Balancing Deterrence with Assurances: Policy coordination between security partners in the Asia-Pacific
Asia-Pacific Strategic Risks

Balancing Deterrence with Assurances: Policy coordination between security partners in the Asia-Pacific

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Executive Summary

This policy brief is part of a joint project between Asia-Pacific Leadership Network and the European Leadership Network aimed at understanding strategic threat perceptions and policies among three security partners in the Asia-Pacific – Australia, Japan, and South Korea – and the United Kingdom (UK). The strategic choices of Australia, Japan, and South Korea are heavily focused on strengthening deterrence against China and North Korea, at the expense of credible assurances of restraint.

The policy brief distinguishes between reassurance – a positive security guarantee, where a country resolves to defend an ally if they are attacked – and assurance – a negative security guarantee, where a country resolves not to use force against an adversary as long as certain conditions are met.

From this definition, the policy brief makes three central arguments regarding assurance:

  • Deterrence without clearly communicated assurances towards adversaries is highly problematic, destabilising, and increases the risks of miscalculation.
  • To reduce those risks, the three Asia-Pacific security partners must balance their deterrence policies with assurances of restraint, chiefly by improving coordination between their respective deterrence policies.
  • The UK is well-positioned and has a strategic interest in facilitating such coordination.

A phased approach to developing joint assurance policies is sensible: these countries should first explore a unified assurance approach amongst themselves, before coordinating with the United States, in order to eventually decide on how to communicate assurance measures to adversaries and reduce the risk of deterrence breakdown.

To this end, the security partners must identify the ‘Goldilocks zone’ between ambiguity and assurance, and agree on where to draw red lines, how to communicate those red lines towards adversaries, as well as the consequences of these adversaries crossing red lines. At the same time, these security partners must create incentives for adversaries to not cross such lines.

Recent changes to deterrence postures in Australia, Japan, and South Korea (especially the acquisition of long-range strike capabilities), together with recent diplomatic developments between the Asia-Pacific security partners on the one hand, and China and North Korea on the other, have complicated the task of communicating assurances – but have also opened up new opportunities to stabilise deterrence.

The UK, despite its limited regional influence, maintains a strategic interest in improving the balance between deterrence and assurance measures in the region. It can and should support efforts to stabilize deterrence, by facilitating a dialogue on assurances. This is necessary, because the developments outlined in this policy brief indicate that there is a lack of understanding among political leaders, government officials and the expert community of how deterrence operates during periods of high tension in a multipolar system, and of the stabilising role that assurances need to play

The policy brief identifies five challenges where the security partners must do more work in order to balance deterrence with assurances:

  • Coordination: the security partners must coordinate their approaches and views of assurances among themselves.
  • Agreement: the security partners must reach agreement on how to define red lines vis-à-vis China and North Korea, including the principles that underpin assurances, its scope and the institutional framework for providing assurances.
  • Empathy: the security partners must recognise how their lack of policy coordination and adoption of certain diplomatic language can affect Chinese and North Korean threat perceptions.
  • Reciprocity and trust: recognising that assurances of restraint require reciprocal assurances from China and North Korea to be politically acceptable, the security partners should agree on, and clarify what trustworthy assurances from China and North Korea would look like.
  • Complexity: the security partners should discuss how to maintain the credibility of assurances in case crises break out simultaneously in different parts of the Asia-Pacific, such as the Taiwan Strait and the Korean Peninsula.


About the Authors

Joel Petersson Ivre is Policy Fellow at the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network.

Oliver Meier is Research and Policy Director at the European Leadership Network.

Rishi Paul is Senior Policy Fellow at the European Leadership Network.

Tanya Ogilvie-White is Senior Research Adviser at the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network.

The opinions articulated in this report represent the views of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network and the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network, or any of their members, boards or funders.

Image: iStock

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