How many nuclear weapons and delivery systems does a country need as an effective deterrent against the threats of attack? Finding an acceptable balance is critically important in Asia, where four of the world’s nine nuclear-armed states are located.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) reported in June that all four Asian nations with nuclear weapons — China, India, Pakistan and North Korea — appeared to be expanding their arsenals while the United States, Russia, France, Britain and Israel were either reducing them or holding the number static.

Asia may be sliding into a nuclear arms race, aggravated by underlying tensions and mistrust. As one nuclear weapons state enlarges its arsenal, other regional atomic powers do the same. SIPRI estimated that China, India and Pakistan had each added about 10 warheads to their operational stockpiles in 2012.

Meanwhile, as the SIPRI report noted, each is improving delivery systems: the ballistic or cruise missiles or bomber aircraft that could carry nuclear warheads.

Without mutual restraint in Asia, other regional countries with civilian nuclear reactor experience and the necessary resources and skills could also decide to protect themselves by developing their own nuclear arms. Such potential “threshold” countries include South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Australia, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, a driving force for a nuclear threat reduction group of security specialists and former senior officials from 18 countries, cautions that when “a large and growing number of nuclear-armed adversaries confront multiple perceived threats, the risk that deterrence will fail and that nuclear weapons will be used rises dramatically.”

Another prominent member of the group, former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry, says that there is only a short time left to pull back from the edge of a nuclear precipice. “Asia is an important backdrop for this discussion, as a nuclear-armed North Korea threatens regional stability and could spark a new wave of proliferation,” he warns.

Their comments follow a recent call by U.S. President Barack Obama for America and Russia to open new arms control talks to further cut their deployed long-range nuclear arms by as much as one-third.

The last bilateral Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), signed by Moscow and Washington in 2010, requires each nation by 2018 to cap its stockpile of fielded nuclear warheads at 1,550. So under Obama’s proposal, a new ceiling could become approximately 1,000 deployed strategic warheads apiece.

Under the current START pact, the two former Cold War adversaries also agreed to limit fielded nuclear delivery vehicles, including bombers and missiles based on land and at sea, to 700, with an additional 100 allowed in reserve.

But the START deal does not cover all nuclear warheads or delivery systems, only those classed as long range. Nor does it encompass all nuclear armed states, although at least 90 per cent of atomic arms belong to the U.S. and Russia.

The SIPRI report estimates that at the start of 2013, eight of the nine nuclear armed nations had approximately 4,400 operational atomic weapons, with nearly 2,000 “in a state of high operational alert.”

North Korea was assessed to have perhaps six or eight nuclear bombs, none of them operational. This evidently means they cannot yet be made small enough to be carried by North Korean missiles or bombers.

SIPRI said that if all the nuclear warheads held by the nine nations with atomic weapons were counted, the total would amount to approximately 17,270 nuclear weapons, with a variety of short-, medium- as well as long-range delivery systems. The total warhead count includes spares, those in both active and inactive storage, and intact warheads set to be dismantled, as well as operational warheads.

Obama also called for the reduction of U.S. and Russian nonstrategic, or tactical, nuclear weapons in Europe. These have never been officially counted or limited by any international treaty.

One reason Russia gives for being reluctant to negotiate further bilateral nuclear cuts with the U.S. is that some other nuclear-armed countries are strengthening their warhead and missile capabilities. This is an evident reference to China among others, even though Moscow and Beijing have formed a “strategic partnership” to oppose U.S. and Western domination.

China’s position is that the U.S. and Russia have the overwhelming majority of strategic nuclear weapons and delivery systems, meaning those capable of traveling intercontinental distances and causing massive destruction. So Washington and Moscow should continue to make “drastic” cuts in their stockpiles in a verifiable and irreversible manner.

Cheng Jingye, China’s top envoy to a U.N. nuclear nonproliferation conference, said last year that once this was done, “other nuclear-weapon states, when conditions are ripe, should also join the multinational negotiations on nuclear disarmament.”

But when might that be?

One of the concerns of U.S. critics of Obama’s latest proposals is that China could use any extended new round of START negotiations that involve only America and Russia to enlarge and modernize its own nuclear arsenal in secret. Some U.S. analysts say that this is already happening.

The critics argue that if the size of the U.S. and Russian arsenals keep dropping, China might be able to achieve numerical parity, or near-parity, quite quickly with the today’s two dominant nuclear powers.

Nonnuclear Asian states, such as South Korea and Japan, look to their ally, the U.S., to protect them from nuclear attack under Washington’s extended deterrence policy. If U.S. nuclear strength and resolve appears to be weakening, they might become so alarmed at the heightened nuclear threats they face, whether from North Korea or China, that they would make their own dash for atomic arms.

Supporters of Obama’s proposals dismiss such concerns, saying that Beijing would not want to incur the heavy financial costs of moving beyond minimum credible deterrence and risk triggering a full-scale nuclear arms race in Asia that would threaten China’s own security.

SIPRI estimates that China has about 250 nuclear warheads, compared with 300 for France and 225 for Britain. It reckons that India has 90 to 110 atomic warheads, Pakistan has 100 to 120, and Israel 80.

These are well within minimum credible deterrence limits. Keeping them there will be the key to preventing a post-Cold War nuclear arms race in Asia.

Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore. Email: mriht43@gmail.com

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