Nuclear Proliferation in Asia: Trends and Challenges

Nuclear Proliferation in Asia: Trends and Challenges
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First Published: Tue, Jun 26 2007. 01 43 PM IST

Updated: Tue, Jun 26 2007. 01 43 PM IST
New Delhi: Mankind has lived with the threat of nuclear proliferation ever since atomic power was impressively demonstrated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Since then countries have wanted to acquire nuclear weapons for security and status. However, their wanton spread has been checked by attempts at non-proliferation, most important being the conclusion of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) in 1970. It sought to bolt the door after five countries had become nuclear, relegating others to a non-nuclear status.
Today all nations (except India, Pakistan and Israel) are members of the NPT. Nuclear proliferation should then no longer be a cause for concern. But that is sadly not the case. North Korea and Iran can rightfully take credit for the current focus on nuclear proliferation.
Over the last few years, activities of both have kept the international community on edge. Even as North Korea made everyone’s worst fears come true, when it tested a nuclear device in October 2006, Iran has tied the IAEA, US and the European Union in knots over the nature of its nuclear intentions. However, the two countries may actually be only symptomatic of a deeper nuclear malaise.
In fact, at least half a dozen other states are believed to have the ability to go nuclear at short notice. But, whether they choose to overtly demonstrate their nuclear hand shall largely be dependent on the kind of security environment - global and regional, that emerges in the future. For the moment, North Korea and Iran have demonstrated that for a determined country, little can stand in the way – not NPT membership, not technology denials, nor sanctions. These may be able to delay the process for a while or raise costs enough for some to succumb, such as Libya, but for the more determined, isolated and threatened, the attraction of nuclear weapons is fatal.
In order to understand the challenge of proliferation in the future, three trends must be seriously examined and each one of these is especially relevant in Asia. Defined loosely to include South Asia, the Middle East, Far East and Central Asia, including Russia, Asia is at a unique crossroads. It is today home to five (Russia, China, India, Pakistan and the DPRK) states with a declared nuclear weapons capability; to Israel which is a state with an undeclared but known nuclear weapon capable status; to USA, that has a large nuclear footprint in the region; to Iran, suspected of acquiring this capability; and to the other countries considered most likely to go nuclear viz, Japan and South Korea in response to a nuclear North Korea; Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey in response to Iranian nuclear capability; and possibly Taiwan to deter China. One or more of the three trends either emanate from or bisect every one of these countries.
The first trend relates to the role that existing nuclear weapon states (NWS) envisage for their nuclear arsenals. A continued focus in NWS to hold these weapons as central to their security strategy imparts the perception that these weapons do provide security. This belief, in fact, is reinforced by the manner in which the international community, and especially the US, treats a country with nuclear weapons (North Korea), as against another without such a capability (Iran).
The second trend that could fuel proliferation is the presence of widespread clandestine nuclear networks that have demonstrated the ingenuity to provide nuclear weapons designs, technology, and materials, as also of delivery vehicles, to the desirous. In Asia, these networks have existed between two or more states, as in the case of China and Pakistan, or Pakistan, North Korea and Iran; and, between non state organizations and states, as was revealed once the global black market engineered by Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme chief, A Q Khan, was busted in 2003.
It is believed to have delivered advanced nuclear weapons technology, including uranium-enrichment devices and even weapon design and engineering plans to Libya, Iran, and North Korea. Whether this happened with or without the complicity or knowledge of Islamabad is yet not established. In fact it is doubtful if this ever would be, given that President Musharraf continues to shield Khan from outside interrogation, and the US has meekly let it be so. Nevertheless, US intelligence has reported that the network may not have been completely put out of action, “since younger people have taken over”.
The nuclear cauldron in Asia is further kept on the boil by the risk of proliferation of nuclear material or weapons finding its way to terrorists, for use for nuclear coercion and/ or blackmail. 9/11 drew attention to the very real threat of international terrorism, fuelled by religious fundamentalism and facilitated by globalization of communication and information. Since then it is well established that a nexus exists among international terrorist organizations, organized crime and narco-trafficking networks, and suppliers of finance and latest weaponry.
Attempts made by Al Qaeda to get nuclear material or to buy a ready-made nuclear weapon are well documented and the threat of nuclear terrorism is not one that can be taken lightly. In fact, it is revealing that between 2002- 06, there were more than 300 cases of individuals caught trying to smuggle radioactive materials. In 2005 alone, the IAEA confirmed 103 incidents of nuclear trafficking. These developments are particularly significant for India that has long been a victim of cross border terrorism.
Highly inspired and monetarily well-endowed outfits could have little compunctions about using a nuclear weapon, or its threat. While there may be little logic in nuclear terrorism, nevertheless, accessibility could prompt its use, especially since such outfits are not expected to act within the confines of rationality at all times.
The third trend that could fuel proliferation is the rising interest in nuclear energy as a source of electricity. With energy becoming a critical part of comprehensive national security, and increasing environmental concerns and stringent laws, countries are extremely conscious of procuring stable, safe and sustainable sources of energy. This is particularly relevant for Asia’s developing countries that are looking to increase per capita energy consumption while having to keep greenhouse gas emissions in check.
Normally, the spread of nuclear power under international safeguards, including the acquisition of the full fuel cycle capability by countries operating nuclear reactors should not be a matter of concern. However, confidence of the international community has been severely eroded in verification, as a result of the recent cases where countries that have accepted IAEA safeguards on peaceful nuclear pursuits have reached the very brink of nuclear-weapon capability, and then used it to step over the fence. Over the last couple of years, therefore, there has been a debate over how to limit these proliferation dangers. Calls have been made for a reassessment of the IAEA’s role, and an enhancement of the efficacy of safeguards through more intrusive inspections under a mandatory Additional Protocol.
Another idea is to limit the transfer of fuel cycle technologies to only those countries that already have them, and instead provide assurances of nuclear supply through consortia of nuclear fuel suppliers or nuclear fuel banks to others. How these would function without becoming monopolies that manipulate enriched fuel availability for political ends, however, remains doubtful.
Nuclear proliferation, therefore, is a distinct challenge. There is turbulence over issues relating to NPT transgressions, the prospect of nuclear weapons finding their way to non-state actors for terrorism, and the urgency to reconcile nuclear energy renaissance with increasing proliferation threats. Meanwhile, the NWS, led by USA, continues to hold dear their nuclear weapons, to meet a range of new threats and thus to strengthen the role of the nuclear weapon in the security matrix of other states.
The more the weapon becomes central to securities of nascent nations, the greater is the need for effective command and control to ensure safety and security of nuclear infrastructure and materials. Yet, non-state entities have always displayed ingenuity in finding loopholes for illicit nuclear commerce, a tendency that could only grow as the spurt in nuclear power increases spread of nuclear technology, know-how, expertise and even fissile material.
Given these trends, it is a truism that nuclear issues will require the most prudent, patient and multi-track handling in the coming years to set the right precedents and perspective on nuclear weapons. It must be understood that non-proliferation can be truly sustainable only if practiced either voluntarily or universally. If forcefully imposed, as in the cases of Iran and North Korea, no NPT commitments or IAEA verifications can deter determined ambitions.
It is equally imperative to foster a larger sense of security amongst nations by eschewing destabilizing policies and replacing them with a set of initiatives that reduce the overall salience of nuclear weapons in security strategies and their attractiveness for others. Meanwhile, simultaneously proliferation channels for non-state actors will have to be more effectively foreclosed, besides working out strategies to bring them into the mainstream through the winning of hearts and minds.
Dr Manpreet Sethi is Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies and can be contacted at
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First Published: Tue, Jun 26 2007. 01 43 PM IST