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Nuclear Proliferation: The Next Wave

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by Arthur Waldron, Ph.D
Published on August 17th, 2008

On May 11, 1998 India tested a thermonuclear bomb. A short while later I found myself in India discussing this and other events with the then Minister of Defense George Fernandes. The talking point from Washington was that India had done this to warn Pakistan. Fernandes was careful to refute this specifically telling me that the bomb was intended to deter China and that suitable delivery systems would follow. To drive the point home he stated that the Prime Minister had specifically authorized him to state that the Chinese threat and not Pakistan was driving the Indian nuclear and defense program, then just entering its current phase of impressive modernization.

I mention this as an example of the long term effects of what at the time may appear to have been victories, effects that are regularly counterproductive. China, after all, invaded Tibet in the 1950s, militarizing that former buffer zone so that Beijing’s nuclear forces were just behind the Himalaya peaks unmistakably menacing India, and not 1,000 miles away in ethnic China proper. In 1962 China humiliated India in a border war, occupying territory that has never been returned. The world watched, tut-tutting about how tough it was for India.

Thirty six years later India turned the tables on China by developing serious nuclear forces. That new situation means China can no longer push India around, or at least only up to a certain point. War with India would be disastrous for China. Worst of all, having a nuclear armed and suspicious India to her south constrains China’s military options elsewhere. No planner wants an unsecured potential second front as he concentrates his forces elsewhere.

My sense is that Russia’s ongoing invasion of Georgia may have a similar effect, except faster.

The only realistic way that Georgia could have deterred Russia would be by possessing either nuclear weapons, or similar weapons of mass destruction with the means to deliver them. As Israel, North Korea, Iran, and other states are demonstrating, acquiring such a deterrent capability (and it need not be nuclear) is not beyond the means of a small country or a poor country.

Now talk about deterrence, weapons of mass destruction, and nuclear weapons, will begin, seriously, in a whole new set of defense ministries. Essentially all of "new Europe" and Poland in particular, will be taking sober looks at their capabilities. So too will the Baltic States. Belarus, Ukraine, and the five states of former Soviet Central Asia, Kazakhstan most importantly, will have grasped that, when it comes to defense, they, like Georgia, are on their own. No one will defend them, which means they will want the ability to deter attack--which means possession of weapons of terror.

No real alternative exists. Extended deterrence--having one country protect another by promising to go to nuclear war on its behalf (our arrangement with Japan) is no longer credible, now that the US homeland can be hit by missiles fired, e.g. from China. We will not trade San Francisco for Tokyo: we will let Tokyo be incinerated (not an entirely novel experience for that city) rather than risk a direct nuclear exchange.

China’s foolish military build up is well nigh guaranteeing that in a decade or two she will be surrounded by states having WMD capability: from Russia to the Koreas to Japan to Taiwan, to Vietnam, to India and beyond.

Now Russia’s ill-conceived venture in the Caucasus has set of the alarm while gaining Russia nothing of real strategic significance (Abhkazia? South Ossetia? The Russians should have gone straight for the Ceyhan pipeline. Control of that would have strengthened the Kremlin immeasurably).

To sum up the argument so far, then, China’s military buildup has already rebounded to China’s disadvantage by sparking Indian development of practical nuclear weapons. North Korea evidently has nuclear weapons and while most observers are convinced these are aimed at Tokyo or Seoul or even Washington, my own view is that as a Former Tributary State of China--whose diplomatic representatives abroad in the nineteenth century made their calls in the company of the Ambassador of the Qing, whom they walked several paces behind--the Koreans almost certainly see their bomb as, ultimately, an insurance policy against annexation of at least North Korea by Beijing. South Korea also started developing nuclear weapons, but was prevented by the Unites States, as was Taiwan (twice) but one many assume both states could become nuclear very quickly--as could Japan. Indeed China’s current harassment of Japan with air and naval incursions into sovereign territory will, I expect, gradually lead Japan to assume the status of militarily most powerful state in Asia. So a building wave of WMD development will break in a decade or two all around China--unless China changes her diplomatic and military direction.

Now a new wave has been released. All around the former Soviet Union we may expect newly independent states to start building their own decisive weapons, as insurance against Soviet attack. As for China, this will be a most unwelcome development for Russia, with its immense size and long borders.

What makes things worse is that the Eastern and the Western wave will splash against each other in certain regions. Most important is former Soviet Central Asia. The states there have traditionally been friendlier to Moscow than to Beijing, but both powers are represented, and China in particular craves the regions resources. Now the states of the region will crave bankable security. That means weapons systems but it also means alliances. And with whom do they fit most naturally? The answer is the Muslim world, with its ever improving military capabilities. I have been told authoritatively that Pakistan would share its nuclear weapons with Muslim friends, if it came to that. Russia and China both have serious Muslim problems dating back to nineteenth century conquests and subsequent mistreatment: Russia with Chechnya and China with East Turkestan, as well as with ethnically Chinese Muslims or hui. Until recently the implications for these problems of developments in Central Asia were largely ignored. No longer.

One final twist. Because the Europeans depend on Russia for energy and are absolutely incapable of defending themselves--this applies above all to so-called "Old Europe" which still imagines the United States will rush to their aid--they are likely to adopt a policy toward Moscow that is at least neutral. Russia’s leverage will be increased if and when she cuts the Ceyhan pipeline, establishing in effect control over Europe’s energy spigot. Of course the Europeans may wake up. Those who were recently under Soviet control will almost certainly do so. But the fat and lazy states of Western Europe will prefer a quiet life, and yield to the Russians.

That fact will be the death of NATO. Not necessarily a bad thing, to be sure, but something that will change security architecture. The United States has her own severe energy problems that must be addressed, but Russian control of pipelines is not one of them. Western Europe must either secure access to Central Asian energy by guaranteeing a transport corridor south of Russia, or lose autonomy. Certainly Europe could develop the capability to look after herself but as with Japan, the question is will.

What is not in doubt, I suspect, is the will of the smaller countries feeling the threat. It may seem odd for Ukraine to have nuclear weapons when Germany does not, or for Vietnam to have them when Japan does not--but such possibilities exist.

They will have the effect of tying both Russia and China down strategically. Far from becoming freer players internationally, they are weaving nets that will constrain themselves. Europe will be faced with the choice of developing her own self-sufficient military force or being at Moscow’s mercy. Small ententes may develop where threatened countries cooperate. Headaches for Washington will become severe, however, only if we choose to jump into the midst of all this. We have the option of working at the edges, offshore, and through a few key allies.

Things have taken a sudden and unexpected turn for the worse. It is the result of a failure of Moscow to understand her own interests (just as the Asian situation flows from Beijing’s similar incapacity). The Greeks gave us an overused image that, however, fits this case perfectly: opening Pandora’s box.

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