Keeping the Peace in the Indo-Pacific with Nuclear Weapons

Friday, June 3, 2022
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With China rising and a wounded U.S. retrenching after the Afghanistan debacle, the Biden administration inadvertently has re-opened the question whether our closest democratic allies should develop their own nuclear deterrents in the Indo-Pacific.

While all eyes were on Afghanistan, the nuclear race between the U.S. and its rivals has only accelerated. The State Department called China’s nuclear buildup concerning, with China soon to surpass Russia’s nuclear arsenal. The International Atomic Energy Agency said North Korea restarted its Yongbyon nuclear reactor. Iran continues progress toward a nuclear weapon. Given that the international community cannot stop these rogue regimes as they develop nuclear options, America’s interest may actually be in expanding its allies’ ability to deter and defend themselves.

Nevertheless, President Biden promises to “work to bring [the U.S.] closer to a world without nuclear weapons”—a longstanding aim of the United States promoted even by Cold War Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger. In theory, the world would of course be a better place without nuclear weapons.

The joyful prospect of a nuke-free world has always been hindered by the prickly issue of countries having to lay down their nuclear arms. That has happened before: after the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine and South Africa surrendered their arsenals. But since then, Ukraine has suffered from Russian meddling and invasion. If it had kept its nuclear weapons, the country could have maintained a more robust defense against Moscow.

Most nuclear countries have no incentive to give up their weapons programs because the Bomb creates indispensable negotiation leverage. For example, North Korea’s nuclear missiles, developed despite international sanctions, allow Pyongyang to asymmetrically deter military action by the U.S. and even threaten other nations into providing it with aid and access to the international economic system.

Nor do larger powers have any reason to disassemble their nuclear weapons. Today, 90% of nuclear weapons are held by the U.S. and Russia. While Russia’s massive nuclear arsenal serves as an in-kind deterrent against other nuclear-armed countries, the arsenal also serves to balance the superior technological and economic power of NATO and to protect its vast far eastern territories. In recent years both China and Russia have launched expensive efforts to expand their nuclear capabilities.

None of the nations pressing for nuclear disarmament possesses any real connection to the deployment of nuclear weapons. Currently, only countries that have either been historical proponents of disarmament or victimized by nuclear testing support such utopian notions; nations who rely on their own nuclear weapons, or those of allies, for their security are conspicuously silent on the question.

In the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the rise of China, the best course of action in the Pacific may be just the opposite of nuclear disarmament. Mutual assured destruction is making a comeback in international nuclear strategy—for good reason. Rather than clinging to America’s traditional policy of discouraging allies from arming in exchange for protection from our arsenal, we should encourage trusted allies to nuclearize, particularly as the Afghanistan withdrawal has initiated calls by European nations for greater military independence.

Would Russia be as adventurous if Poland and Hungary have nukes? Would China believe its aggressiveness is worthwhile if Taiwan, Japan, or even South Korea or Vietnam, has nuclear capabilities?

We already have failed to persuade Iran, North Korea, and others from pursuing their nuclear programs. Perhaps the humility that comes with retreat from Afghanistan means giving up on our insistence that our allies abjure nuclear weapons. Ironically, if such an approach curbed Chinese and Russian adventurism, a more nuclear world would be a safer one.

U.S. military actions on nuclear weapons so far align with a strategic understanding of the role that such weapons play in the world order. The U.S. fiscal year 2022 budget proposal includes a $1.2 billion increase in modernization funding for the U.S. Ground Based Strategic Deterrent and an increase in funding for the National Nuclear Security Administration. That budget proposal demonstrates the Biden administration’s recognition that nuclear deterrence, not an international treaty, prevented a disastrous superpower conflict during the Cold War.

Nobody should expect any nuclear state to give up its nuclear capabilities, given how a revanchist Russia and rising China see nuclear capabilities as crucial for their security, and how countries like North Korea use them to punch above their weight. In light of this unfortunate reality, the U.S. should more fully adopt deterrence as a peacekeeping tool and embrace the modernization of its own nuclear capabilities—and those of its allies.