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#4499, 9 June 2014

Nuke Street

The Second Nuclear Age in the Asia Pacific
Sheel Kant Sharma
Former Permanent Representative to UN Office in Vienna & IAEA

President Obama’s West Point speech in 2014 reflected a qualified fatigue with internationalist causes. The recent Chinese comment on North Korean threats about an impending test had an interesting term in cautioning its difficult but important neighbour: that there is no justification for a new nuclear test and that North Korea should not do it. It implies some kind of acceptance of the status quo. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Ye during his Seoul visit continued to press for all in the six party talks to persevere peacefully towards a denuclearised peninsula. Visits and parleys among key members of the six nations, with a focus on North Korea, including Japan and North Korea, indicate chances of a reactivation of the process. Meanwhile, Russian anger against US and the G7 is being cited as reason for Moscow’s new look at expanding relations with Pyongyang. Russian support has expanded over the past one year and particularly since the onset of the crisis in Ukraine.

Russia has waved huge loans (US$10 billion) owed by North Korea since the Soviet times and has offered US$1 billion for a trans-Siberian railway project through North to South Korea, received North Korean president at the Sochi winter Olympics and sent a ministerial delegation on a visit to Pyongyang to sign up on important economic and trade cooperation. This refashioning of ties between the Cold War allies might add heft to Pyongyang’s hard stance for resumption of the six party talks without preconditions. The G7 brandishing to Putin more sanctions for Russian actions in Ukraine may have the effect of diminishing Russian interest in tighter sanctions on North Korea. As for Japan, a distinct possibility of Prime Minister Abe making a visit to North Korea is being seen in the announcement in the Diet by his foreign minister about an upcoming official visit. Some headway has been made in a meeting in Sweden in the direction of the return of the Japanese kidnapped in North Korea and Japan’s provision in turn for food supplies. This may also be helpful to resume the six party talks.

The growing tensions in Southeast and East Asia between China on one side and Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines on the other are giving rise to new ways to deal with China, but possibly without disturbing the existing non-weapon status of the highly developed Japanese and South Korean nuclear enterprises. The so called break out fears, much talked about in the context of Iran, do not come to fore because of the impeccable record of Seoul and Tokyo with the IAEA. However, China has begun to raise questions about the high plutonium holdings of Japan. The reason advanced by Japan, namely, plutonium to meet fuel requirements for its breeder programme, may be less credible in the wake of Fukushima-induced anti-nuclear sentiment. As for Seoul, it appears inclined to try non-nuclear options like building its own ground-based mid-course missile defence to cope with nuclear threats from the North, instead of contemplating any deterrent route.

Within US too there are the long-held views being reinforced by profound thinking that foresees far more problems for strategic stability in case new allies develop their own deterrent. Hence the reinforcing of US rebalancing and commitment to the Asia-Pacific allies as witnessed in the annual Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore in end-May 2014. US Defense Secretary Hagel was so candid in voicing concern about China’s threatening actions in the South China Sea that the Chinese reacted equally forcefully and virtually told Hagel to lay off.

These are the facets of diverse approaches for the management of the second nuclear age in the Asia-Pacific and do not provide much reassurance. The latest Pentagon reports show that China is underreporting its defence expenditure by 20 per cent and suggest that the correct annual figure should be US$145 billion, almost four times that of India and ahead of Japan. China’s air force is said to be growing at an alarming rate, including with development of advanced drones and testing of hypersonic missiles, which when combined with earlier stories about its SSBNs and improvements in its strategic forces, send unmistakable messages about where China is headed. The recent US Justice Department’s charges against Chinese generals about cyber attacks against US businesses and China’s strong reaction and counter-charges against the US demonstrate an escalation of the Cold War-like rhetoric in Asia.

Putin’s closeness to China as reflected in the conclusion of a US$400 billion, thirty year, gas deal and a host of others including about defence procurements as well as Russian-Chinese joint veto in the UN Security Council are indications of emerging new configurations in geopolitics. These will call in to question what was suggested even as recently as 2012 by the Yale Professor Paul Bracken about an abiding common interest of the existing great powers in managing the second nuclear age (ie the age when new proliferating States emerge). If anything, China and Russia appear to be set to devising ways to mount a concerted challenge to what the Chinese openly call US hegemony.

This is the short take from the dynamic that is evolving in Asia. The news story about Russian arms to Pakistan in this setting should raise Delhi’s heckles – the new fangled diplomacy of Kerry and Hagel to woo Pakistan (propensity of US think-tanks to reward Pakistan with a nuclear deal), Russia’s indulgence, and China’s all-weather friendship firmly backing its trusted ally compounds the strategic scenario for India. A perceptive remark by a former Indian Ambassador to Russia is poignant to the US-India situation: “The US has been looking to cooperate with an India that is strong enough to be a balancer of China but (should not be strong) enough to cause concern to Pakistan.” Talking of paradoxes, the US is not alone. China’s position for continued peaceful engagement and diplomacy about North Korea, and its consistent reluctance to put Pakistan or its terror outfits on the spot is in contrast with the increasing severity with which it reacts to Japan and bristles over outsiders counsel on maritime disputes with Japan and in the South China Sea.

China has generally refused dialogue with India as a nuclear weapon state invoking what it called the international mainstream (eg NPT) whereas on Japan and South China Sea it rejects anything that differs from its own national hard line regardless of the weight of international mainstream, eg, UN Convention on the Law of the Seas, freedom of navigation and security of the sea lanes. 

In short, rules are less and less likely to govern the evolving uncertainties in Asia except the inherent strength and might of nations, or a concert thereof, backing whoever takes a stand. This is the setting for the first high level Sino-Indian diplomatic engagement which begins over this weekend. As a special envoy of Chinese president Xi, Foreign Minister Wang Ye is set to meet the new government in Delhi with a message comprising all the right and reassuring points.

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