Features | Security | East Asia

Mapping Asia’s Nuclear Future

The New START has entered into force. It’s now time for Asian nations to step up and help tackle the nuclear threat, says Richard Weitz.

With the New START arms reduction agreement between Russia and the United States having entered into force on February 5, the nuclear arms control spotlight is now very likely to shift to Asia.

It’s true that US officials have expressed interest in making one more round of bilateral reductions. However, Russian government representatives have indicated that they want to break with tradition and include constraints on other nuclear weapons states in the next strategic arms control treaty. Either way, both governments are eager to take a close look at how to restrict the nuclear activities of other countries—particularly in Asia.

North Korea aside, China is likely to be chief among the countries of interest. Although it’s never officially stated, Russian strategic analysts have openly acknowledged that China’s rising military strength has made Russian policymakers reluctant to negotiate further deep cuts in their nuclear forces. Russia’s military is still more powerful than China’s, but the disparity in population and economic growth rates is closing the gap. Indeed, the United States will also likely find it hard to reduce nuclear arms further without some indication that China will accept more explicit constraints on its own nuclear potential.

China isn’t the only Asian nuclear state that has remained aloof from strategic arms reduction treaties. But the fact is that while Chinese officials have hinted that they may at some point join nuclear arms control talks, they’ve also made it clear that this would only happen after Russian and US nuclear forces decline to Beijing’s levels.

This would be a missed opportunity. China could help realize deeper cuts in Russian and US nuclear forces if it was itself contributing more directly to the reductions process. But even setting aside the question of its own nuclear arsenal, there are other areas where Washington feels it could benefit from greater co-operation from Beijing. Last month, for example, US President Barack Obama increased pressure on China to do more over neighbouring North Korea, warning visiting Chinese President Hu Jintao that the United States would expand its military power in East Asia unless international efforts to constrain Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile activities proved more successful.

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It’s true that Chinese and Russian diplomats have complained about North Korea’s past missile tests and have tried to persuade Pyongyang to roll back its nuclear and missile activities. Yet both have still refused to apply sanctions against North Korea, in part over fears that they could lead to the collapse of the nuclear-armed country.

Another looming issue is South Asia. While there has been some pointed criticism of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, to date much less has been said about constraining India and Pakistan. Like North Korea, India and Pakistan have tested nuclear weapons and are strengthening their nuclear arsenals. In addition, their nuclear forces are illegal under international law since they weren’t recognized as one of the five states possessing nuclear weapons at the time the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which New Delhi and Islamabad have refused to sign, entered into force in 1970. India and Pakistan have also refused to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty or adopt the comprehensive full-scope safeguards supervised by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

But there are some signs of a shift. Since ratifying New START, the United States and other countries have renewed their efforts to secure a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) that would indirectly constrain the number of nuclear weapons Pakistan and India might develop. It’s true that the multilateral negotiations on a verifiable FMCT at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva remain deadlocked, not least because the Pakistani government sees nuclear weapons as an essential equalizer to India’s superior conventional forces. But at a February 1 plenary meeting, other Asian governments identified securing such a treaty as one of their four priorities in the coming years, along with pursuing general nuclear disarmament, expanding negative security assurances, and preventing an arms race in outer space.

The recent unrest in Egypt may also prompt a rethink on the subcontinent as concerns are reignited about nuclear weapons proliferation in unstable regions like the Middle East and South Asia. Pakistan particularly may need to reassure others that its nuclear arsenal is safe and secure from terrorists. In return, the international community, including the United States, could consider offering limited support for Pakistan’s civil nuclear energy aspirations.

Pakistan is right to complain that India has been receiving more favourable treatment in this area from most foreign governments. (China, which continues to transfer nuclear technology to Pakistan, is a notable exception.) In particular, the Nuclear Suppliers Group, whose guidelines generally prohibit members from engaging in nuclear commerce with states that haven’t applied full-scope IAEA safeguards to their nuclear facilities, has granted India a limited waiver from these rules. As a result, France, Russia, and the United States have entered into civil nuclear cooperation agreements with India, while declining to offer Pakistan similar treatment.

But those hoping to rid the region of the threat of nuclear weapons have other means at their disposal, aside from negotiations focused on individual countries. For example, Asia already has a number of regional nuclear weapons free zones—the South Pacific Nuclear-Weapon Free Zone Treaty (Treaty of Rarotonga), the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (Treaty of Bangkok), and the Central Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (Treaty of Semipalatinsk) all apply to Asia. Under the agreements, members agree not to test, develop, or contribute to the spread of nuclear weapons within their geographic areas. These treaties include at least one protocol that allows the existing nuclear weapons countries to pledge not to test nuclear weapons within the zones as well as to offer legally binding negative security assurances in which they commit not to use, or threaten to use, nuclear weapons against the treaty parties.

The United States among others has so far declined to sign the protocols to the treaties for Southeast Asia and Central Asia. But these governments could still provide indirect diplomatic, technical, and assistance to bolster enforcement of the treaties.

The widespread (if not universal) support among Asian countries for the Proliferation Security Initiative, the Global Initiative against Nuclear Terrorism, and other non-proliferation tools has provided additional mechanisms to limit the spread of nuclear weapons capabilities in Asia.

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A Nuclear First

Last April, Washington hosted the first ever nuclear security summit, which was attended by numerous Asian leaders. Next year’s meeting will be hosted by Seoul, which will give South Korea and other Asian governments a chance to address issues generally overlooked at last year’s summit, such as the danger of nuclear proliferation to additional countries and the need to prevent terrorists from gaining access to less dangerous radiological materials that they can use to construct nuclear terrorist devices such as ‘dirty bombs.’

In the meantime, though, there have been some other positive steps. China, Japan, India, and other Asian countries with advanced civil nuclear energy programmes have been establishing nuclear security centres where foreign nationals can join their own citizens in researching proliferation-resistant nuclear technologies, as well as training nuclear personnel in safety and security techniques. These nuclear security centres are typically funded by their host government, but receive technical assistance from the IAEA and foreign governments, especially the United States.

Indeed, US support for China’s new nuclear centre, formalized in a recent bilateral agreement, highlights how, even in the absence of an official China-US nuclear arms control agreement—and despite years of strained military relations—nuclear security has emerged as a core area of Sino-American cooperation in recent years. Chinese and US representatives at both the governmental and nongovernmental level have entered into regular bilateral dialogues on strategic stability to discuss these and other nuclear concerns. The fear exists, for example, that the two nuclear establishments might misperceive nuclear signalling. What would this mean? In an extreme case, it could mean that although one side may be raising its alert level for its nuclear forces as a deterrent, the other might misunderstand such a move as foreshadowing an imminent attack—and launch a pre-emptive strike in response.

All this said, Asian nations could well benefit from a more focused discussion among the region’s official and unofficial nuclear weapons powers, which would include India and Pakistan as well as China, Russia, and the United States. (North Korea, despite its nuclear capabilities, should probably be excluded from such dialogue since it presents unique problems for regional stability and because its representatives have anyway displayed unique skill in disrupting other multilateral negotiations).

In contrast, Japan should actually be included in any Asian nuclear stability talks, even if only as an observer. This is in part because of Tokyo’s reliance on US nuclear security guarantees, but also because of Japan’s latent capacity to develop nuclear weapons. The country has also established itself as a responsible player, with an admirable past and present role in countering nuclear proliferation. It’s a welcome bright spot in an unpredictable part of the world.