After Ukraine, Should East Asia Go Nuclear?
In the aftermath of the war in Ukraine, the future of the East Asian security order will likely be turbulent, and nuclear weapons are going to play an important role.
Handling Preventive NonProliferation
It will be highly unlikely, though not impossible, for East Asian states to go nuclear without the United States’ clear support. In the past, the United States has successfully pressured West Germany, South Korea, and Taiwan to commit to nonproliferation but it has also acquiesced to both Israel and Pakistan’s development of nuclear weapons.
This raises the issue of identifying conditions under which the United States might allow its allies and friends to go nuclear. Scholar Jaffrey Taliaferro has identified two factors that play a major role in determining Washington’s adoption of an accommodative nonproliferation strategy towards its friends, including an unfavorable distribution of power in the ally’s geographic region and short time horizons for threats to U.S. interests in the region.
In East Asia, China’s emergence as a great power and its clear intention to be a regional hegemon amounts to an unfavorable shift in the regional balance of power for the United States. However, when it comes to the time horizon, there does not exist any immediate threat to U.S. interests, despite China’s creeping maritime aggression and bellicose rhetoric. But in negating many predictions, Vladimir Putin’s invasion shows that intention might change quickly and threats may materialize sooner than expected, a lesson that U.S. policymakers will do well to keep in mind while thinking of the time horizon.
The threat of economic sanctions and the risk of preventive strikes by China would also figure into the calculation. Economic sanctions, however, are not a costless tool of nonproliferation. The Japanese, South Korean, and Taiwanese economies are technologically advanced and deeply integrated into the world economy. Economic sanctions in response to proliferation activities would significantly harm core U.S. economic and strategic interests, as well as the global economy. The adverse impact on both the United States and the Global South of sanctioning Russia’s relatively less integrated economy should serve as a cautionary tale.
Further, in weakening its allies’ economies for the sin of proliferation, the United States would impede burden sharing by local powers facing China. The proliferator states would also be aware of the reality that economic sanctions have not proven to be effective instruments of statecraft.
A preventive strike by China to halt nuclear weapons development is a far more serious challenge. In 2007, for instance, Israel scrambled its fighter jets to destroy Syria’s secret nuclear facility. In contrast, South Africa successfully hid its nuclear program, while India was also able to hoodwink U.S. intelligence agencies in its successful Pokhran II tests. Moreover, as academic Michael Cohen has argued, preventive strikes may appear to be an attractive option but have rarely been deployed by civilian authorities against a proliferator adversary.
Strategies of Proliferation
Should East Asian states decide to go nuclear, technological capability is not a major impediment. Given the strong public opposition in Japan, however, it makes sense for Tokyo to continue its current strategy of insurance hedging. In the case of Korea, there exists significant public support for its own nuclear deterrent. Yet, like Japan, it should first pursue insurance hedging. Should the threat from China or North Korea magnify or U.S. credibility wane, Seoul should not hesitate in shifting to sprinting or sheltered pursuit.
Taiwan’s situation is the direst as it faces an existential threat from China and is not protected by the U.S. nuclear umbrella. Given the absence of significant public support, Taiwan may resort to hard hedging. In the case that increased threat perceptions vis-à-vis China lead to a dramatic shift in public opinion, Taiwanese policymakers would do well to follow South Africa and hide their country’s nuclear program.
In the aftermath of the war in Ukraine, the future of the East Asian security order will likely be turbulent, and nuclear weapons are going to play an important role. China’s militaristic behavior and its nuclear modernization, as well as the credibility of U.S. commitments to its allies, are likely to play a major role in the future of nuclear proliferation in East Asia.
Ramakrishna Pathanaboina is a master’s student of International Politics at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi (@ramakrishna1196).
Sanjeet Kashyap is a Ph.D. candidate at the Centre for International Politics, Organisation, Disarmament, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi (@sanjeet38).