Trump To Change The Nuclear Landscape In The Asia-Pacific Region



The US President-elect, Donald Trump, alarmed the world with his recent Twitter post. According to his Twitter, Mr. Trump expressed his willingness to ‘‘greatly strengthen and expand’’ the United States’ ‘‘nuclear capability.’’ Although some of Trump’s advisors came out to claim that Trump’s Twitter could not represent his true intentions, according to the Washington Post, Trump’s comments on expanding the US’s nuclear capability did alarm certain countries about the possibility of a nuclear arms race.

Other than the implicit messages that might be perceived by certain countries, Trump’s tweet does have more substantial implications to the contemporary nuclear landscape in the Asia-Pacific region. Nuclear issues, indeed, has become more complex in the region given the intensification of the Sino-American strategic competition, the development of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, and the security dilemma of the latent nuclear states, namely Japan and South Korea.

This report aims at exploring the US’s adopted strategies that help to maintain extended nuclear deterrence, assurance, and reassurance in the Asia-Pacific region. In addition, the report also anticipates the possible outcomes of Trump’s violation to the current nuclear landscape in the region. In the first section, the report provides a general introduction to the concepts of nuclear deterrence, extended deterrence, assurance, and reassurance. In addition, the first section also reviews how these strategies helped to maintain nuclear landscape and strategic arrangement in the Asia-Pacific region. The second section explores the possible outcomes of the potential move by Trump to greatly strengthen and expand the US’s nuclear capability.

Basic Nuclear Concepts 

Since invention, nuclear weapons have only been used once in warfare. The only nuclear weapons that have been used in warfare were two atomic bombs that exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the WWII. The nuclear explosions over the two Japanese cities have shocked the world due to the level of devastation that the nuclear weapons created. Andrew Heywood overviewed the ways that nuclear weapons cause devastation. According to his book, nuclear weapons can cause immediate devastation and the deadly by-product of nuclear radiation. Nuclear weapons immediate devastation is caused by the very explosion of the warheads. A nuclear explosion could generate a firestorm that is capable of long-distance travel with the temperatures rising to around 1,000 degrees centigrade. The by-product of a nuclear explosion, nuclear radiation, could further cause ‘‘radiation sickness and long-term diseases including a range of cancers.’’ Other than the factors overviewed above, nuclear weapons could also cause complete and non-discriminatory destruction to the attacked targets. Nuclear technology has become more sophisticated and nuclear weapons have become more destructive due to the Soviet-US nuclear arms race during the Cold War. The later tested thermonuclear weapons can cause more than 2,000 times the destructive force compared with the atomic bombs that exploded in Japan. In short, it is the destructive nature that makes nuclear weapons a unique, yet dangerous actor in international and domestic politics.

Nuclear states have been utilizing nuclear weapons as a tool in international politics through several conceptualized strategies. The concept of nuclear deterrence was developed during the Cold War. Theoretically speaking, deterrence could be considered as a form of military strategy that aims at persuading the adversaries not to attack. In exercising, the defender has to make the potential aggressor believe that the defender puts great value in the potential targets that the aggressor may attack. In turn, the defender has to persuade the aggressor that the potential responses by the defender would be grave. In another word, the aggressor would not attack if it thinks the aggression could cause more damages than benefits to itself. Meanwhile, extended deterrence consists of both adversaries and strategic allies. Linton Brooks and Mira Rapp-Hooper described extended deterrence as the strategy that aimed at ‘‘dissuading’’ the adversaries from attacking a US ally. Similar to extended deterrence, assurance also comes across strategic allies. Assurance aims at convincing the strategic allies that the US is committed their defense. In another word, the US would launch nuclear retaliation in response to a potential adversary’s aggression towards the US allies. However, reassurance is the strategy that is purely designed for the potential adversaries. Reassurance aims at persuading a potential adversary that the US’s extended deterrence is only designed to protect its strategic allies, but not to threaten the potential adversary if it does not commit aggression to the US’s allies.

The US strategies of extended deterrence, assurance, and reassurance have achieved a certain level of favourable outcomes in the Asia-Pacific region. For the US’s allies, the extended deterrence has so far deterred outside full-scale aggression by potential adversaries. More importantly, the US allies are not actively pursuing nuclear weapons as a result of the US’s extended deterrence and assurance. The US nuclear strategies have also worked for the potential adversaries, namely China. China has remained a relatively responsible nuclear player because of the US’s reassurance strategy and the shrinking US nuclear arsenal. Since possession, China has not changed its nuclear postures. The nuclear postures adopted by China are minimum deterrence and non-first use doctrine. The Chinese nuclear posture has effectively transferred the nature of Chinese nuclear arsenal from offensive to defensive. Moreover, China’s nuclear arsenal has also not experienced a traumatic expansion. Apart from deterring China, the US also successfully deterred China’s potential adversaries, such as Chiang Kai-shek, shortly after the Chinese Civil War, from launching aggression towards China. Although North Korea is not deterred by the US nuclear strategies, generally speaking, the current US nuclear strategies have helped maintain the nuclear landscape and a relatively stable strategic arrangement in the Asia-Pacific region.

Trump’s Intention May Affect The Regional Nuclear Landscape

Trump’s comments on how he would manage the US nuclear arsenals raised concerns internationally. Should Trump act according to his Twitter post during his term, the Asia-Pacific region would become a more dangerous place. Since earlier this month, Trump’s comments on the ‘‘One China Policy’’ has sent China a signal that Trump may not conduct international relations accordingly in his coming term. As the Sino-American strategic competition intensifies, China may, and likely, be threatened by Trump’s comments on nuclear weapons. Should Trump greatly strengthen and expand the US nuclear arsenal, China may change its nuclear postures accordingly. Should China change its nuclear postures and expand its nuclear arsenal, the nuclear landscape in the Asia-Pacific region would become more complex. On the one hand, the potential expansion of China’s nuclear arsenal would threaten the US allies, namely Japan and South Korea. Interestingly, both Japan and South Korea are categorized as latent nuclear states, which means that both states can develop their nuclear weapons in a relatively short period of time. The US, in turn, will face more pressure from its allies to maintain its extended nuclear deterrence and assurance postures. Should the US failed to do so, it is not impossible for the US’s regional allies to develop their own nuclear weapons. On the other hand, a nuclear arms race between the US and China would make the current strategic arrangement unstable. The likelihood of a potential nuclear war between the two would also increase should both sides further expand their nuclear arsenals.

The North Korea nuclear issue would become more difficult to resolve as well if Trump decided to expand the US nuclear arsenal. According to Greg Sargent’s article for the Washington Post, Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear non-proliferation expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, expressed that Trump’s comments on the US’s nuclear arsenals may significantly raise the possibility of a North Korean nuclear aggression towards South Korea and Japan. Lewis pointed out that North Korea is highly likely to be threatened by Trump as Trump expressed that he would make the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, ‘‘disappear’’ during his presidential campaign. Lewis further argued that Trump’s Twitter post can be seen as an aggressive signal in the eyes of North Koreans and they might ‘‘decide not to wait around to find out if that’s true or not.’’ Following this logic, North Korea may decide to launch pre-emptive nuclear strikes on the US military that is stationed in South Korea and Japan to avoid US invasion.


This report has reviewed basic nuclear concepts and how they helped to maintain the nuclear landscape in the Asia-Pacific region. In addition, this report has also discussed the potential outcomes that may come about based on Trump’s comments on strengthening and expanding the US’s nuclear arsenals. Given the intensification of the Sino-American strategic competition, as well as the development and expansion of North Korea’s nuclear arsenals, Trump’s comments may trigger the potential expansion in China’s nuclear arsenal or a potential nuclear aggression by North Korea. Either way, the region would be less stable. As the US President-elect, Trump must be more cautious with his words on social medias to avoid further unfavourable outcomes due to his reckless comments.