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Asia’s Nuclear Footprints

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Asia’s Nuclear Footprints

Asia’s ability to ensure the region’s nuclear arms are properly managed will depend on the actions of 3 nations.

Recent comments by top U.S. officials suggest that Asia will assume greater prominence in global politics – and play a bigger role in U.S. strategic considerations. And one issue that’s likely to receive increased attention is the nuclear security, a topic that Asia is very familiar with.

Ever since China live-tested its first nuclear weapon in 1964, Asia’s nuclear footprint has steadily grown to cover uses in both the civilian and military realms. At present, eight Asian states, namely Japan, China, Taiwan, South Korea, North Korea, Burma, India and Pakistan, possess nuclear capabilities. In addition, at least half a dozen more – particularly in Central and Southeast Asia – have indicated a desire to explore the use of nuclear power to fuel their countries’ energy needs.

In November, nuclear energy experts from the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP) study group met in Hanoi to discuss a range of nuclear security-related matters. Among the issues debated were nuclear export controls, denuclearization talks on the Korean peninsula and post-Fukushima nuclear safety. The group also produced a memorandum that eyes reducing and ultimately eliminating the use of nuclear weapons from “security strategies and operational doctrines.” In addition, the memorandum urged states with nuclear weapons to demonstrate greater transparency as well as to establish confidence-building measures aimed at reducing reliance on these weapons in military doctrines.

However, it’s one thing to pass these kinds of proposals on paper, and quite another to ensure they are adhered to in practice – especially as having nuclear weapons is seen by many countries as integral to their deterrent plans. In this respect, the exploits of the late North Korea leader Kim Jong-il in extracting international concessions and financial aid won’t have gone unnoticed. However distasteful such a strategy might seem, there’s no denying the efficacy of Kim’s nuclear card.

With this in mind, it’s unlikely that the international system – barring a global nuclear catastrophe – would see a return to a “start state zero” in which states voluntarily give up their entire nuclear arsenal in exchange for mutual security assurances. What’s more likely to happen, at least in the short to medium term, is that states with nuclear capabilities will continue to work on their nuclear programs while at the same time attempting to mitigate the political consequences that an active nuclear posture might bring about.

As such, a more realistic nuclear strategy is to ensure that countries with nuclear capabilities are encouraged to act responsibly, while safeguards aimed at denying the transfer of nuclear knowledge to states with weak democratic structures are beefed up. Essentially, the idea is that if you can’t prevent someone from playing with fire, you can at least try to guide them on how to do it relatively safely.

With this in mind, I’d argue that the future of nuclear development in Asia will largely depend on how Japan, China and India choose to chart their respective courses.

For decades, Japan’s nuclear policy has reflected the public’s strong anti-nuclear weapons stance. And, as a recent report by Harvard’s Kennedy School suggests, Japan’s extraordinary nuclear policy stability is largely the result of the de-facto veto authority that the top political leadership, major state bureaucracies, private companies, and prefectural governors have over major policy shifts. This is unlikely to change anytime soon. In addition, Japan’s ongoing reliance on the U.S. nuclear umbrella further strengthens the view that Japanese security interests would be best served by depending on a U.S. nuclear presence rather than developing its own arsenal.

Still, with China’s growing military clout, it’s not entirely clear to what extent such a policy can be sustained. For some time, it has been assumed that any military conflict affecting Japan would likely break out either on the Korean Peninsula or across the Taiwan Strait. Yet while it’s unlikely that conventional skirmishes would significantly alter the dynamics of Japan-U.S. security arrangements, the possibility of a worst-case scenario – where North Korea directly strikes Japan with missiles – can’t be ruled out. The question then, of course, is how Japan might respond.

China, in contrast, was the first Asian nation to conduct a nuclear test, and its nuclear footprint carries significant weight, both domestically and internationally. But while Beijing regularly espouses support for international non-proliferation treaties, it does so on its own terms, and such calls are subservient to its larger defense policy and military strategy.

Politics aside, a more pressing concern is the safety of China’s existing nuclear facilities. Recent high-profile accidents on its public transportation services have again raised concerns over the country’s infrastructure safety. At present, China has 14 active nuclear reactors with many more under construction, and Chinese scholars themselves have highlighted the importance of improving the safety culture within Chinese industry, and enhancing the regulatory framework so that operations are in line with international safety standards. The reality is that China may have less to fear from nuclear terrorism than from natural disasters. Greater institutional safeguards therefore need to be in place to minimize the risk and danger posed by nuclear radiation in the event of an accident.

India’s nuclear policy is also worthy of consideration. It has seemingly recognized the danger of the spread of nuclear weapons, but wants to retain some kind of nuclear capability so as to respond to what it sees as existential threats. In other words, nuclear weapons are viewed as a necessary evil for India to retain the right to react – or retaliate – in the event of an attack.

But India’s nuclear program has also had unforeseen consequences for its security – especially in tilting the military balance in South Asia. By trumping India’s conventional superiority, nuclear weapons may have helped hobble India’s capacity to react to Pakistan’s constant provocations. For instance, it can be argued that New Delhi’s limited response to Islamabad during the 1999 Kargil war, the 2001 Parakram crisis, and more recently, in the aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai attacks was the result of Indian fears of nuclear escalation. This point was captured in a RAND report on the Mumbai attack that noted Pakistan’s brazen attitude: “After becoming an overt nuclear power, Pakistan has become emboldened to prosecute conflict at the lower end of the spectrum, confident that nuclear weapons minimize the likelihood of an Indian military reaction.”

Ongoing tensions on the Korean peninsula, India-Pakistan hostilities as well as the preponderance Chinese power will undoubtedly all increasingly test Asia’s determination to act as a responsible nuclear stakeholder. Asian states will therefore need to work harder at thrashing out their own set of norms on nuclear non-use to ensure that Asia’s nuclear ambitions don’t spiral out of control.

Benjamin Ho is an Associate Research Fellow with the Multilateralism Studies Centre at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, in Singapore.