The WMD Project is an ongoing endeavour by the APLN’s network of experts to assess regional security issues, proliferation challenges, and flash points in the Asia-Pacific.
APLN WMD Project
In December 2020, APLN convened a group of experts to address critical issues related to nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. In this project, experts and APLN members and staff assess key features of WMD infrastructure, force structures, capabilities, envisioned uses and solutions across the Asia-Pacific WMD landscape.
The analysis includes assessing the baseline status of and trends in vertical and horizontal proliferation of WMD across the region; focusing on where wars involving WMD might begin in three locations in the overall region – South Asia, the Taiwan Straits, and Korea – while examining how asymmetric force structures and future proliferation may increase the risk of using WMD, especially nuclear weapons, in each conflict. We also assess how the risk of wars involving WMD in the region might be reduced or even eliminated.
In surveying the diverse WMD landscape, we observe that WMD, especially nuclear weapons, present the same imperatives and dilemmas everywhere they are located. We look for possible ways to reduce the risk that WMD – especially nuclear – use might be used and related non-proliferation and disarmament strategies in Asia-Pacific.
A special edition of the Global Asia journal was published in June 2021, featuring nine short essays from the APLN project on assessing WMD threats in the Asia-Pacific. Read the full issue here.
The following special reports are being published as part of this project.
Robert Ayson argues that the People’s Republic of China (hereafter China) and the United States have set up the conditions to spiral to nuclear war in the Taiwan Straits due to the intersection of political friction between China and Taiwan (over which China claims sovereignty, recognized implicitly by most states) with US-China strategic competition. Ayson argues that although it is not easy to start a nuclear war in the Taiwan Straits, the risk is real and derives from the asymmetry of forces in the conventional military balance between China and the United States on the one hand, and the propensity of the Taiwanese leadership to seek independence on the other.
Petr Topychkanov assesses the modernization of nuclear postures by nuclear-armed states, especially the decision to reverse course from de-emphasizing nuclear weapons to expanding the roles attributed to nuclear weapons in their rhetoric, operational doctrines, war plans, and deployments.
Allan Behm examines the theory versus the likely reality of relying on US nuclear-extended deterrence in today’s increasingly tense Asia-Pacific region. He argues US leaders are unlikely to honour long-standing nuclear guarantees provided to allies because the US would suffer extreme consequences. His underlying message is that US allies in the region need to look to their own resources to guarantee their security because nuclear extended deterrence is based on a fantasy.
Richard Pilch and Miles Pomper examine the potential re-emergence of already banned biological weapons due to the pandemic, the difficulty that nuclear-armed states face in posing a credible threat of use of nuclear weapons, the difficulty that some non-nuclear states face in obtaining their own nuclear weapons. Bioweapons also present a unique non-state actor attack vector whereby an already infected individual motivated by ideology sets out to spread contagious disease with potentially devastating health and psychological impact on targeted populations.
Richard Tanter identifies the practical and legal obstacles that block the TPNW from making a credible claim to have banned nuclear weapons on a universal basis. He identifies a number of key tasks that must be undertaken to advance the TPNW agenda, including dialogue between regional nuclear umbrella and prohibition states, pushing for clarity on nuclear guarantees from the United States to allies and related risks, and doing everything possible to make one or more nuclear-armed state in this region abandon its nuclear armament and commit to the prohibition of nuclear weapons.
Namrata Goswami envisions that war involving space-based assets could erupt from many different angles given the number of conflict dyads in the Asia-Pacific region. “Because conflict systems are linked,” she argues, “we can expect horizontal proliferation specifically where competition is pre-existing in dyads. Japan’s counterspace capabilities will encourage development of counter-space capability by North Korea. North Korea, already incentivized to create an ASAT to deter the United States, will accelerate to keep pace with any South Korean counterspace developments. Pakistan, seeking parity and deterrence with India, and contesting leadership in the Islamic world has incentives to develop ASAT capability.” Any of these states could jam, dazzle or laze the others satellites.
Peter Hayes assesses nuclear command, control and communications (NC3) force multipliers arguing that NC3 is nowhere to be seen on the WMD landscape. Yet, without nuclear command-and-control and their supporting information sensors and communications infrastructure, nuclear weapons could not be used. Moreover, high-performance NC3 multiplies the lethality of the weapons themselves by increasing their speed and precision. Hayes notes that all nuclear-armed state in the Asia-Pacific region confront shared NC3 dilemmas and points out that there is no consensus as to what procedures should be implemented in all NC3 systems to ensure a minimum of accountability in the form of checks and balances to block illegal strike orders from being implemented.
Rakesh Sood presents the Indian-Pakistan conflict embedded in an inherently triangular nuclear threat system with China. Sood examines seven instances of conflict between India and Pakistan, five of which came after 1998 by which time both were nuclear-armed and began to play an explicit role. He argues it is critical, therefore, that minimal crisis management communication lines are kept open and, in the future, dialogue on shared understandings on a range of nuclear-related risks begin at the bilateral and trilateral levels at the earliest possible time.
Moon Chung-in examines the prospects that Japan and/or the ROK might seek independent nuclear forces due to the resurgence of pro-nuclear weapons policy currents in both countries driven in part by the threat posed by the DPRK’s nuclear breakout in a falling domino-like effect.
Luo Xi assesses the great power strategic triangle between China, the United States and Russia arguing that this relationship has become intrinsically trilateral rather than primarily bilateral as it was during the Cold War. She argues that all three of nuclear great powers are modernizing their nuclear forces and introducing missile technologies creating new risks. Luo concludes that the three great nuclear powers should undertake urgent and obvious nuclear risk reduction measures in the context of the P5 group.
Feroz Khan identifies trilateral confidence-building measures to reduce risks in the Pakistan-India-China nuclear triangle. He notes that China’s primary strategic concerns lie to its east and north, and the negative trends on these fronts evokes its growing military and nuclear force capabilities that create anxiety for India which responds with its own upgrade of nuclear forces thereby driving Pakistani threat perceptions. Faced with this escalation interlinkage, Khan proposes that China, India, and Pakistan undertake a trialogue or trilateral dialogue noting that it is critical to overcome media hype and domestic political fearmongering that has driven past crises.
John Carlson examines horizontal proliferation arising from the construction and operation of nuclear fuel cycles spread across the region. The region already is a nuclear-armed crowd, containing three of the five NPT-designated nuclear weapons states (NWS)—the United States, Russia, and China–and three non-NPT nuclear-armed states–India, Pakistan, and the DPRK, the latter being the only NPT non-NWS to have left the NPT (in 2003) and armed itself with nuclear weapons. Each developed a fuel cycle to provide it with fissile material, although India, Pakistan and the DPRK depended on outside suppliers and technical support along the way.
Lee Sang-hyun on A-Symmetric WMD: DPRK Nuclear, Cyber, Bio, Chemical Threats: Real or Contrived?
The risk of nuclear war in Korea is rooted in a division of a nation combined with unresolved historical conflicts. Lee Sang-hyun suggests that the DPRK’s “asymmetric” military capabilities enable it to overcome the inferiority of its conventional military force by exploiting weaknesses of countervailing US-ROK and UNC allied forces. The core of its asymmetric forces argues Lee are its nuclear weapons, missiles, cyberwarfare forces, chemical and possibly biological weapons. Given the DPRK’s asymmetric force advantages and the small geographical area in which war would be fought, the ROK has invoked US nuclear extended deterrence to offset its vulnerability to these asymmetric threats. As the standoff is likely to continue and even deepen for the foreseeable future, in addition to acquiring offsetting capabilities to the DPRK’s asymmetric forces, Lee concludes that it is prudent to induce the DPRK to become “a normal state in Northeast Asia via a peace process on the Korean Peninsula in the long run.”
Dmitry Stefanovitch on Risk Reduction Measures (Great Powers)
Dmitry Stefanovich notes that the most important Cold War-era arms control and incident prevention agreements were bilateral, between the United States or one of its allies and the former Soviet Union. These treaties codified lessons learned from nuclear crises as to the need to keep lines of communication open, and led to the jointly developed concept of “strategic stability” that is, always acting in ways that reduce the adversary’s incentive to attempt a disarming nuclear first-strike. He notes that none of these treaties were aimed at the Asia-Pacific region. Stefanovich suggests that it is more useful to identify ways to concretely reduce risk in each of the specific nuclear-prone bilateral and multilateral “deterrence equations” in which nuclear threat is present.
Tuya Nyamosor on NWFZs in Asia (Including Central, SEA, South Pacific, Mongolia)
Tuya Nyamosor examines how each of the Regional nuclear-weapons-free zones (NWFZs) were created. Although all follow the standard UN treaty NWFZ format, they are also tailored to local circumstances Recognized in the NPT itself as a valuable way to reduce the threat of nuclear war, NWFZs are only an interim step on the long road to nuclear disarmament. Nonetheless, drawing on these and other precedents (especially from Latin America), Northeast Asia has been proposed for the next NWFZ in the region, partly to enable the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, but also to contain the proliferation impulses in the ROK and Japan.
Jonathan Forman and Alexander Kellerman on Chemical Weapons
Jonathan Forman and Alexander Kellerman look back at the use of chemical weapons in the region and observe that the general trend is that fewer states possess chemical weapons today, thereby reducing the chances that they would be used in war. Although there is no publicly available hard evidence, the DPRK is widely assumed to be the only state in the region with a deployable chemical weapons arsenal. A credible threat of non-state actors weaponizing commercially available chemicals also exists in the region.
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