Mapping Asia’s Nuclear Future


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.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

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.

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.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief