June 18, 2009ChinadisarmamentEast AsiaForeign Affairsforeign policyinternational securityIranJapanNorth Koreanuclear deterrencenuclear weaponsPakistanproliferationrealpolitikSaudi ArabiaSecuritySouth Korea

Nuclear umbrellas in East Asia and the Middle East

China must act forcefully to stop North Korea and Pakistan from expanding their nuclear arsenals

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

The Obama administration tasted its first—and crunching—diplomatic defeat at the hands of the North Korean regime last week. After threatening to interdict North Korean ships, just about the only action the US government will take in response to North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests is that the US navy will effectively merely tail those ships around, not stop, board or seize them.

Washington might be helpless in stopping North Korea from expanding its nuclear arsenal or periodically threaten its neighbours, but it can protect South Korea (and quite likely Japan) under the US nuclear umbrella. Yesterday, Mr Obama signaled just that. According to Yonsei University’s Chung Min Lee This sent a strong signal to North Korea. The move should also allay concerns in some quarters that South Korea and Japan may need to pursue their own nuclear options.” Unfortunately, even this is insufficient to create a stable nuclear balance based on mutual deterrence.

The missing factor is China. Now, Dr Lee is sanguine about China’s intentions and argues that if Pyongyang conducts a third nuclear test or another Taepodong-2 ballistic missile launch, Beijing might consider the imposition of unilateral sanctions.” Not everyone in China agrees, though. A Global Times editorial says that while it serves US interests to extend a nuclear umbrella over South Korea, it won’t help long-term regional peace”. For that, it says, it’s time for Washington to show more signs of goodwill.” It is unlikely that Beijing will ever be persuaded to completely discard this line of thought, so the North Asian nuclear balance will have to incorporate this reality as well.

What about Iran’s nuclear weapons? Mohammed ElBaradei stated the obvious when he told the BBC that he had a “gut feeling” that Iran’s leaders wanted the technology to build nuclear weapons to send a message to their neighbours, to the rest of the world: Don’t mess with us.’” Not unlike North Korea. Iran is still lower down the nuclear ladder but its neighbours are unlikely to be counting on international negotiations to freeze Tehran’s weapons programme.

Can the United States similarly extend its nuclear umbrella over its Middle Eastern allies, principally Saudi Arabia? If it does, then perhaps the Saudis can reduce the orders they have placed on their Pakistani suppliers. Since the declared enemy of both Saudi Arabia and Iran is Israel, which also happens to be a US ally, it is much harder for the US to extend the nuclear umbrella in the Middle East, and much harder for those under it to feel completely secure. Ergo, Pakistan’s bomb factories will have new orders. Since China is supplying Pakistan the reactors to expand its bomb-making capacity, Beijing is an actor in the Middle Eastern arms race.

Fast forward a decade or two: not counting China’s own (and currently relatively modest arsenal), to the extent that China does not act to prevent the expansion of the North Korean and Pakistani nuclear arsenals, the United States will have to retain a nuclear arsenal big enough to keep these deterrence relationships stable. And now guess where lies the biggest challenge to global attempts to drastically reduce, if not eliminate nuclear weapons from the face of this earth?

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