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Nuclear balance in Asia - The Hindu

C. Raja Mohan ()
June 11, 1998

Title: Nuclear balance in Asia
Author: C. Raja Mohan
Publication: The Hindu
Date: June 11, 1998

India's decision to become a declared nuclear weapon power is
rooted in the geopolitical changes that have taken place in Asia
since the end of the Cold War and would have a significant effect
on their evolution. The grain powers would try and limit the
impact of a nuclear India on Asian politics. But India defines a
responsible nuclear policy for itself and articulates it in terms
of a stable balance of power in Asia, the great powers will
eventually accommodate New Delhi.

Throughout the Cold War, the nuclear balance between the United
States and the Soviet Union served important functions in Asia.
Security commitments made by Washington and Moscow to their
allies helped bring about stability and reduce the incentives for
the lesser powers to seek national nuclear deterrence. Many
nations that stayed outside the formal alliance systems did not
have the benefits of extended deterrence from either of the great
powers. But the very nature of bipolarity and the existence of a
central nuclear balance gave enough confidence to the non-
aligned nations that in times of need either of the superpowers
would be available for security assistance.

There were three exceptions. China that had trouble with the both
the superpowers developed its own independent nuclear deterrent
>from the mid- 1960s. India with its aspirations for autonomy in
international affairs steadily developed its nuclear weapon
capability. Shocked that neither the U.S. nor China had turned
tip to prevent its "vivisection" by India in 1971. Pakistan moved
to acquire its own nuclear deterrent.

The end of the Cold War resulted in widespread expectations that
nuclear restraint and arms control would emerge as a "collective
good" in Asia. But, in fact, the trends have gone the other way.
Several factors have made nuclear weapons far more important to
Asian security. These include the collapse or loosening of the
traditional alliances in the religion increasing questions about
the credibility of an extended deterrence, concerns about the
rise of China and the uncertainty in U.S. policies towards
Beijing.

The revival of the Indian nuclear debate at the end of the Cold
War has not been accidental. It was firmly rooted in the
implications of the collapse of the Soviet Union for Indian
security. The strong relationship that New Delhi had built up
with Moscow during the Cold War and the belief that the central
balance between the U.S. and USSR was immutable allowed India the
luxury of keeping its nuclear option open. But the collapse of
the Soviet Union, the emergence of China once India's peer - as
the second most important power in the world, the consequent
disorientation of India's foreign policy and the fear that India
will forever be marginalised in the Asian and global geopolitics
forced New Delhi to reconsider its nuclear policy in the 1990s.

India was not the only one in Asia to review its nuclear policy
in the recent period. North Korea's rush towards nuclear weapons
was a consequence of the decision of its two traditional patrons
- Russia and China - to abandon it in favour of South Korea.
Pyongyang had no option but to turn towards elf-help in
managing the adverse external security environment. Taiwan was
concerned about the new status and standing of China in world
politics. It was worried about preserving its separate
territorial status in the international system. When the Taiwan
Straits crisis erupted in mid-1995, the nuclear debate in Taiwan
came out into the open.

Since the early 1970s, when the U.S. dumped Taiwan in favour of a
more realistic recognition of the People's Republic as the real
China, Taiwan has sought to gain nuclear weapon capability, but
the U.S. dissuaded it. On July 28, 1995, its President, Mr. Lee
Teng-Hui, for the first time admitted in the National Assembly
that the country had planned a nuclear weapon programme in the
past. Answering a question from a deputy who had proposed that
Taiwan develop its own nuclear arsenal, the President said, "We
should re-study the question from a long-term point of view." The
Taiwanese leader later backed off a bit, but he was signalling
that Taiwan could indeed think the unthinkable.

The end of the Cold War also revived the nuclear ambivalence of
Japan. It has for long relied on the U.S. nuclear umbrella for
its security. It has reinforced that relationship now with
Washington through new defence arrangements. But many in japan
question whether Washington's extended deterrence that worked so
well against Russia would now work in relation to China - its
looming neighbour to the West. As China's power grows rapidly,
balancing Beijing would be increasingly difficult for Tokyo.

On its own, Japan does not have the ability to restrain China,
and must therefore rely on American power. But the U.S. can be
fickle. Further, a strong alliance with the U.S. could generate
more confrontation with China than Tokyo could manage. Or, at
times, it could be less of a detergent than expected. Japan has
turned to a host of conventional strategies to manage the
relationship with Beijing including multilateralism, regional
confidence building measures and economic aid. But the Japanese
recognise the limits to what Tokyo can do through these
traditional means; and the nuclear weapon option remains an
important sub- text in japan's long-term strategic thinking.

In March 1994, the japan Strategic Study Centre, an influential
think tank, produced a report that called on the Government "to
remove public fear of nuclear arms and to come up with realistic
nuclear policies." In June 1994, the then Prime Minister, Mr.
Tsutomu Hata, declared that japan already had the apability to
produce nuclear weapons." The former Japanese Prime Minister, Mr.
Sato, is reported to have told the U.S. Ambassador in japan in a
private conversation during December 1994 that "if the other
fellow has nuclear weapons, it is only common sense to have them
oneself. The Japanese public is not ready for this, but would
have to be educated... Nuclear weapons are less costly than is
generally assumed, and the Japanese scientific and industrial
level is fully up to producing them."

The central question in Asia since the end of the Cold War has
been how best to cope with the rising power of China. Few in Asia
would like to see a new Cold War between the U.S. and China. That
would have terrible consequences for the whole region. But Asia
also shudders at the thought of a scenario in which China and the
U.S. draw too close. A "Sino-U.S. condominium" over Asia driven
by a "China-first" policy in Washington could put much of the
Asian nations in the uncomfortable position of having to accept
the dominance of Beijing.

India, which seeks an independent foreign policy and has no
prospect of gaining an alliance relationship with the U.S. a la
japan, has had no option but to unveil its nuclear weapons. In
the short-term, this has tended to reinforce the convergence of
interests between Washington and Beijing to limit the Indian
nuclear potential and prevent it from emerging as an important
factor in the Asian balance of power. Both have rejected, for
different reasons, India's claim to be a nuclear weapon power and
demanded an end to India's nuclear and missile programmes.
Washington is driven by reasons of defending the global nuclear
order and China is compelled to act on grounds of realpolitik.

China's position is understandable, although it is not acceptable
to New Delhi. No great power likes to see the rise of a
challenger in its neighbourhood. China's current approach to New
Delhi is no different from that of Russia's attitude towards
Beijing when it went nuclear in 1964. Fearing the rise of a
nuclear China. Moscow quickly concluded a partial test ban treaty
with Washington in 1963 and sought American cooperation for a
preemptive strike against China's fledgling nuclear force in the
late 1960s. China has survived all that to become an independent
nuclear player in the Asian geopolitics. So too will India,
despite the current hostility from both Washington and Beijing.

India needs to proceed rapidly to complete the development of a
medium range missile which is the missing link in its proposed
minimum nuclear deterrent. The longer range Agni-II is essential
for India to gain strategic parity with Beijing and reinforce its
claim to become an indispensable element of Asian geopolitics.
This does not mean, however, that India needs to pursue anti-
China policies. The balance of power is not about defining
enemies but about seeking stability through a rough equality of
capabilities among major powers. Nuclear India's interest lies
in reaching out to improve relations with both Washington and
Beijing, once they get out of their current pique.


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