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Countdown to Doomsday: The Asia Factor

We’re now 100 seconds to midnight. How can the Asia-Pacific contribute to (or counter) doomsday?

Jon Letman
Countdown to Doomsday: The Asia Factor
Credit: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Doomsday just got a little bit closer. 

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced today that it has moved the hands on the “Doomsday Clock” forward to just 100 seconds to midnight. 

The Bulletin’s President and CEO Rachel Bronson and the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board explained why the internationally recognized symbol had been reset to its latest-ever setting. The abandonment of arms control treaties, inaction on climate change, and continued modernization of nuclear arsenals and development of new weapons systems have all contributed to decreased global security. The board said today’s situation is “extremely dangerous and demands an emergency response.”

The announcement, made at a press conference in Washington D.C., was attended by members of The Elders, a group of independent global leaders that includes former UN secretary generals, Nobel Peace Prize laureates, and statespeople working for peace, justice, and human rights including Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and Ban Ki-moon, former UN secretary general.

Robinson called the current situation “not acceptable” and said it was imperative that humanity take urgent action.

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Established in 1947, the Doomsday Clock has been reset 25 times based on the recommendations of the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board. Until today, its latest setting was two minutes to midnight, first in 1953 following the first hydrogen bomb tests by the U.S. and Soviet Union, and again in 2018.

After being set back to 17 minutes to midnight in 1991 at the end of the Cold War, the clock has gradually ticked closer to midnight through the 1990s and 2000s. In 2007 the Bulletin began to factor in the threat of climate change as destructive storms, melting glacial ice, drought, and floods grew in frequency and intensity.

By 2012 the clock had moved to five minutes to midnight as disruptive technologies like weaponized drones, artificial intelligence, mass surveillance, and internet disinformation campaigns spread.

Asia-Pacific Flashpoints

The two principal threats highlighted by the Doomsday Clock – nuclear weapons and climate change – are on full display in the Asia-Pacific. With six of the world’s nuclear armed states (the U.S., Russia, China, North Korea, India, and Pakistan) in the region and ongoing tensions in the Korean Peninsula, the South China Sea, the Straits of Taiwan, and Kashmir, Dr. Benjamin Zala, a research fellow in the Department of International Relations at the Australian National University, calls the clock a “useful metaphor as it reminds us that the real threat on both fronts is complacency and inaction.”

All nuclear roads lead to and intersect in the Asia-Pacific, Zala says, pointing out that nuclear-backed alliances and extended deterrence guarantees are central to understanding the region’s security dynamics and the growing rivalry between the United States and China is becoming one of the most consequential issues in the world.

As the ever-increasing speed and complexity of technology exacerbates nuclear risks, Zala says designing effective arms control measures is difficult, but critical. These agreements do not have to address all underlying regional tensions, he says, nor do they need to achieve dramatic outcomes (such as complete nuclear disarmament in Korea), but rather they can serve to lower tensions and build even a modicum of trust, which can, in turn, help avert major crises.  

The Korean Quandary

Alexis Dudden, a University of Connecticut history professor specializing in Korea and Japan, sees increased weapons capabilities in East Asia as a top threat. Dudden cites recent hikes in military spending as U.S. allies purchase American military aircraft and missile defense systems like Aegis Ashore and THAAD. This comes as the United States bolsters its own forces in the region and calls for expanding military bases, Russia announces its first hypersonic glide vehicle, and China remains committed to a blue-water navy. 

A Cold War-style arms race, Dudden says, is already under way. “With ever-evolving conventional and nuclear weapons, East Asia is a tinder box – and with historical grievances to boot,” says Dudden, noting that a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War that includes a security guarantee for North Korea is a necessary first step for arms reductions.

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Christine Ahn, executive director of Women Cross DMZ, says there needs to be a clear U.S. commitment to peace and normalization with North Korea in order to move toward denuclearizing the Korean peninsula. Absent credible security guarantees against a U.S. strike, she doesn’t expect Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons.

“You can’t wait for North Korea to put their nuclear weapons on a silver platter before they have any clear commitment [by the U.S.] to have peace with North Korea,” Ahn says. She sees declaring an end to the Korean War, sanctions relief, lifting the U.S. ban that prevents Americans from traveling to North Korea, and more engagement and openness as the best antidote to tensions with North Korea. “Without peace, we will never get to denuclearization or human rights… It is time to end the longest standing overseas U.S. conflict.”

Asian Arms Bonanza 

Meanwhile, military spending in Southeast Asia increased by 33 percent between 2009 and 2018, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

Siemon Wezeman, a senior researcher at SIPRI’s Arms Transfer and Military Expenditure Program, authored a 2019 report titled Arms Flows to South East Asia. He says the increased spending is largely in reaction to China’s own surge in military spending and its claims in the South China Sea, East China Sea, Taiwan, and along its disputed border regions with India.

Wezeman says the resolution of territorial claims should be a long-term goal, but meanwhile it’s imperative that countries ensure heightened tensions don’t trigger a larger crisis. Wezeman suggests potential conflicts can be mitigated by establishing agreements and clarifying protocols of conduct for encounters in contested areas.

“What do we do when we meet each other at sea or in the air? How do we behave? What are the lines of communication between us on both sides and between us and our higher level command?” he asks.

Improved lines of communication during a crisis, military personnel exchanges, and greater transparency in defense policies and acquisition are important ways to build confidence and reduce tensions in a region where military perceptions and expectations can be cloudy, says Wezeman.

Alexandra Bell, senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, says that with no viable military solutions to Asia’s three biggest security challenges (North Korean nuclear weapons, tensions between India and Pakistan, and growing U.S.-China competition), all require commitment to negotiations that are focused on achievable steps and the slow but necessary process of building a security dialogue.

“We have to invest in strong, smart diplomacy, even if that means abandoning the allure of quick wins,” Bell says. “In a scenario where President Trump was able to strike a deal with the North Koreans, the successful implementation of such a deal would require effort and investments from the United States long beyond his term of office.”

As to the threat from weaponized disinformation, Bell says the only defense is transparency and confidence-building measures. “Ambiguity, once considered an asset, may now be a liability.”

In the South China Sea and around the Korean Peninsula, where nuclear-armed states and their allies regularly conduct military operations, “a commitment to long-term diplomatic engagement informed by realistic but ambitious goals in the only responsible path forward,” says Emma Claire Foley, a program associate at Global Zero, a group advocating to reduce nuclear risks.

She suggests the United States and China expand diplomatic engagement to enhance transparency and avoid miscalculations and potential dangerous military actions. Foley also urges a bilateral no-first-use treaty (of nuclear weapons) between Washington and Beijing as an “ambitious but attainable step toward reducing the risk of potentially disastrous escalation.”

Competition and Crisis in Micronesia

Beyond the Asia-Pacific’s most volatile potential flashpoints, conflict could also arise (or be avoided) in less conspicuous places, including Micronesia. 

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Dr. Charles “Chip” Fletcher, a professor at the University of Hawaii’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, sees an ascendant China that has already demonstrated its island-building prowess as likely to be further emboldened if Washington delays or outright ignores renegotiation of Compacts of Free Association between the United States and the the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and Palau. Fletcher, who teaches coastal community resiliency and other climate change courses, has advocated for building new islands or raising existing ones for small island states that face stark choices as the Earth warms. 

“It’s a relatively easy thing for a large nation like the U.S. or China to dredge an atoll lagoon and build a new island or raise existing islands and save a culture,” says Fletcher. “But for small atoll nations, the cost and logistics are beyond their reach.” He adds that maintaining the status quo, by raising the elevation of key islands with Western assistance, is the way to maintain peace. Doing so may also stem Chinese activity in the Western Pacific.

Central Asia Left High and Dry

In Central Asia, the population has mushroomed from around 8 million in 1900 to more than 72 million today. That tremendous growth, coupled with a major agricultural shift to cotton, rice, and other thirsty crops during the Soviet era, contributed to desertification, the loss of the Aral Sea, and agricultural and health problem-causing salt storms, coupled with rapidly melting glaciers — all of which pose serious threats to the region.

“Some people say there will be a benefit from global warming in that it could mean three growing seasons, but with decreasing supplies of water and an increasing population, it is difficult to see the region will be able to continue supplying food and water to all the people there,” says Bruce Pannier, a Central Asian correspondent for RFE/RL. He says a drastic reduction in cotton production and improved water conservation efforts could make a positive difference but notes, “climate change will lead to a scarcity of resources. Current levels of population growth are therefore unsustainable.”

The five former Central Asian Soviet Republics (now Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) are today surrounded by nuclear states: Russia, China, India, and Pakistan. That threat is underappreciated, says Dr. Togzhan Kassenova, a senior fellow with the Project on International Security, Commerce, and Economic Statecraft at the Center for Policy Research, SUNY-Albany. “If a conventional conflict [between India and Pakistan] ever escalates into a nuclear exchange, the entire region will be affected,” says Kassenova, urging the region’s South Asian neighbors to strengthen crisis management contingencies now.

Kazakhstan, which was the site of over 450 nuclear weapons tests during Soviet era, transferred all the Soviet nuclear weapons left on its territory to Russia by 1995. In 2019, it became the first Central Asian nation to ratify the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition on Nuclear Weapons which, once ratified by 16 more nations, will enter into force.

No Time to Waste

Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) says world leaders are failing to solve the intertwined threats of nuclear weapons, climate change, and emerging disruptive technologies. She argues it’s up to citizens of the world to save themselves from extinction, urging people to call on their own governments to join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

“Climate change and emerging technologies only elevate the already steadily growing risk of nuclear weapons use and any use of nuclear weapons would have a devastating humanitarian and environmental consequences,” says Fihn. 

“As the Doomsday Clock shows, there is no time to waste.”

Jon Letman is a Hawaii-based independent journalist covering politics, people, and the environment in the Asia-Pacific region. He has written for Al Jazeera, Foreign Policy in Focus, Inter Press Service and others.