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Asian Nuclear Reaction Chain

These are not happy days for global arms-control advocates. As far back as the early 1960s, policymakers warned that the true threat to the United States was not only that third-world despots might acquire the bomb but that advanced industrial countries might do so.

published by
 on March 2, 2000

Source: Carnegie

These are not happy days for global arms-control advocates. This summer, the Clinton administration may approve the deployment of a national missile defense system - a move that could prompt a renewed arms race with Russia and China. Though not on the scale of the Cold War, renewed arms competitions would have globally consequences, as a deployment announcement will come amidst weakening US commitment to reducing nuclear dangers. Last fall, the US Senate stunned the world with its rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty may be the next pact headed for the chopping block.

Defeat of the CTBT crystallized the mantra now popular among conservatives: Distrust treaties, increase defenses, and assert American authority. Now that the era of superpower rivalry is over, critics assert, the US strategy of negotiated arms reductions must change to confront "a world of terror and missiles and madmen," to borrow a phrase from presidential hopeful George W. Bush.

But those who claim to be reinventing arms control for the 21st century are turning their backs on history. As far back as the early 1960s, policymakers warned that the true threat to the United States was not only that third-world despots might acquire the bomb but that advanced industrial countries might do so.

Kennedy's Warning

Nuclear weapons in "the hands of countries large and small, stable and unstable," President John F. Kennedy warned, would create "the increased chance of accidental war and an increased necessity for the great powers to involve themselves in what otherwise would be local conflicts."

Kennedy understood what many today seem to forget: Rather than attempt just to limit the spread of advanced-weapons technology, policy makers must seek to build political firewalls that preclude the need for nuclear arms, so that even nuclear-capable nations would choose not to develop or deploy such weapons.

Unfortunately, these firewalls are now crumbling in much of the world - particularly in Asia, where declining faith in arms control is prompting advanced and developing countries alike to contemplate the acquisition or development of nuclear weapons. Like neutrons splitting from an atom, one nation's actions may trigger reactions throughout the region, which in turn stimulate additional actions. Asian nations form an interlocking nuclear reaction chain that vibrates dangerously with each new development.

Breeding Reactions

South Asia is the region most likely to see the combat use of nuclear weapons. India and Pakistan - two nuclear-armed nations sharing a common border and a history of aggression - are developing new missiles and crafting nuclear-deployment doctrines. The disputed Kashmir region, the cause of two past wars between these nations, remains a frightening flash point.

But it is Japan that may well be the critical element in this chain. In 1998, the Japanese were caught by surprise when the Indian-Pakistani tit-for-tat nuclear tests suddenly doubled the number of Asian nuclear-weapon states. Many Japanese were disturbed by how quickly the world accepted India and Pakistan's de facto status as new nuclear powers. This was not the bargain Japan had agreed to when - after a lengthy internal debate - it joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1976.

North Korea's launch of a long-range Taepo Dong missile in August 1998 further agitated Japanese policymakers, stirring new debates over security policies. Then-Vice Defense Minister Shingo Nishimura argued that Japan "ought to have aircraft carriers, long-range missiles, long-range bombers. We should even have the atomic bomb."

Mr. Nishimura was forced to resign over his comments, but if nuclear-weapon deployments increase in Asia, Japan may well conclude that its security is best served by building its own nuclear arsenal. And Japanese withdrawal from the NPT would almost certainly trigger the collapse of the treaty.

Finally, there are two new emerging risks in Asia: Russia faces the prospect of fragmentation into separate, nuclear-armed states, while the possible unification of Korea - although solving one set of problems - could create a single country with nuclear ambitions and capabilities. If these new nations find themselves in a world with an increasing number of nuclear-weapon states, they may well opt to join the club.

Wishful Thinking

In this environment, it would be foolish to let the nonproliferation and arms- reductions treaties unravel, thereby disarming the US of its most effective weapons for fighting nascent nuclear threats. Some critics, such as Henry Kissinger, argue that the US can pick and choose which particular arms treaties it finds most advantageous.

Unfortunately, an arms control a-la-carte strategy will not work - the non-proliferation regime functions only as an integrated whole. Taking elements we don't like out of the regime structure starts a dangerous round of Jenga, the tabletop game where blocks are sequentially removed from a wooden tower until the whole structure collapses.

Provocative US actions, such as the deployment of national missile defense, could well set in motion a chain of events that diplomacy will be powerless to stop. Only by expanding the resources devoted to international negotiations and leading by example in reducing nuclear dangers can the US hope to prevent a nuclear tsunami from sweeping out of Asia.

Joseph Cirincione is director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.