By Neena Bhandari
With India and Pakistan testing nuclear-capable ballistic missiles this April, close on the heels of North Korea’s unsuccessful test launch of a long-range rocket, a new report by the Sydney-based Lowy Institute for International Policy says it is Asian strategic mistrust that is holding back nuclear disarmament.
According to Lowy’s international security programme director Rory Medcalf, who is also principal editor of the report titled Disarming Doubt: The Future of Extended Nuclear Deterrence in East Asia, the nuclear disarmament push in Asia had stalled, owing to the region’s tangle of strategic mistrust.
In particular, North Korea’s continuing provocative nuclear and missile programmes, leaving Japan and South Korea looking to their defences; US allies unwilling to weaken the ‘extended deterrence’ umbrella under which they are defended by American nuclear weapons; China unwilling to cap the growth or modernisation of its nuclear arsenal; and the China-India-Pakistan triangle of mistrust and arms competition adding another major obstacle to nuclear arms control and disarmament in Asia.
Medcalf said this situation could be worsened if the high cost of conventional weapons ever drove a future US Administration to expand the role of nuclear armaments in America’s strategic ‘pivot’ back to Asia.
Asia is steadily becoming increasingly militarised, as a result of rapid economic growth and strategic uncertainty. The International Institute for Strategic Studies in London said in March 2012 that arms spending by Asian nations will this year for the first time overtake that of European countries. China, Japan, India, South Korea and Australia accounted for more than 80 per cent of total Asian defence spending and Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam were all investing in improving air and naval capacities.
The Lowy report makes policy recommendations for governments to untangle Asia’s nuclear dangers. Dr Sue Wareham, Member of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons’ (ICAN) Management Committee in Australia, says: “The recommendations are a mixed bag. While there is recognition of the devastating consequences of any use of nuclear weapons, there does not appear to be enunciation of the logical goal of getting rid of the weapons.”
“The recommendation that extended deterrence should be used only to counter existential threats perpetuates the myth that deterrence is a legitimate and effective way to prevent acts of aggression. If indeed it is legitimate to use weapons of mass destruction as a deterrent, then one needs to explain why deterrence is legitimate for the US and those under its umbrella to use, and for China, but not for North Korea. The unstated and unsustainable rule that some nations may have nuclear weapons but some must not have them appears to go unchallenged,” Dr Wareham told IDN.
“The recommendations also appear to paint a US role in Asia as a necessary and stabilising factor that China must accept. From an Australian perspective however, one must recognise the growing concern even in our own country at the negative signals being sent to Asia by our strong support for US military policy,” she added.
The US President Barack Obama has called for further bilateral cuts to the US and Russian arsenals, including tactical weapons and warhead stockpiles, as well as issued a renewed invitation for China to commence a nuclear dialogue with the US.
Professor Andrew O’Neil, Director of the Griffith Asia Institute at Griffith University points out that the challenge in Asia with respect to progressing disarmament is two-fold. First, in stark contrast to Europe, “the region has no formal arms control arrangements and no history of any serious negotiation on reducing military forces generally, let alone reducing nuclear warhead and missile stockpiles.”
“Second, the region now has five nuclear weapons states (US, China, India, Pakistan and DPRK), an increase of three since the end of the Cold War. All of Asia’s nuclear weapons states have indicated that outstanding political issues/conflicts need to be resolved before they will embark on military/nuclear reductions, and China has made it very clear that it will not reduce its arsenal until the US and Russia reduce their respective warhead stockpiles to the level that China has (i.e. around 150-200 warheads),” Professor O’Neil said.
It is the fundamental security dilemma among regional states that is making real progress towards disarmament difficult. As Professor O’Neil, who is also Editor-in-chief of the Australian Journal of International Affairs says, “Extended deterrence will probably increase in importance as the US seeks to leverage its nuclear superiority in order to compensate for its creeping conventional vulnerabilities in relation to China and the increasing anxiety in Japan and South Korea about North Korea’s growing arsenal”.
The Lowy report acknowledges that the process of building trust, confidence and institutions to support regional stability will be difficult for many reasons, including history, territorial differences, nationalism, resource pressures and the changing strategic balance.
Understanding Cold War history
Dr Leonid A. Petrov, Lecturer in Korean Studies at the University of Sydney says: “To deal with Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) successfully we must remember and understand Cold War history and its consequences for the region. The reality of the inter-Korean conflict must be taken into account while engaging in dialogue or cooperation. The Korean War has never ended, and as long as regional powers help one side of the divided Korea and bully the other, the division of Korea will continue”.
As the first step towards ending the conflict in north-east Asia, Dr Petrov told IDN, “Mutual recognition of both the Republic of Korea (ROK) and DPRK is necessary. A special status (neutral and non-nuclear) should be given to the Korean peninsula with no place for foreign troops or conflicting alliances. Only this would stop the century-long foreign rivalry for domination in Korea, and help the Koreans reconcile. Otherwise, China, Russia, the US and Japan will continue to be suspicious about each other’s intentions in the region and would fear that a unified Korea would pose plausible threat to their respective national securities.”
He suggests that by intensifying diplomatic ties and expanding economic cooperation with both halves of divided Korea, the US and its allies like Australia can make a significant contribution to the peaceful resolution of the nuclear problem and prepare the basis for durable peace and prosperity in the region.
Meanwhile, a study in the United States has warned that a billion people around the world could starve to death if India and Pakistan were involved in a nuclear exchange, and that even a “limited” war would cause significant climate disruptions. Corn production in the US would decline by 10 per cent for a decade and soybean production would drop by about 7 per cent. Rice production in China would fall by 21 per cent in the first four years.
Nine countries have 20,530 nuclear warheads among them 95 per cent with the US and Russia. “It is not just the arsenals of the US and Russia that pose a threat to the whole world. Even these smaller arsenals pose an existential threat to our civilisation, if not to our species,” says Dr Ira Helfand, the author of Nuclear Famine: A Billion People at Risk – Global Impacts of Limited Nuclear War on Agriculture, Food Supplies, and Human Nutrition report produced by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) and its US affiliate, Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) told Agence France Presse.
The study calls for an urgent need to reduce the reliance on nuclear weapons by all nuclear weapons states and to move with all possible speed to the negotiation of a nuclear weapons convention that will ban these weapons completely.