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After the First Shots: Managing Escalation in Northeast Asia

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The United States has never fought a conventional war against a nuclear-armed adversary. Yet the United States and its allies must prepare for a range of military contingencies with both North Korea and China, and avoiding nuclear escalation would be a U.S. objective in all of them. Developing strategies for managing escalation will be an essential part of U.S. efforts to extend deterrence and assure its allies in Northeast Asia. Thomas Schelling s writing on coercion and competitions in risktaking remains valuable for analyzing the challenges associated with escalation management. A U.S. strategy for managing escalation under the nuclear shadow must compel an adversary to stop fighting while demonstrating restraint in U.S. goals and use of force in other words, withholding punishment to induce comparable restraint from the adversary. Madelyn Creedon, the former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Global Strategic Affairs, explained the relationship between reciprocal restraint, deterrence, and escalation management There is . . . an element of restraint in our reactions to attacks as well that is a part of deterrence. Our restraint comes with a promise of more action if there is a response. 1 This article applies that framework to U.S. military strategy in Northeast Asia. The first section summarizes developments in North Korean and Chinese strategic postures and the implications for U.S. defense strategy. The second part describes Schelling s concept of a competition in risk-taking and argues that it is a valuable framework for developing a strategy for managing escalation. The third section applies this framework to the Korean Peninsula. The final two parts apply the framework to a U.S.-China conventional conflict the fourth section explores both deliberate and inadvertent escalation risks in such a conflict, and the fifth section discusses several measures for preventing inadvertent escalation.

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  • Military Operations, Strategy and Tactics

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