Nuclear competition in Indo-Asia-Pacific could increase instability, study warns

Nuclear competition in Indo-Asia-Pacific could increase instability, study warns


If more nations obtain and expand their nuclear weapons arsenals, the world may become a more unstable place, according to a new book by Henry D. Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center and a former U.S. Defense Department official.

His views, however, contradict the prevailing conventional wisdom. Although the majority of policymakers and experts in nuclear nonproliferation view the world as a safer place, given the progress by the United States and Russia in reducing their nuclear weapons stockpiles, Sokolski writes that as more countries, especially those in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, obtain such capabilities, the “strategic military competitions of the next … decades will be unlike any the world has yet seen.” His book, Underestimated: Our Not So Peaceful Nuclear Future, was released in January 2016 by the U.S. Army War College Press.

Many experts have argued that deterrence will be “automatic,” as more nations obtain or expand existing nuclear arsenals and nonnuclear powers procure nuclear facilities for energy and other “peaceful” activities. Given that China, India and Pakistan continue to modernize and expand their nuclear capabilities and the use of weapons-grade materials for nuclear energy continues to spread worldwide, Sokolski writes, “the next arms race will be run by a much larger number of contestants with highly destructive strategic capabilities far more closely matched and capable of being quickly enlarged than in any other previous period in history.”

Sokolski defines “possible near or mid-term nuclear weapons states” to include Iran, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Japan and Algeria. For these reasons, he contends “the stool of nuclear deterrence will have many more legs that could give way in many more surprising ways than were possible a half-century ago.”

“These trends invite disorder. How much depends on how well the United States, Russia, China, and other key countries deal with them,” Sokolski writes.

In the book’s foreword, Andrew W. Marshall, former director of the U.S. Defense Department’s Office of Net Assessment, writes, “There is little discussion of the vulnerability of the weapons, delivery systems, command and central systems, and more. Having a well-protected second-strike capability historically was not automatic; it took time and effort, changed operational practices, etc.”

China in particular is worrisome, given that beginning in 2020 it will have the capacity to build more than 500 nuclear weapons a year, and it continues to modernize its nuclear arsenal, according to Sokolski. At present, Russia has 3,600 strategic and tactical nuclear weapons, and the U.S. has 2,130. China has fewer than 900, while India, Pakistan, England, France and Israel have between 100 and 400 such weapons each, he estimates. At least 24 nations have ballistic missile systems that can launch nuclear warheads.

In his book, Sokolski makes the following recommendations to address these trends:

  • Clarify China’s strategic military capabilities and promote nonproliferation and arms control measures that limit strategic weapons proliferation in Asia.

“As the world’s economic and strategic center of gravity shifts toward Asia, it would make sense to tailor our control efforts to be more relevant to this region,” he writes.

  • Encourage nuclear supplier states to condition their further export of civilian nuclear plants upon the recipients forswearing reprocessing spent reactor fuel and enriching uranium and press the International Atomic Energy Agency to be more candid about what it can safeguard.

He wonders whether Iran’s pursuit of “peaceful” nuclear energy could serve as a model for countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and Algeria, which all have stated plans to build reactors by 2035.

  • Anticipate and ward off nuclear proliferation developments before recognized redlines have been clearly violated.

“One of the regrettable legacies of the Cold War is the habit U.S. and allied government officials have acquired of waiting for irrefutable evidence of undesirable, foreign nuclear weapons developments before taking action. This must change.”