A Nuclear Pivot to Asia?

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A Nuclear Pivot to Asia?

If America’s conventional superiority in Asia declines, then the relative importance of its nuclear edge will rise.

Will Asia’s worsening strategic uncertainty mark the end of President Obama’s nuclear disarmament quest? Are the elements coalescing for exactly what the Obama Administration does not want to imagine – a nuclear pivot to Asia? 

With the United States beginning drastic further cuts to its defense budget, while China seems likely to boost its military spending yet again, these are vital questions, not alarmist ones.

Indeed, the interaction of Asia’s strategic uncertainty with the future of nuclear deterrence is one of the most critical and difficult security questions the world faces.

Track back to 2009, when President Obama announced a diplomatic push to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons globally, to pursue deep cuts in the U.S. and Russian arsenals, and to strengthen the foundations of non-proliferation. The Prague agenda was a noble one, inspired by the bold fusion of idealism and realism inherent in the high-profile disarmament campaigning of elder statesmen George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn. 

That was also the year of Obama’s failed bid to engage China as a constructive partner across the board, from maritime security to non-proliferation and climate change.

Much has changed. Obama’s efforts to engage China foundered, notably during China’s maritime assertiveness from 2010 through the present.

Meanwhile, analysts have kept revisiting their assessments of the U.S.-China conventional military balance.  Even a year or two ago, many in the American disarmament community still held the comforting view that a world without nuclear weapons would automatically favor America and its allies, in every theater.

I have been assured by some of America’s most learned nuclear experts that Washington can strategically afford to keep reducing reliance in nuclear weapons in Asia because American conventional superiority over China is supposedly overwhelming. But what if that does not remain so? 

Obama’s disarmament campaign has had some notable accomplishments. The U.S. and Russian strategic arsenals have been cut further from grotesquely high levels.  The scene was set for a successful 2010 Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Accusations of hypocrisy about Washington’s non-proliferation efforts have been dampened.

The 2010 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review made sensible, logical steps towards a reduced reliance on nuclear weapons in America’s global posture, without critically damaging the confidence of allies protected by the U.S.’ so-called extended deterrence – America’s willingness to use force to protect them even from nuclear threats.  An innovative set of extended deterrence dialogues with Japan and South Korea has helped in this regard.

But how will the further pursuit of Obama’s anti-nuclear vision interact with the worsening strategic dynamics in Asia in 2013 and beyond?

Japan and South Korea are unnerved by North Korea’s continued progress in its nuclear and missile programs. Japan’s strategic anxiety is deepened by the prospect of confrontation, perhaps even an armed clash, with China over disputed islands.

The full implications of sequestration on America’s conventional force posture in Indo-Pacific Asia remain far from clear.  But they almost certainly will add to the fears of allies.

It is notable meanwhile that the White House’s response to the February 13th North Korean missile test included an explicit reassurance to Japan that it was covered by the U.S. extended nuclear deterrent. President Obama openly used the phrase nuclear umbrella, rather than the usual more euphemistic reference to something like “all means.” 

This is a grim reminder that, deep down, the security of Asia rests of American capability – and presumed willingness – to use nuclear threats or force in an extreme crisis. 

Does all of this mean that we can expect voices to gather in Seoul, Tokyo or even parts of the American debate advocating reemphasizing nuclear deterrence to keep the peace in Asia, even vis-à-vis China? 

I am not suggesting that there is any serious prospect of a physical nuclear pivot, for instance the redeployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to Korea.

But the path to further limitations on the role of nuclear weapons in America’s Asia posture, such as an unequivocal no-first-use declaration or a willingness to drop down to nuclear parity with China’s small arsenal, is now even less clear than it was five years ago.

It may not amount to a nuclear pivot, but if America’s conventional superiority in Asia significantly declines, then the relative importance of its nuclear edge will rise – whether President Obama and disarmament visionaries like it or not.