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Approaching Critical Mass: Regional Views on Asia’s Multipolar Nuclear Future

Ladies and gentlemen (etc),

The momentous watershed of the contemporary age has been the end of the Cold War. The winding down of this great confrontation brought a sense of optimism with it. The “end of history,” Francis Fukuyama told us, meant that there would be no more all-encompassing ideologically charged encounters of this kind in times to come. An even greater sense of relief came from our sense of having evaded another kind of “end of history” – that which might have been wrought by global nuclear war.


But hardly had the fear of a world-embracing nuclear winter dissipated than it was replaced by a new source of worry. A fresh wave of smaller and often fractious players appeared on the scene. Three of them – India, Pakistan and North Korea – crossed the nuclear threshold with a series of tests; others (such as Iraq, Iran and Syria) showed signs of a desire to follow suit; and still others (Japan and South Korea) began to discuss the option to do so with unprecedented candour.

This brought to the fore the second great change in the contemporary security environment: the shift in the strategic centre of gravity from the Euro-Atlantic region to the Asia-Pacific region. This shift has three inter-related dimensions: first, the rapid growth of Asian economies led by China; second, the accompanying growth in the military capacities of Asian powers, again with China well in front; and third, the emergence of an increasingly edgy regional environment. The last involves multiple sources of tension involving nuclear powers on at least one side: between the “hegemonic power” (the United States) and the “resurgent power” (China); between the resurgent power and another rising power (India); and between China and its interlocutors in various territorial disputes in Northeast Asia (i.e. Japan), Southeast Asia (where several countries are involved), and South Asia (i.e. India).

Whether this post-Cold War environment is less stable than the preceding period is an interesting question, but a secondary one. The real issues are: how dangerous is this Asia-Pacific world and what can be done about it? Clearly, there are important elements of stability. The level of arms racing, for instance, is in no way comparable to the intensity and frenetic pace of the Cold War. But there are certainly risks as the newer players seek to enhance their nuclear capacities and the simmering territorial disputes bring periodic frictions. A key question, which I am sure will be a central one in the deliberations at this meeting, is whether the tensions that are being generated can be managed. Will the expansion of the younger arsenals be contained? What are the implications of the declining ratios between the big two and the rest as the former continue to reduce force sizes? Will arms control and confidence building efforts, which are under-developed in the region, be activated and, if so, in what form? Can the remarkable success with which ASEAN has managed the disputes among its members be replicated on a larger scale and in a more challenging environment?

The one thing that is sorely lacking in the Asia-Pacific is a set of institutional structures and processes that might bring together the nuclear powers and other interested players to explore ways to do three things: resolve or at least minimize the deleterious effects of territorial disputes; stabilize the tensions generated by arms build-ups; and construct mechanisms for crisis management. This forum, I am sure, will generate positive pragmatic ideas in all three respects.

The third substantive change that has characterised the post-Cold War era is the rise of terrorism, and in the present context particularly the kind of terrorism that seeks to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Groups like Al Qaeda and Aum Shinrikyo have shown serious interest in attaining the capacity to produce WMD, including nuclear weapons. And certainly, the acquisition of radiological weapons does not involve surmounting great technical or financial challenges. The discussions today and tomorrow would do well to keep in mind that the “multipolarity” of the present nuclear age is characterized not only by the existence or potential existence of nuclear-armed states, but also by the presence of non-state actors. And these, I need scarcely emphasise, are far more likely to use such weapons for their own brand of “warfighting” rather than for deterrence. What we can do about them is a central question that must exercise our minds.

A fourth aspect of change in post-Cold War Asia is its unprecedented interest in developing nuclear power to meet its voracious appetite for energy. Notwithstanding the serious doubts raised by the Fukushima disaster, China and India have in place ambitious nuclear energy programmes, while nuclear power is slated to become a significant component of the energy mix in several Southeast Asian nations. This development adds another dimension to the increasingly complex strategic environment as civilian nuclear technology and materials can spill over into the security realm by facilitating proliferation on the part of states as well as non-state actors. In addition, apart from being potential sources of materials and know-how, nuclear plants also constitute potential targets for attack that could release enormous amounts of radiation over a wide area. How this feature of the “second nuclear age” will be dealt with is a question of considerable urgency.

A related issue of concern which I highlighted in a recent essay is that bureaucratic practices in the region could be a deterrent to the development of a safety culture in the manning of nuclear plants. The report of Japan’s Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAICC) cited in the Japanese Diet’s report on the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster noted that Japanese cultural conventions such as ‘reflexive obedience’, ‘stick with the programme’ insular perspectives, cliquish behaviour and the tendency not to question authority could have an impact on safety management and governance. Such attitudes also characterise Southeast Asian societies and highlight a major risk as programmes for the development of nuclear power plants move ahead.

In conclusion, let me emphasise that in an exercise such as this, it is not always an easy task to achieve a meeting of the minds. Those who participated actively in the nuclear politics of the Cold War will tend to have different understandings about the “lessons” of that age from those who played a less central role in it. The view from Washington and London may sometimes be quite different from that which prevails in Beijing or Jakarta on defining key terms, on the kinds of interests at stake, or even the sources of stability. I hope that the deliberations at this meeting not only stimulate thoughtful ideas on building a more convivial strategic environment, but that they do so in ways that reflect a convergence of thinking on what is optimal as well as desirable.

Thank you (etc)