Foreign Policy Blogs

Nuclear Weapons in Asia Predicted to Increase

Nuclear Weapon States Image: Arms Control Association

Nuclear Weapon States Image: Arms Control Association

Expect the number of nuclear weapons in Asia to increase over the short to medium term according the latest edition of Strategic Asia 2013-14, aptly titled Asia in the Second Nuclear Age. Nuclear states across the region are all looking to further develop or enhance their nuclear arsenals, namely Pakistan, India, China and North Korea. Russia, which has significantly reduced its nuclear arsenal since the end of the Cold War, will continue to tilt towards these weapons as an important component of its military strategy. In contrast to the “relative” stability of the Cold War paradigm of “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD) between the two nuclear superpowers, the United States and the former Soviet Union, the new emerging “Second Nuclear Age” is an era where multiple states possess nuclear weapons with differing capabilities. As Ashley Tellis explains “The emergence of many new nuclear states magnifies the problems of stability that were once better contained because they were limited to mainly two states, or at most only a few. Moreover, many of the new nuclear powers are neither wealthy nor overly sophisticated, raising unsettling questions about whether they have the requisite resources to maintain the surety and safety of their strategic assets.”

A recent book, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident and the Illusion of Safety, addresses the issue of nuclear weapon security during the Cold War. It highlights a number of very scary moments when a nuclear device came very close to accidentally detonating along with accounts of when human error and miscalculation between the two nuclear superpowers could have resulted in…. Details of another near nuclear denotation, this time near Goldsboro, North Carolina in 1961 have recently been disclosed. More recent tensions focus on the very volatile Pakistan and India military standoff, which included nuclear weapons, in 2001-2002 after a terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament.

The end result of more nuclear weapons in Asia is a dynamic that poses a number of very vexing security challenges to the United States. Top of this list is to reassure non-nuclear weapons allies that they are adequately covered by the U.S. nuclear security umbrella. This comes at a time when the United States is attempting to decrease its military reliance upon its nuclear arsenal. Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, William Perry and Sam Nunn published an article in the Wall Street Journal in early 2007 on this very issue and President Barack Obama’s position on nuclear weapons is well documented in his 2009 Prague speech, and subsequent following speeches in Oslo in 2009 and at the Brandenburg Gate earlier this year. (There are reports of a young Barack Obama grappling with issues of a nuclear free world when an undergraduate student at Columbia University.) Indeed, there has been a long history of U.S. presidents calling for the elimination of nuclear weapons from Kennedy to Reagan, up to Obama. The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review outlines an “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.”

Laudable as the objective of a world devoid of nuclear weapons is, the reality is that it will not happen anytime soon. As Tellis writes: “The pervasiveness of conflict, which characterizes all aspects of human interaction and social structure, will have to disappear first before abolition becomes viable precisely because nuclear weapons are such extraordinary instruments of violence.”

The United States continues to be the preeminent conventional military power in the world and arguably does not need nuclear weapons to defeat an advisory, whereas other states look to nuclear weapons for prestige and the ultimate guarantee of their defense. In addition, there is the fact that as one state acquires these weapons, other states too will seek the same capability. India and Pakistan, or India and China are examples. South Korea, a state that does not possess nuclear weapons and is under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, is beginning to experience a shift in public opinion regarding having its own indigenous nuclear weapons deterrent in response to North Korea’s development of a nuclear arsenal. The expectation is that if this were to occur, then other non-nuclear weapons states in the region would also seek to develop their own nuclear arsenals.

A case can also be made that nuclear weapons can have a stabilizing influence upon states, as was the case during the Cold War. The problem for the future is that as states increase their nuclear weapons arsenals, the possibility of an accident or miscalculation also increases.

Damien Tomkins works at the East-West Center office in Washington, D.C. where he contributes research and content to the Asia Matters for America initiative and coordinates the Asia Pacific Bulletin publication series. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and not of any organization with which he is affiliated.



Damien Tomkins

Damien Tomkins works at the East-West Center office in Washington, D.C. on matters pertaining to the Asia-Pacific region. After traveling overland from Cape Town to Cairo in the 1990s he received a BA First Class Honours from the University of Wales in Anthropology and Religious Studies. He then lived and worked in China for two years teaching English with Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO). He subsequently received his MA degree in Asian international affairs from the School of International Service, American University. He enjoys working and learning about Asia and would like to further develop his career within the field of promoting a closer US-China relationship supported by mutual understanding and respect. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and not of any organization with which he is affiliated. Follow on Twitter: @tomkinsd