How many nuclear-armed countries does Obama want in Asia?

Sgt. Sun L. Vega/U.S. Army

U.S. Army Col. David P. Anders, the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment commander, and Chinese Gen. Chen Bingde, chief of the Chinese People's Liberation Army General Staff, render honors during a troop review on Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, May 17, 2011.

Article Highlights

  • As #Russia and the US strike up new nuclear reduction deals, China has no incentive to reduce its arsenal

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  • “Global Zero” and deep defense cuts tempt China to up its nuclear arsenal and give allies pause about our “extended deterrent”

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  • How "Global Zero" may quickly turn to "Global Many"

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Of course President Obama does not want any more nuclear powers in Asia. But his policies are hastening that reality. Why? First, "global zero" and deep cuts in conventional forces are both tempting Beijing to up its nuclear arsenal and giving allies pause about our "extended deterrent." Second, Obama has continued the Bush and Clinton policies that have allowed North Korea to become a nuclear power.

Let's turn to "New Start" and global zero. Without regard to China's modernizing strategic arsenal, Obama signed an agreement with Russia to reduce the number of deployed U.S. nuclear warheads from 2,200 to between 1,500 and 1,675. Both countries are also reducing their strategic delivery systems.

"If our strategy is to respond to a Chinese attack on an ally with massive conventional strikes on the mainland, we better have the nuclear arsenal we need to deter a nuclear response."--Daniel Blumenthal

China, however, is not part of any meaningful nuclear reduction treaties. In addition, it has no incentive to reduce its ballistic missile arsenal. As I previously wrote with Mark Stokes, Beijing is not bound by the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Agreement and therefore can build conventional and nuclear tipped ballistic missiles of all ranges with reckless abandon. Contrast that with the coming stark reductions in U.S. conventional forces in East Asia.

The Obama defense cuts -- and make no mistake, there will much less conventional striking power in Asia by the time he leaves office -- are all the more problematic given that the president justified his nuclear reductions by claiming that U.S. supremacy in precision-guided conventional weapons changes the calculus of deterrence. The logic is the U.S. can rely on conventional weaponry to have the same effects of nuclear weapons. 

But all of our credible delivery systems (for conventional and unconventional weaponry) are threatened by the budget knife (nuclear submarine fleet, stealthy aircraft, next generation bomber). And, the administration's plans for prompt global strike -- the ability to hit any target in the world rapidly -- are also of concern. First, Obama does not plan on employing very many of these systems, which undermines the stated objective of conventional supremacy. Second, if an administration decided to increase the number of missiles in the prompt global strike arsenal, those missiles would count against the New Start limits (which include conventional ICBMs against the total limit of delivery systems).

As a consequence we are getting close to a worst-case scenario in Asia. We are tempting Beijing to increase its strategic arsenal. As mentioned, China has no treaty limits on nuclear weapons or their delivery systems. At the same time, with our AirSea battle concept, we talk more openly about conventional strikes on the mainland to shut down a Chinese attack. Even if we had the conventional capability to hit targets in China that would have a strategic effect, this approach could lead toward more nuclear weapons in China. If I were a Chinese strategist, I would look at every option to negate the consequences of a massive conventional strike on my homeland - I would build a more robust nuclear arsenal. And apparently that is what China is doing.

If our strategy is to respond to a Chinese attack on an ally with massive conventional strikes on the mainland, we better have the nuclear arsenal we need to deter a nuclear response.

In short, China has every incentive to add to its arsenal. And, without a nuclear, conventional, or missile defense answer, our allies must be growing nervous. According to a State Department report cited by my colleagues Tom Donnelly and David Trachtenburg, "[t]here is clear evidence in diplomatic channels that U.S. assurances to include the nuclear umbrella have been, and continue to be, the single most important reason many allies have foresworn nuclear weapons."

The bipartisan success of this decade's long strategic policy is undeniable. South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Australia are all quite capable of acquiring nuclear weapons but chose (sometimes with U.S. prodding) not to do so. Now South Korea and Japan have at least two reasons to reconsider--North Korea is a nuclear weapons state and China may be a growing one. Taiwan is less confident that it will get the conventional arms it needs from the U.S., and we would do well to remember that it sought nuclear weapons when it was previously abandoned by the U.S.  

And Australia? While the administration's decision to place Marines in Darwin is a move in the right direction, it stands to be undercut by the problems described above. With the fraying credibility of a U.S. nuclear or overbearing conventional capability, an Australia hosting Marines may come to look like a juicier target for Chinese defense planners. In terms of deterrence, the question may cease to be whether we will trade Taipei for Los Angeles. Instead allies may ask, why host U.S. troops if Washington does not have a credible extended deterrent? The next question will be, if North Korea and China have nuclear weapons, why not us?

Global Zero may quickly turn to Global Many.

Daniel Blumenthal is a resident fellow at AEI

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