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Nobel award highlights Asia's nuclear challenge

Recognition of activist group is reminder of need to tackle regional nuclear proliferation

| China
ICAN and its supporters need to join other peace movements, civil groups and policymakers to lessen political frictions and threat perceptions.   © Reuters

The award of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons is a pat on the back for transnational activists striving for a world free of atomic bombs. ICAN's fervent advocacy for the disarmament of the nine countries that together account for 15,000 nuclear bombs and for dissuading wannabe states from acquiring them has kept alive the elusive goal of "Global Zero," which has remained a mission impossible due to strategic compulsions.

The anti-nuclear movement's moral and humanitarian case against the possession and use of atomic weapons runs into a brick wall of geopolitical calculations that have kept alive both vertical proliferation (nuclear weapons states adding more bombs to their existing arsenals) and horizontal proliferation (previously non-nuclear weapon states conducting tests and entering the club).

ICAN is correct in naming and shaming the countries with the biggest nuclear arsenals as the prime obstacles to moving toward "Global Zero." But the top three nuclear powers -- Russia (7,000 warheads), the U.S. (6,800 warheads) and France (300 warheads) -- have accepted the concept of "nuclear stability" and portrayed their arsenals as essential for maintaining international peace and order.

In a rebuke to ICAN's Nobel Prize, a spokesperson for Russian President Vladimir Putin said "there is no alternative to nuclear parity to maintain world stability." The remark is steeped in realpolitik reasoning that nuclear weapons endow a country with prestige, influence and bargaining leverage vis-a-vis both nuclear and non-nuclear countries. A major world power, according to this philosophy, must have a vast nuclear arsenal and protect it as a priceless national asset.

Unsafe in Asia

Such arguments are prevalent especially in Asia, where nuclear arsenals are rapidly expanding in tandem with increasing national ambition and geopolitical competition. China (270 warheads), Pakistan (120 warheads), India (110 warheads) and North Korea (20 warheads) are caught in a mutually reinforcing cycle of vertical proliferation to protect themselves against each other and to compete with Russia and the U.S.

When India went nuclear in 1998, then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee declared that he was compelled to do so by a "deteriorating security environment" caused by "an overt nuclear weapon state on our borders [China]" which "materially helped another neighbor of ours [Pakistan]" to "become a covert nuclear weapons state."

There is a direct correlation between regional enmities, territorial disputes and the perceived value of nuclear weapons as ultimate guarantors of security. China, whose arsenal is presently rising at a slow pace, initially invested in atomic weapons in the 1950s to check American threats over Taiwan and later developed its arsenal from the 1960s to push back against the Soviet Union.

Today, Chinese nuclear doctrine is still guided by the notion of preparedness for a "retaliatory second strike" against the militarily superior and strategically distrusted U.S. nuclear modernization and expansion are undertaken by Beijing specifically to retain its counterattacking abilities in response to improvements in the U.S. nuclear and missile delivery systems. Likewise, Pakistan, which has the world's fastest growing nuclear arsenal, feels vulnerable to conventionally stronger India and believes it must keep on increasing its stockpile to match India's military upgrades.

As for North Korea, it has explicitly mentioned a "final goal to establish the equilibrium of real force with the U.S." by continuing to conduct nuclear and missile tests, illustrating the same faith in nuclear deterrence. The irony is that whenever a country in Asia goes nuclear or expands its arsenal, it reflexively triggers an arms race. The quest for a "balance of terror" with foes is forever imbalanced since the other party also must keep modernizing its nuclear stockpiles and delivery systems.

Caught in this spiral of security dilemmas are the wild card states with nuclear know-how but no bombs yet, but which could consider a "breakout" if they feel that self-reliance is the only assurance in a fluid security environment like that in Asia. The prospect of South Korea and Japan aiming for acquiring nuclear weapons is no longer hypothetical because of North Korea's unchecked provocations and uncertainty about the U.S. nuclear umbrella. Similarly, the warning by Israel (80 warheads) that Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations "are preparing to acquire nuclear weapons" to counterbalance Iran instead of relying on U.S. security promises is a clear sign of the dangerous spillover effects from inbred hatreds and feuds.

Non-proliferation versus disarmament

ICAN has tried to challenge this militarist status quo by helping to enshrine into international law a United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, with 53 signatory countries so far. Yet, none of the existing nuclear powers has recognized this treaty as beneficial. The nine nuclear "haves" wish to preserve their current arsenal while blocking other nations from reaching their level so as to maintain a system of "nuclear apartheid."

This phenomenon is laid bare in the denunciations and preventive actions by nuclear states whenever a new player conducts atomic tests. We saw it when India and Pakistan crossed the threshold in 1998 and again since 2006 when North Korea began testing nuclear bombs.

Yet, as ICAN has correctly pointed out, the "failure of the nuclear powers to disarm has heightened the risk that other countries will acquire nuclear weapons." In other words, non-proliferation is only possible if there is complete disarmament. The Nobel Prize for ICAN thus helps to shine the light on the nine nuclear states and how they bear the primary responsibility for making the world more secure.

Seven decades into the nuclear age, it has been rare for a state that has developed nuclear weapons technology to give them up unilaterally. Instances of the dismantling of nuclear capabilities in countries like South Africa (1989), Iraq (1991), Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus (1990s), and Libya (2004) occurred amid extraordinary circumstances of state collapse, political transition and intense foreign pressure. When a nuclear-armed state is relatively stable and strong, it has never gone down the path that ICAN is prescribing.

North Korea has imbibed the bitter lesson that "the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq and the Gaddafi regime in Libya could not escape the fate of destruction after giving up nuclear programs of their own accord." Pyongyang's logic that "powerful nuclear deterrence serves as the strongest treasured sword for frustrating outsiders' aggression" is, sadly for ICAN, widely shared among state elites of several countries who oversee national security. The belief that weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear ones, are the means for conventionally weak nations to keep stronger rivals from destroying them is ingrained in strategic thought.

ICAN's call for rolling back the arsenals of nuclear states can be realistically achieved only if there is a concerted diplomatic and social effort at conflict resolution and peacemaking in fraught sub-regions like South Asia and Northeast Asia. Nuclear weapons have a currency and appeal in Asia because it happens to be the most contested of all continents with too many fault lines and visceral animosities.

The historic task for ICAN and its constituencies is to combine forces with peace movements, civil society groups and progressive policymakers in relevant countries to lessen political frictions and threat perceptions. Nuclear weapons are not just military but political weapons, and the path ahead for the anti-nuclear movement is to debunk theories of security based on WMD and to mitigate war-mongering attitudes and narrow nationalism, especially in Asia where nuclear proliferation is galloping. A tall order indeed.

Sreeram Chaulia is a professor and dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat, India. His latest book is "Modi Doctrine: The Foreign Policy of India's Prime Minister."

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