Nuclear disarmament: too much, too soon?

by Ralph Cossa

There is no country on Earth more committed to global nuclear disarmament than Japan. Ever since experiencing firsthand the horrors of nuclear weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese government and people have been steadfast in calling for the total elimination of nuclear weapons from the planet.

Japanese were among the first and loudest to applaud a few years back when a group of senior American statesmen — former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, former Defense Secretary William Perry, and former Senator Sam Nunn; since dubbed the “four horsemen” — called for the United States to start honoring its nuclear disarmament commitment under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

While their pleas largely fell on deaf ears during the Bush administration, others found it hard to ignore the call by four confirmed cold warriors who were all seen as hawkish on defense and security issues. All are hard-nosed realists who argued that America was safer in a word without nuclear weapons and that it was important that the U.S. be seen as leading the world in this direction, rather than ignoring or, at best, merely playing lip service to such calls.

U.S. President Barack Obama was among those who were listening and who agreed with the four horsemen’s logic. He spoke often during his campaign about the need to eliminate nuclear weapons. He now appears ready to take a major step in this direction. In a major address on nuclear disarmament in Prague on April 5, he pledged that his administration would take “concrete steps toward a world without nuclear weapons.” In an earlier meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, he also pledged to begin talks with Moscow “on the terms and time frame” for a follow-on to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). The original START I agreement, signed in July 1991 by U.S. President George H.W. Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, led to the largest bilateral reductions of nuclear weapons in history. It is set to expire in December 2009 and reaching a new agreement has been high on the Obama administration’s agenda.

One would expect, therefore, that the Japanese would be delighted. Not so fast! True, many Japanese are still eager to see deeper, even drastic, cut in the world’s two largest nuclear inventories; they see efforts to date as woefully inadequate and insincere. But others are concerned that rumored cuts — some are proposing both sides reduce their respective arsenals to 1,000 or fewer nuclear weapons — would be “too much, too soon.” They are quick to remind Obama about the other half of his “dual commitment,” namely that the U.S. would not unilaterally disarm and would maintain a strong nuclear deterrent until such time as all weapons could be verifiably eliminated.

Herein lies the core of their concern. If only the U.S. and Russia had nuclear weapons, deeper cuts in both arsenals would make a lot of strategic sense. But the NPT recognizes five nuclear weapons states — the U.S., Russia, China, France and Britain — and while most Japanese don’t lose a lot of sleep over French or British nuclear weapons (both countries have been reducing their nuclear arsenals and are transparent about their future plans), they do worry constantly about China’s growing nuclear weapons capability and the impact that deep reductions in the U.S. arsenal would have on America’s “extended deterrence” — the nuclear umbrella we provide allies like Japan and South Korea, who live under a nuclear shadow.

Then there’s North Korea, which along with India and Pakistan are self-declared nuclear weapons states. India and Pakistan (along with suspected nuclear weapons power Israel) never signed the NPT and thus claim not to be bound by its restrictions. Pyongyang signed the NPT, obtained nuclear technology, and then “suspended its participation” in the global treaty and detonated its first nuclear device (in what is widely believed to have been only a partially successful test) in 2006. (Iran is suspected of following the North Korea model, exploiting NPT loopholes — when not downright cheating — to develop a break-out nuclear weapons capability.)

The breakdown in six-party talks has demonstrated how difficult it is to verify even the smallest nuclear holdings — Pyongyang is suspected of having enough plutonium to build six to eight weapons. Nonetheless, and despite the concerns of many Japanese to the contrary, America’s overwhelming nuclear and conventional force superiority renders the North Korea threat manageable. But can the same be said for China, especially if it continues to increase its nuclear arsenal as the other four nuclear weapons states reduce theirs?

Today, China follows a “minimum deterrence” strategy. It claims no interest in expanding its arsenal to the levels currently held by the Russians or the U.S.; it just wants a force sufficient to deter the U.S. from using such weapons against China. Presumably then, significant reductions in U.S. and Russian inventories could be met with similar reductions in Chinese nuclear holdings. Perhaps, but Beijing’s position thus far on nuclear arms reduction efforts is “call us when you get down to our numbers and then we can talk.” (China has not officially announced what those numbers are, but intelligence estimates put its holdings at around 300-400 weapons.)

At a recent Pacific Forum U.S.-Japan strategic dialogue, virtually every Japanese security specialist (and most Americans in the room, for that matter) argued that a drastic reduction in the U.S. nuclear arsenal (to 1,000 or fewer warheads) could tempt Beijing to start growing its nuclear arsenal in an attempt to achieve nuclear parity and the condition of “mutually assured destruction” enjoyed by the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War. This could have a chilling effect on America’s extended deterrence capability, they warned, and cause Tokyo to question the reliability of the American nuclear umbrella.

Obama needs to take heed of these warnings. The time has come for Washington and Moscow, as they begin deliberations on further significant nuclear arms reductions, to insist that China and the others join the dialogue and place their own nuclear arsenals on the table. While it would be unrealistic to expect one-for-one reductions from those with smaller inventories, all should agree to equivalent percentage-based cuts; a 20 (or 50) percent cut in Russian and U.S. arsenals should generate a similar cut in Chinese, French, and British forces.

This, of course, will compel Beijing to finally become more transparent as to the extent of its nuclear weapons holdings and future force development plans, but moving down the road (finally) toward genuine reductions and eventual elimination of nuclear weapons requires all the nuclear weapons powers, led by the five recognized nuclear weapons states, to move in unison, if real progress is ever to be made.

Washington will also need to keep the Japanese (and other concerned allies) fully informed of the deliberations and its own intentions to ensure that others are not tempted to join the nuclear club out of fear that their own security interests are not otherwise being protected.

Ralph A. Cossa is president of the Pacific Forum CSIS, a nonprofit research institute affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. This article appeared in PacNet Newsletter.