The Nuclear future of East Asia

In the face of North Korea’s and China’s continuous expansion in their nuclear arsenal in the past decade, the nuclear question for East Asian countries is now more urgent than ever —especially when the USA’s credibility of extended deterrence has been shrinking since the Cold War. Whether to acquire an independent nuclear deterrent has long been a huge controversy, with opinions polarized. Yet it is noteworthy that there is a gray zone between zero and one—the degree of latency nuclear deterrence.

It is suggested that developing nuclear weapons may not be the wise choice for East Asian countries at the moment, but, given that regional and international security in Asia-Pacific is deemed to curtail, regardless of decisions to go nuclear or not, East Asian nations should increase their latency nuclear deterrence. In other words, even if they do not proceed to the final stage of acquiring an independent nuclear deterrent, a latent capability should at least be guaranteed. Meanwhile, for those who have already possessed certain extent of nuclear latency —for instance, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan —to shorten their breakout time whilst minimizing obstacles for possible future nuclearization.

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From a realist perspective, the locations of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have always been valid arguments for their nuclearization —being surrounded by nuclear-armed neighbours China and North Korea —and they have witnessed a threat escalation unprecedented since the Cold War.

Having its first nuclear weapon tested in 2006, the total inventory North Korea now possess is estimated to be 30-40. Not only has North Korea’s missile test on March 25— the first of the Biden presidency— signalled a clear message to the USA and her allies. Pyongyang’s advancement in nuclear technologies also indicates a surging threat.

North Korea state media claimed the latest missile launched was a “new-type tactical guided projectile” which is capable of performing “gliding and pull-up” manoeuvres with an “improved version of a solid fuel engine”. The diversity of launchers Pyongyang currently possesses —from short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) to submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), as well as the transporter erector launchers (TELs) and the cold launch system increase the difficulty in intercepting them via Aegis destroyers or other ballistic missile defense system since it is onerous, if not impossible, to detect the exact time and venue of the possible launches. Indeed, the “new type of missile” could potentially render South Korea’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) useless by evading radar detection system through its manoeuvres, according to one study.

Moreover, the cold launch (perpendicular launch) system used by the North also indicates that multiple nuclear weapons could be fired from the same launch pad without severe damage caused to the infrastructure. Shigeru Ishiba, Japan’s former Defense Minister, has noted that not all incoming missiles would have to be intercepted with the country’s missile defense system, and “even if that is possible, we cannot perfectly respond to saturation attacks”.

China’s total inventory of nuclear deterrent has reached 320, exceeding United Kingdom and France’s, with their nuclear deterrents considered limited deterrence. Though China’s current nuclear stockpiles are still far less than Russia’s and the USA’s, its nuclear technologies have been closely following theirs. For instance, China has successfully developed Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicles (MIRVs) and Maneuverable Reentry Vehicles (MARVs)—its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) DF-41 is capable of equipping up to 10 MIRVs while its Medium-Range Ballistic Missile (MRBM) DF-21D could carry MARV warhead that poses challenges to the BMD systems— these advancement in nuclear technologies are solid proof that the Chinese nukes are only steps away from Moscow and Washington. Yet China’s nuclear arsenal remains unchecked and is not confined by any major nuclear arms reduction treaty.

If Japan, South Korea and Taiwan ever choose to go nuclear, a common mechanism could be established to ensure that these states would pursue a minimum to limited deterrence capability that does not endanger each other’s security but rather strengthens it, which would help minimizing the destabilization brought to regional security while constituting a more balanced situation with nuclear-armed rivalries.

In addition to China’s expansion of military capabilities and ambition in developing hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs) and new MARVs, there is no lack of scepticism of its no-first use policy, especially with Beijing’s actions in the East and South China Seas. These all raise concerns and generate insecurity from neighbouring countries and hence, East Asian states Japan, South Korea and Taiwan would inevitably have to reconsider their nuclear options.

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In spite of having advanced BMD system, for instance, Aegis Destroyer (Japan), THAAD (South Korea), Sky Bow III (Taiwan), the existing and emerging nuclear arsenals in Pyongyang and Beijing still leave East Asian states vulnerable. The future could be worse than it seems— merely having deterrence by denial is not sufficient to safeguard national security— particularly with the shrinking credibility of the USA’s extended deterrence after the Cold War.

Theoretically speaking, alliance relations with the USA assure a certain extent of deterrence by punishment against hostile adversaries. For example, the USA is committed to defend Japan under the 1960 Mutual Defense Treaty. Yet in reality, security could never be guaranteed. Sze-Fung LeeIs the USA willing to sacrifice Washington for Tokyo? Or New York for Seoul?

Strong rhetoric, or even a defense pact, would not ensure collective security, let alone strategic ambiguity, the strategy adopted by Washington for Taipei. Besides, with Trump’s American First policy continuously undermining alliance relations in the past four years, East Asian countries may find it hard to restore trust, despite the Biden Administration’s effort to repair the alliance.

Moreover, even if alliance relations and credibility of extended deterrence is robust, could East Asian countries shelter under the US nuclear umbrella forever? If they choose not to go nuclear, these states would be constantly threatened by their nuclear-armed neighbours and forced to negotiate, or worse, compromise in the face of a possible nuclear extortion.

Undeniably, horizontal nuclear proliferation is always risky. Not only is it likely to worsen diplomatic relations with neighbours, it also generates a (nuclear) regional arms race that eventually trap all nations into a vicious circle due to the lack of mutual trust in an anarchical system, which will consequently lead to a decrease in regional, as well as international, security.

Yet with the expansion and advancement of Pyongyang and Beijing’s nuclear arsenal, regional and international security is deemed to reduce, regardless of East Asian countries’ decisions to go nuclear or not. As official NPYT members, Japan’s and South Korea’s withdrawal may encourage other current non-nuclear weapon states to develop nukes. However, the NPT has already proven futile in preventing North Korea from acquiring its own nuclear weapons; or Israel, India and Pakistan from going nuclear.

Admittedly, the road for East Asian countries to go nuclear would be tough. Taipei’s attempt to develop nuclear weapons would trigger a response from Beijing, and a pre-emptive strike. That goes for Seoul and Pyongyang though the risk is relatively lower. As for Japan, although direct military confrontation is less likely compared to Seoul and Taipei, the challenges are no easier.

As the sole nation to suffer from an atomic bomb, Japan’s pacifism and anti-nuclear sentiment are embedded in it. According to a 2017 opinion poll, 17.7 percent agreed “Japan should acquire its own nuclear weapons in the future” whilst 79.1 percent opposed the idea. Despite having the imperative skills and technologies for an independent deterrent (its breakout time is estimated at 6-12 months), Japan lacks natural resources for nuclear warheads and would rely heavily on uranium imports. Japan’s bilateral nuclear agreements with the USA, U.K, France and Australia specified that all imported nuclear-related equipment and materials “must be used only for the non-military purposes”. Violation of these agreements may result in sanctions that could cause devastating effect on Japan’s nuclear energy programme, which supplies approximately 30 percent of the nation’s electricity. These issues, however, are not irresolvable.

Undeniably, it may take time and effort to negotiate new agreements and change people’s pacifism into an “active pacifism”, yet these should not be the justifications to avoid acquiring an independent deterrent, as ensuring national security should always be the top priority. It is because in face of a nuclear extortion, the effectiveness of a direct nuclear deterrence guaranteed by your own country could not be replaced by any other measures such as deterrence by denial via BMD system or deterrence by punishment via extended deterrence and defense pact.

Therefore, if there are too many obstacles ahead, then perhaps the wiser choice for Japan, South Korea and Taiwan at the moment is to increase their nuclear latency deterrence, shorten the breakout time and pave their way clear for future nuclearization. In other words, to keep their nuclear option open and be able to play offense and defense at their own will.

Nevertheless, in addition to strengthening latency nuclear deterrence, as well as obtaining a more equal relationship in the official and unofficial alliance with America, East Asian countries with similar interests and common enemies should unite to form a new military alliance with a security treaty regarding collective defense like NATO; and focuses more on countering hybrid warfare like the QUAD.

If Japan, South Korea and Taiwan ever choose to go nuclear, a common mechanism could be established to ensure that these states would pursue a minimum to limited deterrence capability that does not endanger each other’s security but rather strengthens it, which would help minimizing the destabilization brought to regional security while constituting a more balanced situation with nuclear-armed rivalries.

After all, proliferation may not be the best solution, it is certainly not the worst either.

Sze-Fung Lee
Sze-Fung Lee is a freelance journalist and a researcher at the Global Studies Institute in Hong Kong

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