Letting US Asian allies get nukes is a bad idea

Jan 15, 2021

A recent article by the Cato Institute’s Doug Bandow in prominent Washington DC-based journal Foreign Policy proposes that ‘America should let its Asian allies acquire nuclear weapons’! 

He defends this iconoclastic proposal by arguing that China is not a direct military threat to the U.S.; the U.S. is overcommitted both internationally and domestically; defending allies’ claims to contested islands have little US public support; such weapons would keep China’s aggressiveness in check. These reasons have some merit. But increasing the existential threat to humanity because of them is a very bad idea.

Bandow himself acknowledges that there would be widespread opposition to this proposal in America and in the allies themselves. This is an understatement. The risks he acknowledges would be prohibitive – “potential terrorism, nuclear accidents or [nuclear response to] geopolitical provocations” as well as proliferation and a mini-nuclear arms race. But Bandow dismisses them arguing that “nations are convinced that modest [nuclear] arsenals keep rival states at bay” and cites Israel, North Korea and India as examples. This may or may not be so –it is too early to tell. Moreover, it is not clear that in this age of cyber warfare and international terrorism these states’ enemies have been or will continue to be kept ‘at bay’.

Regional historic hatreds could drive one or more regional states to threaten or actually use their nukes in a not uncommon paroxysm of nationalism– think South Korea –Japan . Indeed that is one good reason why the U.S. has provided a nuclear umbrella over Japan, South Korea and Taiwan all these years.

Where this idea really goes off the rails is that Bandow suggests that the Japanese “might warm to the idea if it were uncertain that the U.S. would come to its defense”. On the contrary, much of Japan’s populace would recoil  in horror from the thought of increasing the chance of being nuked again. Moreover, a nuclear Japan is perhaps the region’s worst nightmare—even worse than gradual domination by China—something that may happen economically and militarily anyway. Their memories of Japan’s racist brutality during WW II are still palpable.

It is highly unlikely that China would sit idly by while its historic arch enemy develops a nuclear weapon. It may well take a page out of the US playbook and launch a ‘preventative defensive’ attack. It also has many tools of persuasion at its disposal– like economic sanctions and political and conventional military pressure. This is also a good reason why China’s neighbors would be hesitant to try and acquire nuclear arms with the US blessing, that and the fact that it would make them likely nuclear targets in any conflict between China and the U.S. Most astounding is Bandow’s suggestion that the U.S. give Taiwan the weapon. This could well start – or end in– a nuclear exchange.

At one point Bandow argues that nuclear deterrence [of China] would work for US allies. But he then says in regard to the deterrence effect of America’s nuclear umbrella “history is littered with similar military and political presumptions, later shattered with catastrophic consequence.” Indeed, if implemented that would be the likely fate of Bandow’s proposal.

I agree with Bandow that US foreign policy in general and in Asia is between a rock and a hard place– over commitment and the distractions of its domestic disarray. I also agree with his assertion that defending allies’ contested interests are not “worth the resulting risks to America’s homeland.” But there are other ways to address these problems without increasing the risk of a nuclear holocaust.

It would be better for the U.S. to reconsider and revise its commitments. They are not ‘all or nothing’. In its defense treaties with the Philippines and with Japan, the parties undertake to settle disputes [with third parties] peacefully and “to refrain from the threat or use of force.” Moreover, in the event of an attack, the U.S. is not automatically obligated to literally ‘send the marines’ but to “consult” and “act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and process”. Further, “any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall be immediately reported to the Security Council of the United Nations” and “such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.” These clauses provide some ‘wiggle’ room for the U.S. to finesse situations as they arise. US militarists and some allies may not like it, but it would be better for all concerned than allowing and even assisting them to acquire nukes.

As Bandow says, ‘the implied US threat to use nuclear weapons in defense of its allies treats other nations’ interests as existential for America’. “That is not the case in today’s potential East Asia-Pacific conflicts.” For example, China’s claims and the conflicts in the South China Sea are not a direct threat to the U.S. –unless it insists on making them so. They are only a theoretical threat in the minds of US militarist policy wonks. Should the U.S. assist the spread of nuclear weapons in response to this theoretical threat?

Bandow says “proliferation would not be a good solution–but it might be the least bad one”. But is the rapid spreading of nuclear arms to small states that could go ‘rogue’ better than the U.S. trying to politically finesse situations in which it otherwise might have to sacrifice blood and treasure for others’ interests?

Washington got itself into this mess by foolishly over committing to these countries’ defense. Instead of reconsidering its opposition to “friendly proliferation”, it should re-stress confidentially to its allies that its commitment to their defense is contingent on their not purposefully provoking China. Moreover, it is contingent on an obvious direct planned attack – not a skirmish resulting from an isolated incident. Further, the U.S. should make clear that its assistance may take many forms such as material and intelligence support and not necessarily direct armed force. This way the U.S. ally would retain some of the benefit of the U.S. deterrent without automatically committing the U.S. to spend blood and treasure to defend an ally’s contested far flung islands and maritime resources or their purposefully provocative actions.

As Bandow says “additional nations choosing nukes would permanently transform the regional balance of power, to China’s great disadvantage”. Indeed, but I would add—‘and to the existential disadvantage of the region and the world as well’. Rather than markedly increasing the existential threat to humanity the U.S. should try to finesse its commitments to allies and find a way for it and them to peacefully co-exist with China.

This piece first appeared in Asia Times https://asiatimes.com/2021/01/letting-us-asian-allies-get-nukes-is-a-bad-idea/

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