Foreign Policy Blogs

America's Nuclear Posture in Asia

Henry Hoyle, the China blogger at FPA, has done a bang up job explaining this week’s Nuclear Security Summit and its implications for US-Chinese relations – and Chinese diplomacy in general. As Hoyle suggests, a number of events prompted Chinese President Hu Jintao’s last-minute decision to attend the Summit, including the Department of Treasury’s decision to postpone its statement on China’s currency pegging policy, a slew of recent nuclear arms pacts in the neighborhood, and, perhaps most notably, a growing sense among Chinese elites that it needs to more vigorously contribute to what Hoyle calls “great power diplomacy.”

As a last minute update, Hoyle mentions the Department of Defense 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, an annual report that outlines the current state and future course of American nuclear policy. According to the report’s introduction, “the review outlines the Administration’s approach to promoting the President’s agenda for reducing nuclear dangers and pursuing the goal of a world without nuclear weapons, while simultaneously advancing broader U.S. security interests.”

The report is available for download here.

While this report could be sliced and diced any number of ways, for all intents and purposes of this blog I want to draw your attention to a few Asia-related points.

-Put generally, the report signals a host of new constraints to the use of nuclear weapons. As President Obama made explicitly clear in the speech he gave to mark the release of the report and to kick-off “nuclear week” in Washington, “America is taking specific and concrete steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons while preserving our military superiority, deterring aggression and safeguarding the security of the American people.” According to the analysis of WaPo, President Obama’s fundamental stance is “a policy that constrains the weapons’ role but appears more cautious than what many supporters had hoped, with the president opting for a middle course in many key areas.” The implications of this middle course for Asia are many and various. However, the common denominator is this: multilateral cooperation – international, regional, and otherwise. For Asia, this means bolstering regional security architecture while simulatensouly nurturing bilateral ties with a number of countries whose bilateral relations have been precarious of late (namely, China and Japan). This is no easy task by any stretch of the imagination.

-The transparency of China’s military takes front and center in the report. While Beijing’s genuine participation in the Security Summit is no doubt welcome, it is readily apparent that many in Washington (or more precisely, the Pentagon) are frustrated by the opacity of China’s military expansion. China’s nuclear arsenal isn’t necessarily the issue per se; rather, it’s the cloud surrounding China’s defense and military establishments writ large that sets off some alarms, as this report makes abundantly clear. In one revealing section it states,

The United States and China are increasingly interdependent and their shared responsibilities for addressing global security threats, such as weapons of mass destruction (WMD) proliferation and terrorism, are growing. At the same time, the United States and China’s Asian neighbors remain concerned about China’s current military modernization efforts, including its qualitative and quantitative modernization of its nuclear arsenal…the lack of transparency surrounding its nuclear programs – their pace and scope, as well as the strategy and doctrine that guides them – raises questions about China’s future strategic intentions.

-A major point implied by the report is the importance of China in forwarding the diplomatic efforts regarding a number of recalitrant rogue states and their nuclear programs (i.e. Iran and North Korea). (Implied is the operative word here, for the diplo-speak deftly tip-toes around explicitly calling out China’s failure to cooperate). Indeed, it is now widely accepted that China’s support is the key to unlocking both sets of negotiations, and as such China’s support of multilateral efforts will become increasingly important in the months and years ahead. By all indications the diplomacy leading up to this report and the opening of the Nuclear Summit indicate the Obama administrations desire to double down on multilateral negotiations with both Iran and North Korea, and Hu Jintao’s participation is a major coup for the effort. (For good analysis on Obama’s nuclear multilateralism see here and here.) But the challenge ahead for Pres. Obama is to convince Hu Jintao that China must move beyond empty diplomatic gestures and actively dissuade these rogue nuclear programs.

-Interestingly, the report essentially conceives of the non-proliferation agenda in terms of three sets of players: America and its allies, China and Russia, and the rogue regimes. China and Russia are time and again singled out as potentially dubious contributors to this non-proliferation agenda. They are stakeholders of a different ilk, with priorities and promises ill-defined. While bilateral efforts are working to allay fears and plug both countries into the program, the terms in which the nuclear calculus is outlined clearly indicated a West-and-the-rest mentality. Here’s a sample of this logic, which pervades throughout the report.

…we must continue to maintain stable strategic relationships with Russia and China and counter threats posed by any emerging nuclear-armed states, thereby protecting the United States and our allies and partners against nuclear threats or intimidation, and reducing any incentives they might have to seek their own nuclear deterrents.

-This is somewhat of an aside, but it is acknowledged throughout the 74 page report that the Cold War era is over. What’s more, it is suggested that the US to fundamentally rethink both its nuclear arsenal and its geopolitical posture in this regard. By this logic, one might look at the Futenma base relocation row in an entirely different light. While bristling nuclear arsenals are relics of a bygone era, the right for Japan to renegotiate its security policy and the support of American troops is not. This is not to argue that Japan should push back against its greatest ally and close the base altogether. Rather, it is to suggest that there are numerous rifts in the DoD’s logic, chief among them that its right to determine security policy in Japan and the Asia-Pacific is stuck in the cold-war containment paradigm.

-The report expresses a latent anxiety regarding the lack of multilateral regional security architecture in Asia and the Middle East. Without saying as much, it laments that fact that there is no NATO in Asia. It states:

In Asia and the Middle East – where there are no multilateral alliance structures analogous to NATO – the United States has maintained extended deterrence through bilateral alliances and security relationships and through its forward military presence and security guarantees.

In the end, this report is just a primer for the upcoming summit. The points made are salient ones, but the efficacy of the strategy outlind in this report hinges on the cooperation of a number of different parties, each of which has competing priorities of their own. Indeed, as the Andrew Reidy of the Center for Arms Control aptly notes, “Just as there has been disparity between nations enforcing UN Resolution 1540, so there will be disparity in carrying out any recommendations made by the Global Nuclear Security Summit”

I guess we will just have to wait and see.



David Fedman

David Fedman is a PhD student in the History Department of Stanford University where he focuses on modern Japanese and Korean history. He lives in San Francisco, California.