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Thursday, March 28, 2002

New focus on security pushes nuclear deterrence to the fore


NEW DELHI -- In the post-Sept. 11 environment, nuclear-weapons issues had acquired a lower profile in international relations as the controversy generated by America's missile-defense plans, the ongoing deadlock at the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament and the coma-like state of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, or CTBT, tapered off. But now nuclear issues appear set to rise to prominence again.

Not only are international concerns growing that terrorists, such as al-Qaeda members, could get hold of radioactive materials and use them lethally in a mix with conventional explosives, but the new U.S. Nuclear Posture Review is also triggering a storm. The NPR as well as China's ambitious nuclear modernization point to a greater, not lesser, role for nuclear weapons in the years ahead.

Approved by the White House, the NPR has already spurred two U.S. initiatives -- the setting up of "advanced warhead concept teams" and a feasibility study into developing an earth-burrowing nuclear warhead. A new intercontinental ballistic missile, submarine-launched ballistic missile, nuclear submarine and heavy bomber -- all armed with novel nuclear warheads -- are planned for deployment between 2020-2040. Employing an innovative concept, "operationally deployed," Washington intends to pursue an illusory arms cut -- reducing its active warheads to 2,200 within 10 years, but keeping the surplus weapons in a way to reactivate them at quick notice.

The NPR's most controversial aspect is not the praises it sings for "mininukes," but for preparing contingency plans for use of nuclear weapons against at least seven countries -- China, Russia, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Libya and Syria. The targeting of the last five will run counter to America's security assurances not to use, or threaten to use, nuclear weapons against nonnuclear signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT. A 1995 U.N. Security Council resolution reaffirmed this commitment to nonnuclear states on behalf of all the five traditional nuclear powers.

China, meanwhile, continues with its nuclear and missile expansion -- currently the largest by any country -- even as it refuses to forswear covert technology transfers to Pakistan. Such state-sponsored proliferation to a state sponsor of terrorism has been complicated, however, by the U.S. military presence in Pakistan. This presence has also thrown a spanner in the Chinese plan to build a new Pakistan naval base at Gwadar.

U.S. President George W. Bush's failure during his Beijing visit to persuade China to honor its latest in a string of broken nonproliferation pledges shows that the Chinese leadership still values horizontal proliferation as an indispensable component of balance-of-power politics and as an instrument of leverage to win U.S. concessions.

With China moving toward putting multiple nuclear warheads on each of its next generation of strategic missiles and deploying at least four "Project 094" nuclear submarines by 2010, its nuclear posture is also beginning to subtly acquire a new assertive tenor. Its no-first-use posture has already become less unqualified, with Beijing in 1995 dropping the world "unconditional" from its pledge and adding conditionality that excludes India -- membership in the NPT or a nuclear-weapons-free zone. The stage is now being set for China to formally move from minimum to limited deterrence, or from countervalue to counterforce targeting.

China may already be pursuing a three-tier posture: (1) credible minimal deterrence against America and Russia; (2) limited deterrence around its other periphery; and (3) offensively configured counterforce strategy, with even pre-emption, for the conventionally armed missile forces of its Second Artillery. The second and third modes are of direct significance to Japan and India.

As a latecomer to the nuclear club, India is presently working to militarily integrate its nuclear weapons and develop new intermediate-range delivery systems. It has managed to increase its strategic space in Asia by developing close ties both with the U.S. and Russia. India's challenge is to draw what the NPR report lists as the benefits of reliable nuclear weapons: "assure allies and friends," "dissuade competitors," "deter aggressors" and "defeat enemies."

In the context of the emerging new nuclear idiom in international relations, it is noteworthy that global developments are beginning to run counter to much of the traditional wisdom on nonproliferation. The old thinking is giving way to attitudes pivoted more openly on national interests.

The Bush team, for example, is not shy to discard or block arms-control mechanisms it considers outdated or detrimental to U.S. interests, be it Biological Weapons Convention verification, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the START process or the CTBT. U.S. missile defenses are part of Bush's promise to "rethink the requirements of nuclear deterrence."

Furthermore, Washington is seeking to move from a universal to a differentiated nonproliferation policy. It is not easy to move away from a well-established policy, especially before a new strategic framework has been created. Yet there are already signs that the Bush White House wishes to distinguish between proliferators that threaten U.S. interests and those that seek nuclear weapons merely to address their regional insecurities in a nonprovocative manner. At a time when the U.S. strategy toward China is centered on hedging, Washington cannot dismiss the role India's modest deterrent could play to bring stability and equilibrium in Asia.

The abandonment of the sanctions approach to South Asian proliferation already represents a watershed in U.S. policy. Although it may still be impolitic to officially acknowledge it, the U.S. (like Russia and France) has tacitly accepted India as a nuclear-weapons state, especially under Bush. As it builds close strategic ties with India, the Bush administration has hardly raised the "N" word with New Delhi.

The growing acceptance of India's nuclear-weapons status is a sore point with China. Its interlocutors bristle at the Russian proposal for no-first-use (NFU) obligations in an India-China-Russia framework. In Beijing's view, such a trilateral arrangement, based on India's and China's unilateral NFU policies and the Sino-Russian bilateral NFU accord, would amount to India's backdoor entry to the nuclear club.

China's unstable, terror-breeding ally, Pakistan, represents a unique (and troubling) nuclear case, but it may be possible to accommodate India and Israel, with their support for nonproliferation norms and responsible conduct, within the NPT regime. This can be done by enlisting them as members of the NPT's subsidiary arrangements (such as the Nuclear Suppliers' Group) without making them enter the inner ring -- NPT, the "sanctum sanctorum." This appears the only way to preserve the regime's credibility.

Nuclear weapons, as America's NPR report states, will continue to play a "critical role" because they possess "unique properties." While the gap between Russian and Chinese nuclear forces is set to considerably narrow, the Sino-Indian nuclear asymmetry will only widen. While India does not have to qualitatively or quantitatively match Chinese capabilities for achieving credible deterrence, it needs to speed up development of second-strike assets.

While the future of Pakistan's nuclear weapons seems uncertain, this nuclear "flasher" no longer has the space, with a U.S. military presence on its territory, to pose a nuclear threat. In China's case, with nationalism serving as a substitute for declining ideology, nuclear weapons are bound to assume a greater security and power-projection role.

In a complex world marked by conflicting trends, each nuclear-deterrent relationship is likely to be different from the others. The theory and practice of nuclear deterrence, which evolved during the Cold War, cannot remain stagnant in the face of rapid change. But no longer is an examination of nuclear postures of regional players sufficient to understand the situation.

As Pakistan's case illustrates, the potential role of sub-state actors (and the support they may receive from renegade elements within the national military, police and intelligence) cannot be ignored.

It is such international dangers that the U.S. NPR report seeks to aggressively counter by establishing a new, post-Cold War ethos of nuclear strategy.

Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is a regular contributor to The Japan Times.


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