017

[4]  The Diplomat, Kevin Wang, “Yemen Evacuation a Strategic Step Forward for China,” 10 April 2015

[5]  The New York Times, Hussein Mohamed, “8 Indians rescued from Somali Pirates, Officials say,” 12 April 2017

[6]  Asia Today, Hong Soon-Do, “Chinese Illegal Fishing Threatens World Waters,” May 2017

[7]  Reuters, Robin Emmott, “NATO Ends Counter-Piracy Mission as Focus Shifts to Mediterranean,” 23 November 2016

Bob Hein China (People's Republic of China) Claude Berube Horn of Africa Option Papers Piracy

U.S. Options to Address a Growing People’s Republic of China Army (Navy)

Thomas is a junior sailor in the United States Navy.  He can be found on Twitter @CTNope.  The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not represent the official position of the United States Navy, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group. 

National Security Situation:  Worrying trends in military shipbuilding by the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Date Originally Written:  April, 29, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  June, 15, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author believes that the current balance of naval forces, both qualitatively and quantitatively, between the U.S. and the PRC, must be examined or the U.S. will face severe policy consequences.  The article is written from the point of view of U.S. Navy (USN) leadership as they assess the growth of the People’s Liberation Army’s (Navy) (PLAN).  This article focuses on options that U.S. policymakers have in response to the trends in the PRC’s military shipbuilding, not the trends themselves.

Background:  Since the mid-2000’s the PRC’s economic situation has vastly improved, most evident as its GDP has grown from 1.2 billion to 11 billion over fifteen years, a growth of over 900 percent[1].  This growth has enabled the PRC to embark on a remarkable shipbuilding program, achieving vast strides in training, technology, capabilities, and actual hull count of modern vessels[3][2].  This growth is creating security challenges in the Pacific as well as igniting tensions between the U.S. and the PRC, as the disparity between the USN and the PLAN shrinks at an alarming rate[4].  These developments have been closely watched by both the U.S. and her Partners, challenging U.S. policymakers to address this new, rising maritime presence while maintaining security in the region.

Significance:  In the U.S. there is a growing bipartisan voice concerned about an assertive PRC[5], as halfway across the globe Asian nations wearily observe the PRC’s growth.  A more powerful PLAN allows greater flexibility for PRC officials to exert influence.  These impressive shipbuilding trends will embolden the PRC, as now they can brush aside actors that held credible deterrence when competing against an unmodernized PLAN.  If current trends in the capacity of PRC shipbuilding and technological advancement continue, the PLAN will be able to challenge the efforts of the USN and U.S. Partners to continue to keep sea lanes of communication open in the space around the disputed ‘nine-dash-line’ as well as other parts of the Pacific.  It is plausible that in the long-term the PLAN will emerge as a near-peer to the USN in the Pacific; as U.S. has to provide for its own security, the security of others, and the security of the Global Commons, while the PRC only has to provide security for itself and its interests.

Option #1:  Platform centric approach.  Review the current force structure of the USN to decide how large the force needs to be to satisfy U.S. policy goals and modify the fleet accordingly.

Risk:  Focusing too heavily on platforms could leave the USN without the tools needed to be on the technological forefront during the next conflict.  Also, a focus on building legacy systems could take resources away from initiatives that require them.

Gain:  An increased number of platforms would allow U.S. policymakers more flexibility in how they decide to most effectively use the USN.  Additionally, more hulls would not only contribute to the deterrence generated by the USN, but also improve the readiness of the USN as more ships can remain in port and undergo maintenance, while other ships conduct missions.  Option #1 maximizes readiness for the next conflict.

Option #2:  Modernization approach.  Focus on improving today’s platforms while additionally investing in the future with disruptive technologies, but do not undertake an extensive build up of hulls.  In this option the fleet would still expand in accordance with current programs, to include the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), Arleigh Burke Class Destroyers, and Virginia Class Submarines, but these production runs would be cut short to save funds.

Risk:  In the mid-term the USN might not have the hulls necessary to address global security concerns.  However, having fewer hulls does not mean that the USN can’t fight and win, instead, it will require that the USN’s leaders adapt.

Gain:  Investing in the future could yield powerful technologies that change the calculus on how the U.S. employs military forces.  Technologies like the railgun or unmanned systems change the way the USN fights by improving critical traits such as firepower and survivability.  Future technologies could create even greater offsets than previously discovered technologies, with the advent of artificial intelligence on the horizon, future applications appear limitless.  Option #2 increases the chance that the U.S. will continue to operate at the cutting edge of technology.

Option #3:  Balanced approach.  Modify the USN’s size, but not as broadly as the first option, instead providing additional funding towards Research and Development (R&D).

Risk:  This option could prove to be too little, too late.  The USN would benefit from the handful of additional hulls, but PRC shipbuilding pace might negate the benefit of the extra vessels.  The PRC could possibly out-build the USN by adding two new hulls for every one the USN commissions.  Likewise, the USN might need significantly more resources for R&D efforts.

Gain:  The USN would receive additional Arleigh Burke Class Destroyers, LCS Frigates, and Virginia Class Submarines.  In addition, this option would free up more funds to put into R&D to keep the USN ahead of the PLAN in terms of technology.  Overall, this would keep the USN on a balanced footing to be “ready to fight tonight” in the short to mid-term, yet still on a decent footing in the long-term, from R&D efforts.  Option #3 could turn out to be the best of both worlds, combining the increased readiness through hulls as well as continued technological innovation.

Other Comments:  The PLAN still has many issues, ranging from naval subsystems, to C4I, to training and manning[3], but they are correcting their deficiencies at an impressive rate. As such, there is a cost for the U.S. in terms of both omission and commission.

Recommendation:  None.


[1]  The World Bank Statistics. Retrieved from: http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.CD?

[2]  Gabriel Collins and LCDR Michael Grubb, USN. “A Comprehensive Survey of China’s Dynamic Shipbuilding Industry, Commercial Development and Strategic Implications”.     Published August 2008. Retrieved from: https://www.usnwc.edu/Research—Gaming/China-Maritime-Studies-Institute/Publications/documents/CMS1_Collins-Grubb.aspx

[3]  Ronald O’Rourke . “China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress”. Retrieved from: https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RL33153.pdf

[4]  Shannon Tiezzi with Andrew Erickson. “Chinese Naval Shipbuilding: Measuring the Waves”.  Retrieved from: http://thediplomat.com/2017/04/chinese-naval-shipbuilding-measuring-the-waves/

[5]  Various. “Hotspots Along China’s Maritime Periphery”.
Retrieved from: https://www.uscc.gov/Hearings/hotspots-along-china%E2%80%99s-maritime-periphery

Capacity / Capability Enhancement China (People's Republic of China) Maritime Option Papers Thomas United States

Options for Bougainville Independence

Iain Strutt has been involved in military, police and private security in Australia for over twenty years.  He is currently completing a Bachelor of Science (Security) degree with a minor in international relations at Edith Cowan University, Perth, Western Australia.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organisation, or any group.  


National Security Situation:  Independence options for Bougainville Island, an autonomous region of Papua New Guinea (PNG).

Date Originally Written:  March 26, 2016.

Date Originally Published:  May 4, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  While Bougainville may be a small Pacific Island and seem minor geopolitically, the author believes the outcome of the independence vote in 2019 will have regional implications.

Background:  Bougainville Island will hold a referendum on independence from PNG on June 15th, 2019.  Independence from PNG has been deliberated and defeated before[1].  Historically, Bougainville was administered first by Germany, then Britain.  After World War 2, Australia administered the territory as part of the United Nations Trust Territory of New Guinea.  With PNG independence from Australia in 1975, Bougainville became part of the new nation[2].  Bougainville was originally known as the North Solomons’, being as they were, part of the Solomon Islands.

Secessionists caused an insurrection in Bougainville in 1988 and it continued until the late 1990s.  The conflict succeeded in closing the giant Panguna copper mine in 1989, situated in the southern highlands.  Panguna was vital to the economy of PNG and Bougainville, as it has copper in abundance.  The two most prominent causes for the guerilla war on Bougainville can be traced back to the longstanding imbalance between ethnicity and financial reward.  Inadequate sharing of revenue with the traditional landowners of the copper mine has since been settled, with their involvement in future mining now a reality[3].

Following the ending of the guerilla war, agreement was reached by the secessionists and the PNG government in 2001, seeing Bougainville declared an autonomous region, governed by the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG).  Both the ABG and PNG signed the Bougainville Peace Agreement, known as the Arawa Accord in 2001 which has three related processes: 

  1. Autonomy
  2. Referendum
  3. Weapons disposal plan[4]

Two of the three have been accomplished, although it is not known precisely how many weapons were cached or even in existence before or after the December 2001 disposal process, so questions remain over weapons numbers[5].  Of concern is that the independence votes’ outcome hinges upon its ratification by the PNG parliament as the “final decision-making authority[6].”  The state as a person in international law should possess the following qualifications: (a) a permanent population; (b) a defined territory; (c) government; and (d) capacity to enter relations with the other states[7].  Bougainville satisfies all criteria despite efforts to resist the breakup by PNG.

This region has previously been of strategic interest to the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) due to its resources[8].  Foreign powers attempt at influence is nothing new and it appears that the PRC is endeavoring to extend its influence past the so-called Second Island Chain.  The chain is a strategic line that stretches from Japan, to Guam, then to the “vicinity of New Guinea[9].”  Similarly, Australia has a profound strategic interest in South-East Asia, particularly PNG and the islands of the South Pacific[9].  Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty (ANZUS) nations have fought wars and participated in peacekeeping missions in this area over the past 75 years and Bougainville lies within this region.

Financing the reopening of the Panguna mine is something that the PRC can afford, in keeping with its desire for infrastructure projects globally and commercial diplomacy[10].  To get the copper to market requires access from Panguna to Kieta port, with its adjacent airfield, on the east coast of Bougainville.  The strategic importance of Bougainville should therefore not be overlooked as the island is in a sound position to monitor the western Pacific.


Significance:  The recent visit to Australia by PRC Premier Li Keqinang has led to the increased warming of the bilateral relationship between the PRC and Australia.  Although Australia is still a firm ANZUS partner, U.S. foreign policy is now inward looking, prompting a refocus by the ANZUS partners.  Australian foreign policy can now act as a positive influence over the PRC in this region, with a “non-provocative, pragmatic diplomatic stance[11].”

Option #1:  Bougainville achieves independence in 2019 and ANZUS can assume defense duties in rotation on the island as there is no allowance for a defense force in the Bougainville constitution.

Risk:  Low.  This is the preferred outcome due to the minimal risk to regional stability.  It would give greater influence in the area to ANZUS nations.  The PNG military can benefit from cross training in keeping with Australia’s regional outlook.

Gain:  Positive.  Economic benefit for Bougainville.  The Panguna mine would reopen without PNG involvement with income provided to the local landowners.

Option #2:  The Bougainville referendum result is denied by the PNG government.  Bougainville declares sovereignty itself, following the examples of Bangladesh, Croatia, Georgia and Moldova (see Other Comments below).

Risk:  Moderate.  If PNG denies the result of the referendum to preserve its sovereignty over Bougainville, civil discontent is highly likely as Bougainville independence is preferred and has been over time.

Gain:  Negative.  An outcome regional partners would not want, due to the potential for violence and civil unrest.  Intervention requiring peacekeepers may occur, a situation the islanders have endured before.

Option #3:  Regardless of the result of the referendum, with closer relationships between Australia, the PRC and the ABG, a mining joint venture could commence at Panguna.  It is conceivable that this would involve the PRC as a partner in the joint venture with an Australian mining company.

Risk:  High.  Although PRC preference is for critical infrastructure projects globally, the risk would be high as there are elements within the ABG itself who have a definite preference not to deal with the PRC in any form.  Politically, this option would be impractical.

Gain:  Moderate.  Economically this would be of benefit to Bougainville for the life of the mine, which is expected to be twenty-five years.

Other Comments:  Bangladesh, Croatia, Georgia and Moldova, came to statehood in differing ways with one common denominator, at the time of their proclamation of independence there was no effective government in all four.  This differs from Bougainville, which has had effective governance for some time, elected officials, and its’ own administration separate from PNG.  Of the four nations mentioned above, Moldova is the most relative to Bougainville.  Moldova declared sovereignty on June 23, 1990, providing for the Moldovan constitution and laws to have primacy over those of the Soviet Union.  This was a proclamation of sovereignty and not independence but was a step towards it.

Recommendation:  None.


[1]  Jennings P. & Claxton K. (2013) A stitch in time. Preserving peace on Bougainville. Australian Strategic Policy Institute Limited.  p.3.

[2]  Jennings P. & Claxton K. (2013) A stitch in time. Preserving peace on Bougainville. Australian Strategic Policy Institute Limited.  p.15.

[3]  Bougainville Mining Act 2015. Autonomous Region of Bougainville (no.3 of 2015).

[4]  United Nations [UN] (2001) Bougainville Peace Agreement. Introduction and OutlineS/2001/988 Enclosure II Bougainville Peace Agreement.  23rd October 2001. p.8

[5]  Woodbury J. (2015) The Bougainville independence referendum: Assessing the risks and challenges before, during and after the referendum. Australian Defence College. Centre for Defence and Strategic Studies. p.9.

[6]  Woodbury J. (2015) The Bougainville independence referendum: Assessing the risks and challenges before, during and after the referendum. Australian Defence College. Centre for Defence and Strategic Studies.  P.7

[7]  Raic D. (2002) Statehood and the Law of Self-Determination. Brill Academic Publishers. p.406.

[8]  Hegarty M. (2015) Chinas growing influence in the South-West Pacific: Australian policies that could respond to Chinese intentions and objectives. Australian Defence College, Centre for Defence and Strategic Studies. p. 8

[9]  Holmes J.R. (2011) Island Chain Defence. The Diplomat. Retrieved 27th March 2017. http://thediplomat.com/2011/04/island-chain-defense/

[10]  Frost E.L. (2007) Chinas Rise and the Balance of Influence in Asia. Edited by William W. Keller and Thomas G. Rawsky. Ch. 5. Chinas’ Commercial Diplomacy in Asia. University of Pittsburg  Press. p.95.

[11]  Carr. B. (2017) Canberra’s sensible South China Sea Stand is contingent on continual pragmatism in Beijing. The Weekend Australian. March 18-19, 2017, p.24. News Ltd. Sydney.

Australia Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty (ANZUS) Bougainville China (People's Republic of China) Iain Strutt New Zealand Option Papers Papua New Guinea Referendums United States