Still the greater nuclear threat posed by China’s military modernization is hypothetical, albeit all too real. Specifically, as its conventional superiority grows, and its interests expand, China’s military modernization will serve as a powerful motivator for its neighbors to build their own nuclear forces.
Indeed, the need to deter overwhelming conventional military threats has been the driving force behind many states’ decision to go nuclear. For example, France made the decision to build nukes only days after NATO decided to rearm Western Germany. Given that its Arab enemies were much larger and more populated than Israel, and bent on the latter’s destruction, David Ben-Gurion deemed nuclear weapons essential early on in the Jewish state’s existence. As noted above, this logic was compelling for Pakistani leaders as well.
It’s hardly unthinkable, then, that countries like Japan, Vietnam, Taiwan and even South Korea will feel the need to acquire nuclear weapons to offset China’s conventional superiority, as well as the territorial disputes it maintains with most of them. Furthermore, South Korea, Taiwan and especially Japan have advanced nuclear programs that would make it relatively easy and cheap for them to build the bomb.
While nuclear weapons appear to have a very bright future, particularly in Asia, the nuclear-disarmament crowd will undoubtedly work tirelessly to prevent them. Indeed, in the decade plus since 9/11, the Global Zero cause has greatly expanded its ranks and won over key political leaders like President Obama.
Unfortunately, their cause, however noble, is dangerous. Thanks to their ability to deter great-power conflict, the only thing worse than nuclear weapons is a world without them. Consider that, a conservative estimate of World War II fatalities is 60 million people, or roughly 3 percent of the global population at the time. A non-nuclear world war today could therefore be expected to kill AT LEAST 210 million people (precision-guided munitions and greater urbanization would likely make a non-nuclear war today much more lethal than WWII, although advances in medicine would partially offset this).
This in itself would be a tragedy unprecedented in human history. The greater danger, however, is that such a conflict wouldn’t remain conventional very long. Along with making great-power conflict far more likely, global nuclear disarmament offers no conceivable mechanism to ensure that such a war would remain non-nuclear. In fact, common sense would suggest that immediately following the outbreak of hostilities—if not in the run-up to the war itself—every previous nuclear power would make a rapid dash to reconstruct their nuclear forces in the shortest amount of time.
The result would not merely be a return to the nuclear world we currently inhabit. Rather, some countries would reconstruct their nuclear weapons more quickly than others, and no power could be sure of the progress their rivals had made. The “winners” in this nuclear arms race would then have every incentive to immediately use their new nuclear capabilities against their adversaries in an effort to quickly end the conflict, eliminate others’ nuclear weapons–making capabilities, or merely out of fear that others will launch a debilitating strike on their small and vulnerable nuclear arsenal. There would be no mutually assured destruction in such an environment; a “use-it-or-lose-it” mentality would prevail.
Zachary Keck is the managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.