Asia-Pacific’s growing nuclear dilemma
With US President Donald Trump’s belligerent and unorthodox responses to North Korea’s testing of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, the Doomsday Clock was set at two-and-a-half minutes to midnight early this year — the second closest time to universal catastrophe since 1952 when the United States and the Soviet Union exploded their first thermonuclear devices.
During his recent visit to the Korean peninsula, Trump’s rhetoric has been uncharacteristically constrained and diplomatic. But it is unlikely that the iconic clock will be set backward any time soon even as Beijing and Washington vow to “enhance communication and cooperation on the nuclear issues on the Korean Peninsula.”
Against this background is the growing nuclear dilemma in the Asia-Pacific. We have four of the world’s nine nuclear-armed states: China, India, Pakistan and North Korea. A fifth, Japan, is reaching a critical juncture to go nuclear as it contends with Beijing’s threats over the Senkaku islands and Pyongyang’s dangerous nuclear obsession.
Since they cast long shadows over the globe, we would be remiss if we did not include the United States and Russia as nuclear hegemons in the region. Of the more than 25,000 nuclear weapons in the world, Russia and the United States alone account for some 93 percent.
How did the number of nuclear states multiply when the original four great powers — the United States, the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (now Russia), France and Great Britain — consistently strove to curtail nuclear proliferation through the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks and a series of treaties and protocols?
Perhaps the short answer is that the quest for self-determination among sovereign states sometimes triggers a Nietzschean nihilism which, like a self-sustaining fission reaction, precipitates unintended political and social consequences.
Mao Zedong began exploring the nuclear option toward the end of the Great Chinese Famine (1958-1962). When China exploded its first atomic bomb in 1964, the event filled neighboring India with dread.
Two years earlier India suffered a loss of territory after its brief Himalayan border war with Mao’s forces. To deter further Chinese aggression, New Delhi developed its own nuclear capability.
India’s nuclear prowess, in turn, provoked Pakistan to build a nuclear arsenal, following its war with India in 1965 and its loss of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1971.
Now, a quarter of a century after the end of the Cold War, weapons of mass destruction have spread in a multipolar world. Explosive mixtures of unresolved territorial disputes, cross-border terrorism, and the intense competition for strategic resources have made the region “most at risk of a breakdown in strategic stability.”
All these negate the logic of nuclear arms, which is precisely to prevent their use. As Ivo Daalder and Jan Lodal pointed out (“Foreign Affairs” in 2008), more nuclear-armed states and more nuclear materials make the job of terrorists to gain the bomb easier and the odds that a nuclear weapon will be exploded—by design or accident—greater.
Asia-Pacific leaders are realists, and they see an America incapable of summoning political, economic and diplomatic imagination to forestall North Korea’s nuclear goal. Sensing that America’s unipolar moment is over, they find themselves currying favor with China.
Those of us who were in college at the height of the Cold War remember the palpable fear over a potential thermonuclear clash between the US and the USSR. That fear evaporated in mid-1963 when US President John F. Kennedy announced that a test ban treaty had been reached. His words still stir hope and anxiety today:
“I ask you to stop and think for a moment what it would mean to have nuclear weapons in so many hands, in the hands of countries … stable and unstable, responsible and irresponsible… There would be no stability, no real security… There would only be the increased chance of accidental war and an increased necessity for great powers to involve themselves in what would otherwise be local conflicts.”
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Rex D. Lores (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a member of the Philippine Futuristics Society.
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