Vol. X, No. 7
August 9, 1999



Will nuclear weapons play a more or less important role in Northeast Asia? Given the widespread distrust in the region, the role may increase, especially if nations continue to make unilateral decisions that spur countermoves by others. This trend, if not checked, could result in a costly, destabilizing arms race. Conversely, a more stable peace is likely if states make conscious efforts to cooperate on measures that enhance regional security and reduce dependency on nuclear weapons. To help build the necessary consensus for such efforts, experts from the region addressed the feasibility and desirability of a wide range of measures. Their conclusions follow.

A more stable security environment requires the transformation of national security strategies so that nuclear deterrence plays a less central role, while cooperation steadily expands.

The current security environment in Northeast Asia is fragile because of widespread distrust stemming from past conflicts and uncertainty about future relations. Given these circumstances, the role of nuclear weapons may increase, especially if nations continue to pursue unilateral security policies instead of placing higher priority on addressing mutual security concerns. This could result in a costly, destabilizing and dangerous arms race.

However, things do not have to turn out that way. The salience of nuclear weapons can be reduced if leaders make systematic efforts to cooperate and build a security community that is based on trust and mutual benefit.

Moving forward with the transformation will require a sustained commitment to change and patience when setbacks occur. First and foremost, the United States, Russia, China and Japan can and should lead with efforts to add trust and predictability to their relations. In turn, this would build a security environment that would diminish specific regional tensions or their escalation. Progress, therefore, on issues related to nuclear weapons is directly affected by the quality of each country’s relations with others in the region and its own perceptions of potential threats to national security.

The possibility of missile defense system deployments adds a critical new dimension to the security calculus of regional powers. Because the rate of reduction of nuclear arsenals is directly linked to the overall sense of security in the region, so too must missile defense be linked to deterrence, proliferation and arms control.

The proliferation of technologies related to ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) continues to be a serious problem and potential source of instability in the region. Clearly, North Korea is the main threat in this regard, and concerted efforts by all major regional powers to check this proliferation must continue. At the same time, missile defense systems increasingly are seen as a possibly effective response to the potential threat posed by Pyongyang. It is imperative, therefore, that China, Russia and the Koreas enter into sustained, substantive discussions with Japan and the United States about the operational considerations of emerging theater and national missile defense systems. These considerations include core capabilities, deployment plans and system ‘architecture.’ Discussions are critical to ensure that the development and possible deployment of such systems do not have the unintended, undesirable consequence of triggering a costly, destabilizing arms race among the region’s major powers.

Alternative ways to reduce the threat of ballistic missiles also should be explored. or example, arms control negotiations would be helpful. Most importantly, the political, economic and security factors that contribute to proliferation will have to be addressed to establish a context in which any arms control talks might have a reasonable chance of success. Discussions among all affected parties should begin soon if they are to have an impact on early missile defense deployment decisions.

Missile defense development and deployment decisions should be considered carefully in any case. First, while missile defense technologies must be reliable enough to achieve an acceptable level of confidence in the systems’ effectiveness against specified threats, care must be taken to understand the longer term limitations of missile defense. This is necessary to avoid overconfident or inflated perceptions of security that might lead to poor political decisions. Second, missile defense systems must be cost effective over time. The costs of deployments and periodic upgrades should be less burdensome than the relative costs of possible countermeasures by potential adversaries. Third and perhaps most important, the net result of missile defense deployment must yield a substantially improved overall security environment. This requires a careful assessment of the full range of consequences of various deployment options and likely responses by all potentially affected countries. Alternative cost efficient and politically sustainable measures also must be considered and thoroughly discussed.

The decision to accelerate development and deployment of U.S. National Missile Defense (NMD) is linked to the role of nuclear weapons in Northeast Asia. This acceleration is attributable mainly to the findings of the Rumsfeld Report, issued in July 1998, which warned that within five years North Korean missiles armed with WMD could strike the U.S. mainland. Political support in Washington for NMD was strengthened further after a North Korean missile overflew Japanese territory during Pyongyang’s August 1998 test. Additional tests may be forthcoming. It must be recognized, however, that Russia and China officially have expressed serious concerns about connecting U.S. NMD and TMD deployment decisions. Both Moscow and Beijing evidently see these combined decisions as part of a broader American strategy to develop a disarming first strike capability that could not be deterred. Therefore, in considering ways to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in East Asia, leaders must assess and carefully distinguish the potential adverse simulative effects, as well as the protective capabilities, of both NMD and TMD systems.

A combined early warning system for Asia should be established.

The early warning system currently being established by the United States and Russia could be a useful model for a broader multilateral early warning network. Such an arrangement would provide China, Japan and others with a mechanism to share missile test and space launch information.

The United States, China, Russia, Japan and the South Korea should develop a comprehensive cooperative threat reduction (CTR) program for North Korea.

Such an undertaking presumes that Pyongyang could be persuaded to accept such a program. Political, economic and security policies also will have to reflect North Korea’s interest. China’s willingness to participate in a CTR program probably will be limited by its own perceptions of the value of formal, multilateral cooperation regarding North Korea. In that light, China’s role may follow closely the contributions it currently makes to Pyongyang’s stability, including food, energy and other economic assistance. A more multilateral approach to CTR programs thus might help ease concerns over who ultimately will pay its costs.

Progress in the broader strategic environment is a prerequisite for Asian security. In particular, the United States should continue its long-term engagement with Russia on strategic arms reductions.

To augment this process, a joint U.S.-Russia commission on strategic stability should be formed to help manage U.S.-Russian nuclear relations and issues such as early warning, parallel warhead reductions and tactical nuclear weapons that are outside the current treaty framework. This effort should be coordinated carefully with other potentially affected countries.

Declining U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals eventually will have to take more into account China’s strategic forces, which are modernizing in spite of Beijing’s signature to the CTBT. The United Kingdom and France essentially have capped their nuclear weapons programs but China has not. Although China’s nuclear inventory is still much smaller, the challenge for the other nuclear powers is to move beyond unilateral and bilateral arms reductions and engage China in disarmament talks envisioned by Article VI of the NPT. For its part, China should participate soon in multilateral discussions with the other nuclear powers about arms control at the 1,000 warhead level. Another subject that China has expressed a willingness to discuss is the deactivation of warheads and their removal from launch vehicles in mutually secure and verifiable conditions. These opportunities for discussion should be pursued with a sense of urgency. In the absence of a more comprehensive understanding of nuclear force trends and developments, a costly, destabilizing and unnecessary arms race is more likely.

Non-proliferation efforts should be intensified.

Several other initiatives would help deal with the proliferation problem:

– Expand international cooperation to support Russia’s efforts to tighten control over weapons-grade nuclear materials and to create employment opportunities for Russian nuclear and ballistic missile experts.

– Focus more attention on the high-level nuclear waste problem. Construction of appropriately safeguarded facilities under international supervision should be a high priority, ideally under the auspices of a regional fissile material control regime.

– Pursue with greater urgency the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT).

– Develop new ways to sustain and expand four-party talks on North Korea’s challenge to proliferation. These talks could lead to longer-term, positive cooperation between Russia and the United States in Asia on such issues as reactor safety and technology transfer.

A declaratory policy of no-first-use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) should be considered by all nuclear powers.

The United States’ current position regarding the use of nuclear weapons is based on a long-held belief that strategic ambiguity helps to serve U.S. interests by deterring a large-scale conventional attack against U.S. forces or allies. In light of the changing global security environment, a shift in declaratory policy to no-first-use of WMD actually would have several benefits while still being consistent with an overall deterrent posture. This would not be true with regard to a more limited nuclear no-first-use doctrine especially where no distinction is made between strategic and tactical weapons.

First, in light of concerns about the proliferation of chemical and biological weapons, to include use by sub-state entities, a shift in declaratory policy actually would strengthen the link between nuclear and other WMD. Second, a no-first-use of WMD declaration by all five NPT-recognized nuclear states simply would expand China’s current policy, thereby increasing confidence among the nuclear weapons states themselves and reassuring non-nuclear states. Third, such a policy shift by the United States would be a positive step in allaying Beijing’s concern about American missile defense deployments. Currently, China sees the U.S. nuclear arsenal as a “spear,” missile defense as a “shield,” and its ambiguous declaratory policy as an expression of America’s willingness to use the spear while standing behind the shield. A shift in declaratory policy would open the door to a range of cooperation with Beijing. Finally, a change in declaratory policy would create a strategic environment that gives added incentive to closer cooperation among governments in dealing with terrorist threats and proliferation issues.

Clearly, any change in U.S. declaratory policy would have to be implemented carefully and in a way that does not diminish extended deterrence for America’s allies. Not only can this be accomplished responsibly, it is important that there be no “exceptions” to this policy. For example, a no-first-use of WMD policy that did not apply to the Korean Peninsula actually would be counterproductive because the incentives that potentially drive Pyongyang’s desire to acquire WMD would not be diminished. On the other hand, a change in declaratory policy for Korea might ease strategic tension on the Peninsula and, as has been discussed, strengthen the link between nuclear and other WMD. The effectiveness of China’s strategic deterrence, “in spite” of its no-first-use pledge, is instructive. No global or regional security assessment excludes Beijing’s small, unsophisticated nuclear arsenal. Similarly, a shift in America’s declaratory policy would not diminish the fact that the United States still possesses a large nuclear inventory that could be used, if necessary, anywhere in the world with devastating accuracy and effect. Thus, deterrence—the key purpose of nuclear weapons—would be enhanced for all states, including the nuclear powers. Seen in this light, the new declaratory policy would not contradict the viability of the U.S. nuclear umbrella (a key concern for Japan), while at the same time would open the door to constructive dialogue on arms control with China.

Ultimately, as one conferee noted, “if the nuclear powers cannot agree on declaratory policy, agreement on anything else of substance may prove to be nearly impossible.” As a concrete step to address mutual strategic uncertainty, the United States should debate seriously the potential advantages and disadvantages of such a policy change. Though many conferees strongly resisted any change in U.S. declaratory policy that adopted a nuclear no-first-use policy, most agreed that an adoption of a no-first use pledge against all WMD would be desirable, particularly if it helped China deal with the problem of U.S. theater missile defenses.

Nuclear weapons free zones (NWFZs) should continue to be supported.

The Korean Peninsula should be the initial focus of international efforts to establish a NWFZ in the region in line with the 1991 agreement between the two Koreas to ensure a non-nuclear peninsula. This is an urgent task with important short- and long-term implications. For example, any post-reunification or reconciliation scenario for the Korean Peninsula that includes nuclear weapons clearly would complicate regional security perceptions and their resulting plans. Japan, for example, probably would review important defense decisions in the face of a nuclear Korea.

A comprehensive policy approach toward North Korea should be pursued with a NWFZ as a goal in mind. Such a policy approach would include the full measure of political, economic and security elements necessary to achieve full nuclear transparency and verification mechanisms on the Peninsula. Eventually, Japan and other states also might be included in a broader, region-wide NWFZ which, if built with a considerable degree of political consensus, should not be inconsistent with a continued U.S. nuclear umbrella. Further, short of reunification with the mainland, Taiwan’s participation in a NWFZ could add stability to cross-Strait relations. Combined with security assurances from the five NPT-recognized nuclear weapons states, a NWFZ in Northeast Asia becomes even more feasible, without placing any restrictions on peaceful use of nuclear energy.

Building a security community in Northeast Asia requires sustained and regular dialogue.

Leaders in Northeast Asia will need to cooperate more systematically if restraint in the area of nuclear arms is to be sustained. They need a common vision of a security community built around institutionalized, multilateral security agreements that contribute to transparency, trust and long-term stability. Without the reassurance of a network of cooperative arrangements, including verifiable arms limitations, potential adversaries may place their hopes in achieving unilateral military advantages. Such efforts could foster fears and an arms race that includes nuclear weapons.

Building a security community in Northeast Asia will be difficult, but necessary. It may require imaginative and unfamiliar efforts. It certainly will require a sustained commitment to change and a good deal of patience. And it will require a more active leadership from Japan, China and South Korea. China, in particular, must become a party to the kinds of agreements that provided stability to the U.S.-Russian nuclear balance. Japan also will need to adopt a more active leadership role than it has in the past.

A consensus on the role of nuclear weapons is a necessary part of building a security community in Northeast Asia. Although deterrence will continue to be important, the nuclear powers can achieve stable deterrence with relatively few weapons, a great deal of transparency and forces that are neither equipped nor postured for a surprise first-strike. This will require discussions in both official and unofficial channels to identify ways to limit the role of nuclear weapons while still providing stable deterrence at the lowest possible levels and in the safest possible postures.

* * *

A multinational working group discussed the role that nuclear weapons might play within the evolving security environment in Northeast Asia during a May 1999 conference sponsored by the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, the Atlantic Council and the Research Institute for Peace and Security. Individuals took part from China, Japan, South Korea, Russia, Taiwan and the United States. While there may be parts of this consensus with which some participants are not in full agreement, all believe that this document, as a whole, provides a sound basis for policy.

The following individuals took part in the conference.
Their affiliations are included only for identification purposes-all opinions were presented in personal capacities.


The Hon. James E. Goodby
Atlantic Council

Prof. Tomohisa Sakanaka
Research Institute for Peace and Security

Lt. Gen Henry C. Stackpole, III
Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies


Lt. Col W. Neal Anderson, USA, Atlantic Council
Dr. James Auer, Vanderbilt University
Dr. Chien Chung, National Tsing Hua University
Lt. Gen. Charles Dyke, USA (Ret.), International Technology and      Trade Associates
Dr. Dru Gladney, Asia-Pacific Center
Dr. Vladimir Ivanov, Economic Research Center for NE Asia
Dr. Changsu Kim, Korea Institute for Defense Analyses
Prof. Tomohide Murai, National Defense Academy
Dr. Michael Nacht, University of California at Berkeley
Dr. C. Richard Nelson, Atlantic Council
Mr. Ryoichi Nishida, The Sankei Shimbun
Gen Tetsuya Nishimoto (Ret.), Toshiba Corporation
Dr. Shinichi Ogawa, National Institute for Defense Studies
Dr. Satu Limaye, Asia-Pacific Center
Col. Xia Liping, Shanghai Institute for International Studies

The Atlantic Council of the United States is a non-partisan network of leaders in the policy, academic and corporate communities who are convinced of the pivotal importance of effective U.S. foreign policy and the cohesion of U.S. international relationships. The Council is committed to enhancing U.S. initiative and leadership through sound and skillfully administered policies that identify and pursue national interests in a framework of global interdependence, and through the education of future leaders.

The Research Institute for Peace and Security (RIPS) is an independent research center established in Tokyo in October 1978 by Dr. Masamichi Inoki, former President of National Defense Academy. The goals of RIPS are: 1) to conduct research and studies concerned with international peace and security; 2) to promote greater public understanding of security issues; 3) to make policy recommendations where appropriate; and 4) to advance an international exchange of views and contacts with related institutes and specialists throughout the world. Its major research activities are conducted by some 20 research associates, mostly drawn from major universities in various disciplines, occasionally from government services and the business community. Among the major publications is an annual report, Asian Security, which is published both in English and in Japanese.

The Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies is a regional study, conference, and research center established on September 4, 1995, in Honolulu, Hawaii. The Center is a complement to the U.S. Pacific Command’s strategy of maintaining positive security relationships with all nations in the region. The Center builds on the strong bilateral relationships between the United States Pacific Command and the armed forces of the nations in the Asia-Pacific region by focusing on the broader multilateral approach to addressing regional security issues and concerns.

The Center’s mission is to enhance cooperation and build relationships through mutual understanding and study of comprehensive security issues among military and civilian representatives of the United States and other Asia-Pacific nations. The Center provides a focal point where national officials, decision makers, and policy makers can gather to exchange ideas, explore pressing issues, and achieve a greater understanding of the challenges that shape the security environment of the Asia-Pacific region. The Center’s focus is on the increasingly complex interrelationships of the military, economic, political and diplomatic policies relevant to regional security issues.

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