Much has been made of nuclear proliferation dangers in the Mideast, where a nuclear-armed Iran would set off a regional nuclear arms race.
But we should be so lucky as to have only one regional nuclear crisis to worry about. There are several others. Much has been made of the possibility of an India-Pakistan regional nuclear conflict. In her memoir, former National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that only the timely intervention of the Bush administration in late 2001 prevented an Indo-Pak nuclear exchange then. A staple of our assessment of Pakistan is whether Islamists will gain control over its nuclear arsenal, either by winning an election or by coup, or by raiding Pakistan’s nuclear sites, which are estimated to contain at least 100 nuclear weapons. At the recent GOP foreign policy debate, Michele Bachmann noted that there at 15 Pakistani nuclear sites, of which six have been attacked already. Reports are that the U.S. has contingency plans to seize the arsenal in the event Islamists take over the country, while Pakistan, to forestall such a prospect, moves its arsenal in lightly protected convoys, to fool surveillance.
Would that these prospects, awful as they are, were the only nuclear threats germinating in Asia. Alas, they aren’t. There are two other growing, grave nuclear threats: China’s burgeoning arsenal and its desire to gain supremacy in the western Pacific, displacing the United States, and North Korea’s continuing efforts not only to grow its own nuclear program (now well along to adding uranium enrichment to plutonium separation as a method for producing nuclear fuel for bombs), but also to help proliferators elsewhere—Iran and Burma.
Iran has been caught aggressively pushing warhead design, aided by Pakistan and North Korea. The North also has been aiding Burma’s nascent nuclear program, according to Sen. Richard Lugar (R.-Ind.), one of the Senate’s top nuclear policy experts. Burma, dirt poor and desperate in a thousand ways, can only be useful in a nuclear program as was Syria: to provide an out-of-sight—and, hence, out-of-mind—locus for augmenting a rogue power’s nuclear program, by clandestinely enriching uranium or separating plutonium.
China has been developing new nuclear weapons. And, according to recent reports it has 3,000 miles of deep underground tunnels called “the Underground Great Wall,” that may well conceal a massive arsenal of a few thousand nuclear weapons, far more than the 200 to 400 commonly thought to be the size of China’s arsenal. The Washington Post reported that a former top national security official, now a professor, had students working for three years to compile all available data on the subject. Indications in the data are that mobile missiles shuttle back and forth between the tunnels.
There has been no alternative plausible explanation offered for the digging of these specialized tunnels. And it is counterintuitive, to say the least, to believe that the massive across-the-board Chinese military buildup exempts the most powerful of all weapons, given that Chinese leaders know they may someday face the U.S. in a western Pacific showdown.
What, then, are the implications for these developments in Asia?
First, the Obama administration’s belief that if the U.S. takes the lead in reducing its nuclear arsenal others will follow our example, is flatly false. Au contraire, as the French say, our unilateral restraint encourages our enemies and rogue states in general to increase their arsenals. As our stockpile shrinks, the potential for their smaller stockpiles to have strategic value increases. This newest experience follows the comparable experience we had with the Soviet Union during the cold War: We capped our arsenal in numbers in 1967. The Soviets, who began a massive buildup around 1961, did not end theirs until 1986, when Mikhail Gorbachev, a leader genuinely committed to change, ended the program. And it has been followed by Russia, which, as we reduce our arsenal pursuant to the 2010 New START Treaty, increases and modernizes its own ballistic missile arsenal, both on land and at sea.
Second, rogue proliferators will continue the increase unless decisive action is taken. Yet action is not an option. An attack on China is obviously not thinkable, and even North Korea can use its nukes to deter any kind of attack aimed at destroying its known nuclear sites or bringing down its regime. Aspiring proliferators thus can see the near total immunity that possession of even a small nuclear arsenal confers. Hence the incentive for rogue states to pursue nuclear programs is immense. Truly decisive action, absent outright aggression, is virtually impossible to carry out once a state joins the nuclear weapons club.
Third, non-nuclear allies of the U.S. who have the capability to rapidly go nuclear have greatly increased incentives to do so as enemies grow their nuclear programs. South Korea, Taiwan and Japan can go nuclear, metaphorically, in five nanoseconds. Our unilateral, unreciprocated nuclear arms reductions, coupled with growing arsenals of their enemies, tempt them to do precisely that.
All of which should give a prudent administration pause as to the idea of offering added up-front nuclear concessions. This, sadly, does not describe the present team. We will reap the whirlwind, one day, if a nuclear weapon goes off somewhere in Asia, or should a major conflict erupt and our strategic options are constrained by our enemies’ existing nuclear arsenals and our (understandable) reluctance to risk nuclear retaliation in the region.
Put simply, in Asia our counter-proliferation policy has failed.
John C. Wohlstetter is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, a trustee of the Hudson Institute, author of The Long War Ahead and the Short War Upon Us, and founder of the issues blog Letter From the Capitol.