Mapping Asia’s Nuclear Future

Published on IntelliBriefs (first by The Diplomat), by Richard Weitz, February 14, 2011.

The New START has entered into force. It’s now time for Asian nations to step up and help tackle the nuclear threat, says Richard Weitz. With the New START arms reduction agreement between Russia and the United States having entered into force on February 5, the nuclear arms control spotlight is now very likely to shift to Asia.

It’s true that US officials have expressed interest in making one more round of bilateral reductions. However, Russian government representatives have indicated that they want to break with tradition and include constraints on other nuclear weapons states in the next strategic arms control treaty. Either way, both governments are eager to take a close look at how to restrict the nuclear activities of other countries—particularly in Asia … //

… A Nuclear First:   

Last April, Washington hosted the first ever nuclear security summit, which was attended by numerous Asian leaders. Next year’s meeting will be hosted by Seoul, which will give South Korea and other Asian governments a chance to address issues generally overlooked at last year’s summit, such as the danger of nuclear proliferation to additional countries and the need to prevent terrorists from gaining access to less dangerous radiological materials that they can use to construct nuclear terrorist devices such as ‘dirty bombs.’

In the meantime, though, there have been some other positive steps. China, Japan, India, and other Asian countries with advanced civil nuclear energy programmes have been establishing nuclear security centres where foreign nationals can join their own citizens in researching proliferation-resistant nuclear technologies, as well as training nuclear personnel in safety and security techniques. These nuclear security centres are typically funded by their host government, but receive technical assistance from the IAEA and foreign governments, especially the United States.

Indeed, US support for China’s new nuclear centre, formalized in a recent bilateral agreement, highlights how, even in the absence of an official China-US nuclear arms control agreement—and despite years of strained military relations—nuclear security has emerged as a core area of Sino-American cooperation in recent years. Chinese and US representatives at both the governmental and nongovernmental level have entered into regular bilateral dialogues on strategic stability to discuss these and other nuclear concerns. The fear exists, for example, that the two nuclear establishments might misperceive nuclear signalling. What would this mean? In an extreme case, it could mean that although one side may be raising its alert level for its nuclear forces as a deterrent, the other might misunderstand such a move as foreshadowing an imminent attack—and launch a pre-emptive strike in response.

All this said, Asian nations could well benefit from a more focused discussion among the region’s official and unofficial nuclear weapons powers, which would include India and Pakistan as well as China, Russia, and the United States. (North Korea, despite its nuclear capabilities, should probably be excluded from such dialogue since it presents unique problems for regional stability and because its representatives have anyway displayed unique skill in disrupting other multilateral negotiations).

In contrast, Japan should actually be included in any Asian nuclear stability talks, even if only as an observer. This is in part because of Tokyo’s reliance on US nuclear security guarantees, but also because of Japan’s latent capacity to develop nuclear weapons. The country has also established itself as a responsible player, with an admirable past and present role in countering nuclear proliferation. It’s a welcome bright spot in an unpredictable part of the world. (full text).

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