Features | Security

Arms Control in Asia: Back to the Future?

Even with nuclear and conventional arms agreements, the tasks of strategy do not go away.

Arms Control in Asia: Back to the Future?
Credit: REUTERS/Indian Defence Research and Development Organisation/Handout

Nuclear reductions and disarmament are not necessarily smart ideas. Even with the successful elimination of nuclear weapons, the tasks of strategy – deterrence, extended deterrence, and arms control – do not go away. Instead, they become even more difficult to manage. This is especially true for conventional arms control which, throughout history, has received very little attention in Asia. That is disturbing, given that Asia is now the center of global strategic gravity. Whilst nuclear disarmament will not happen any time soon (especially given escalating tensions between the U.S. and Russia and China), U.S. President Barack Obama’s initial goals of further reducing the U.S. nuclear stockpile should force us to think very carefully about the desirability of relying on conventional military balances for deterrence, because a world with significantly fewer nuclear weapons would graphically expose conventional imbalances between states, which in many instances have remained partially hidden in the current nuclear age. It is upon these imbalances that any remaining system of deterrence would increasingly rely.

This is where arms control might be able to contribute: to reduce the probability of war, and to minimize death and destruction if war comes. Article VI of the NPT, for instance, contains a conventional disarmament “obligation.” This raises an important question: To what extent should the nuclear weapon states focus on reducing their nuclear arsenals as a precondition for conventional disarmament? In other words, which comes first? We have tended to think that it would first be a good idea to reduce nuclear weapons before reducing conventional forces. However, the discourse by all the nuclear weapons states except the United States indicates that nuclear weapons are seen as but one component of the overall military balance between states. So we should ask: What are the prospects for conventional arms control agreements in the Asia-Pacific?

Historically, the East Asian region, let alone the wider Asia-Pacific, has been much less interested in arms control than Europe. Indeed, most arms control and disarmament policies (both conventional and nuclear) have been conceived and adopted by non-Asian countries. Both of these factors have been true during the Cold War, and throughout Asia’s military history more generally. We might ask, then, to what extent can we draw lessons from Europe’s history for the region today? (Un)fortunately, Europe’s experience since the late 17th century suggests that whilst arms control may be desirable, and could help alleviate regional tensions, achieving agreement on limitations is fraught with difficulties linked to geography, defense spending, cross-cutting geopolitical interests, alliance dynamics, re-armament capabilities (latency was an issue well before the nuclear age), and the dual nature of evolving military technology.

There are several other issues that plagued negotiations between European states. What kinds of metrics might be used? What categories of weapons should be limited or eliminated? How many of which types? What about their geographic deployment? Should the focus be on the range or destructiveness of a weapons system? Should more attention be given to naval or air power? Or land power? Or the amount of overall defense spending? What should the yardstick of power be? How does each country perceive to be “enough” for strictly national defense? What about the fact that some states face greater internal security problems than others? Some countries may not be as advanced as their neighbors – should they be allowed a “catch-up” period? Could a distinction be made between capabilities intended for sea-denial and sea-control? For instance, submarines were a major point of contention in the 1920s. The British did not like submarines, pointing to the indiscriminate destruction they had wrought in previous naval battles. The French, on the other hand, argued that these were an efficient instrument of defense; Paris and other European capitals argued that they were an effective check on battleship strength. The other French argument was that it was the only weapon that permitted a nation scantily supplied with capital ships to defend itself at sea. The relationship between air and sea power was also hotly debated, particularly after around 1910. With the advent of the airplane, it would now be possible for states to extend the attack range of their warships without first having to be geographically proximate to their target(s) – an extension of firing power that went well beyond torpedoes.


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These historical issues highlight the importance of thinking of weapons systems in terms of complementarity – how they fall contribute to an overall military balance. The French emphasized this point at the 1926 Preparatory Commission for the Plenary Conference on Disarmament; whilst the British were focusing on limiting naval capabilities of other states, the French argued that disarmament measures must be fashioned around the concept of security – it was not enough to limit naval capabilities. They affirmed the interdependence of land, naval and aerial capabilities and the need to factor this into the war potential of each country. Even though they might be qualitatively different in terms of destructive capability, nuclear weapons are still part of a broader military equation. We see this time and time again with the proliferation of conventionally-armed cruise and ballistic missiles, which are also a significant enabler of strategic reach and destructive capacity. For instance, before its disintegration, Syria repeatedly stated that it would not agree to a Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone (WMDFZ) unless Israel renounced its air superiority. For Iran to agree, the U.S. would need to significantly reduce its presence in the region, and Israel would need to limit its offensive capabilities and its aggressive rhetoric. Indeed, Syria’s build-up of Scud-B and Scud-C missiles since 1974 was a direct response to Israel’s conventional superiority and Syria’s growing regional isolation. It was believed that, mated to chemical and biological warheads, some of these could provide a deterrent also to Israel’s use of nuclear weapons against Syrian territory.

Even the Cold War saw significant attempts at non-nuclear arms control, the most important of which was the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty. These initiatives were influenced by the nuclear forces of both the U.S. and USSR. Russia recently withdrew from the Treaty and threatened nuclear weapons against Denmark if it decided to host U.S. missile defenses. For Russia, NATO expansion was a means of bypassing the provisions of the Treaty. “In these circumstances, Russia considers it senseless to continue its participation in the meetings of the JCG [Joint Consultative Group]…for political and practical reasons and unreasonably costly from the financial-economic point of view,” the ministry said, citing the head of the Russian Delegation to the Vienna Negotiations on Military Security and Arms Control. These developments highlight a crucial issue: the fundamental question of how alliances help or impede arms control efforts.

Alliances were a major factor in the ultimate failure of the League of Nations. The theory was that if one of the great powers pursued an aggressive course of action, the remaining seven could form a united front and oppose it. The British government also expressed concern about this, worrying that the forces available to repel aggression under the Mutual Assistance Treaty would always be subject to agreements, domestic issues, economic considerations, and other constraints. Also, it might take too long for two or more states to agree that they must defend the interests of a third. Indeed, in 1939, Russia signed the Ribbentrop Pact with Germany, and the four totalitarian states became (temporarily) aligned against the three democracies and China, shifting the balance of power and enabling Germany to go to war.

Nuclear and Conventional Power

These issues, in turn, raise additional questions about the relationship between nuclear and conventional military power for arms control. What would the U.S. arsenal look like were it not for Washington’s global alliance commitments? Or if it were a less globally committed military actor and its nuclear policies looked more like those of France and the U.K.? There are, of course, nuances to this question: Could the United States still continue to “extend” deterrence with conventional forces only? Would it want to? In all its history up until the Second World War, the United States was a more or less isolationist power. It is also easy to take for granted just how impressive a feat it was for the United States to establish alliances with countries in Asia, for instance, half a world away. U.S. nuclear capabilities, and their long-range delivery systems, played an important part in that enterprise. Without the bomb, Washington might have had neither the appetite nor the audacity to undertake such vast and significant security commitments.

It’s true that the size and shape of the U.S. nuclear arsenal has always been inherently tied to the defense of its Western European allies, with the Asia-Pacific as a secondary consideration. Relatively recent literature on the subject suggests that it is indeed allies that have always been a major hindrance in U.S.-Russian nuclear arms-control negotiations. Which raises what should be an obvious point: In order to get to lower numbers and eventually zero nuclear weapons, the United States needs to wean its allies off the so-called nuclear umbrella. But would removing the nuclear component of U.S. extended deterrence entail an inverse buildup of conventional forces? Could we see a non-nuclear arms race try to fill a nuclear-shaped gap in the Asia-Pacific? Any buildup of U.S. conventional forces in the region would surely be provocative for challengers (think China) to the current regional order. Already the original “Air-Sea Battle” concept – an attempt at reassuring allies that Washington is serious about their defense – has generated considerable debate in Tokyo, Seoul, and even Canberra.

On the way to formal arms control, then, would great powers be willing to drastically reduce their conventional forces? Previously, U.S. naval forces were not so contentious (at least not the subs) since they had little to do with U.S.-Soviet rivalry (Pacific forces). And there were substantial differences in naval mission priorities. Compared to China’s expansionist tendencies today, the role of the Soviet Navy was primarily to defend coastline, and Moscow did not rely on the seas so much for trade as the United States did. But the focus has shifted, with nuclear strategy and conventional deterrence becoming much more important in the Asia-Pacific. What would happen to Washington’s global alliances, with limited American power projection capabilities? What level of forces would China be satisfied with? What compromises would both sides be willing to make? Would the condition for the Chinese giving up their nuclear weapons be the complete withdrawal of U.S. power projection capabilities from the region? Importantly, all these issues illustrate the fact that proponents of arms control agreements (especially the NPT, the INF, and CFE Treaties) commit the mistake of assuming that the world can remain static, both geopolitically and militarily.

Relative Balance of Power

So the issues of non-nuclear arms control might, in fact, make it even more difficult to assess and navigate the relative balance of power in international politics. Indeed, one of the biggest issues in the realm of conventional arms control is finding any agreed concept of equilibrium. As such, the implications of alliance formations and breakdowns become much more significant. Certainly there was constant debate about what constituted “stability” between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, but there were a number of factors that could be applied to evaluating the degree of instability, leading to a nuclear exchange. These included arsenal size, readiness and alertness, MIRV numbers, survivability of forces, and megatonnage. These factors, in turn, would help analysts assess the strength of concepts such as deterrence, pre-emption, second-strike capability, escalation control, and escalation dominance which, in turn, would be used to assess “stability” between NATO and the Soviet Union. With conventional forces, all these concepts are much harder to assess, in large part because the destructive power (and the speed at which it is delivered) of nuclear weapons is lacking. “Strategic stability” might thus be much more difficult to assess in a second conventional age. And so, if anything, arms control may actually worsen the conditions for peace. Besides, as Richard Betts wrote, “there is no evidence that reduction of worldwide totals of arms sales services any of the axiomatic goals of arms control: to save money, reduce the probability of war, or reduce destruction in the event of war… high arms levels are not destabilizing, especially if they are in balance.”

The challenges of strategy, both on the road to nuclear “zero” and in a “disarmed” world, are significant. If one advocates for nuclear disarmament, then the responsible corollary task is to advocate for formal arms control agreements that benefit the greatest possible number of states in the international system; to create an alternative system of strategic stability. However, as my research on the historical record shows, international politics has thus far been incapable of yielding any enduring limitation on conventional military forces. Limitations aside, even the prospect of general and complete disarmament was never taken seriously. Universal disarmament was as unacceptable at the 1907 Hague Peace Conference as it was at the 1899 Conference. Indeed, the issues raised by Global Zero advocates were already being debated in the 1930s, just before Adolf Hitler overran most of Europe. The difference lies in nuclear weapons – weapons which, unique above and beyond all others, have provided a sobering effect in international politics. In a stimulating but hopeful book, Sidney D. Drell and James Goodby use the term “end state” to describe a world with zero nuclear weapons. This is a misleading term: there is no real “end state” – one does not simply extract the bomb from international security issues and hope for the best. Issues of conventional military power will re-emerge with new prominence and increase in danger, especially in the Asia-Pacific where the Asian tigers have not yet figured out how to share a mountain.

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Christine M. Leah is a Postdoctoral Associate in Grand Strategy at Yale University. Previously a Stanton Postdoctoral Fellow in Nuclear Security at MIT.