Geopolitical Tensions and Nuclear Temptation in the Asia-Pacific
Event Reports

Geopolitical Tensions and Nuclear Temptation in the Asia-Pacific

*To read the full report, please download the pdf file on the left.

Major power rivalries have been intensifying including in the once dormant arena of territorial claims in both East Asia and Europe; and in new arenas, the cyber sphere and outer space (and in managing terrorism). Do these developments change the proliferation calculus for countries in the Asia-Pacific? Does nuclear deterrence have a role to play in helping manage these arenas of competition and tension? Or are current trends in relations between great powers hastening the erosion of the relevance of nuclear weapons?



Gareth Evans (Honorary Convener APLN / Former Foreign Minister of Australia)


Chen Dongxiao (President, Shanghai Institute for International Studies, China)

Tatsujiro Suzuki (Director & Professor, Research Center for Nuclear Weapons Abolition, Nagasaki University)

G. John Ikenberry (Professor of International Politics, Princeton University)

Minsoon Song (President, University of North Korean Studies / former Foreign Minister of ROK)

*Chancellor Gareth Evans, President Chen Dongxiao, Professor Tatsujiro Suzuki, President Minsoon Song are members of the APLN.

The session took off from a brief introduction of the status quo regarding geopolitical tensions from Chancellor Gareth Evans (Former Foreign Minister of Australia). Much turbulence has been seen in recent days – Northeast Asia has been struggling with the nuclear issue of DPRK, Southeast Asia has seen tensions between Pakistan and India, and Russia and the United States of America are no longer discussing arms control. Asia as a whole is increasing nuclear stockpiles. Despite Obama’s visit to Hiroshima, Cold War era thinking may be coming back in Asia.

Chancellor Evans introduced three questions to be discussed for the session. First, are geopolitical tensions creating new nuclear temptations in Asia-Pacific region? Are there growing temptation in states with no nuclear weapons to develop them, or are they leaning toward the direction of acquiring more protection from nuclear umbrella? Second, if those temptations are real, what are the dangers? Would it mean that Asia-Pacific is growing closer to danger or would the growing reliance on nuclear weapons lead to more stabilization? Finally, if the risks are growing, what can be done to diffuse the tensions and get back on track to disarmament again?

President Chen Dongxiao (Shanghai Institute for International Studies) explained that nuclear development issues are closely interrelated to strategic tensions in a cycle of mutual feedback. However, it would be clearer to state that nuclear temptations are making the situation worse. For example, while DPRK is making nuclear weapons to improve its regime security and management, the development has instead increased uncertainty.

Chancellor Evans followed up with another question: how could China control this nuclear temptation when other neighboring countries are wary of its own assertive rise? President Chen answered that China has always had a consistent nuclear strategy to maintain missile capability at a minimum deterrent standard. China can play two roles to mitigate tensions. First, it can continue to assume a role of bridge-builder among conflicted interests among DPRK and the U.S. and ROK. China is always open to multilateral dialogue. Second, it can be a facilitator of peace and stability of the region as a whole by creating more favorable conditions for more general conciliation. For example, China’s implementation of the UNSC Resolution is strictly carried out to the letter. However, President Chen was concerned that there was too much emphasis on sanctions over the process of moving back to dialogues.

Professor G. John Ikenberry (International Politics, Princeton University) emphasized the necessity of solving the nuclear issue through a broader security dilemma perspective. Nuclear weapons have not been the root instable factor, but rather a complication factor between the U.S. and China. The cause of instability is rather the centralized power politics in the bilateral relations. Balance of power has become instable due to the rise of China and growing insecurity about USA’s position in East Asia with the coming presidential election. There is a competition for modernization of various capabilities including military, and both countries see the other as the source of their problem. As such, one way to avert the dilemma could be a bilateral nuclear dialogue as a Track I dialogue is a cornerstone of bilateral relations. Potential agendas for that dialogue may include transparency, establishment of restraints and reciprocal constraints, and mutual recognition of strategic interest.

Chancellor Evans questioned the appropriateness of the topic for a Track I high level dialogue. Professor Ikenberry replied that there had already been 10~15 years of Track II dialogue. Also, entry barrier for strategic dialogue would be small – the dialogue would only clarify the other’s position and share knowledge. An expanded use of that dialogue could be the containment of DPRK.

Professor Tatsujiro Suzuki (Research Center for Nuclear Weapons Abolition, Nagasaki University) discussed possible contributions from Japan for a safer nuclear environment in East Asia. Currently, there is little chance for Japan to take the nuclear option despite growing concern from Japanese policy-makers – the public do not want the option. The professor believed that the government should in fact establish new policies not depending on nuclear deterrence. RECNA has been going further to direct the situation towards a nuclear free zone. Professor Suzuki’s proposal is a Northeast Asia nuclear weapon-free zone – Japan, ROK, and DPRK should not possess nuclear weapons, and the U.S., Russia, and China will provide nuclear protection. Japan and DPRK should work together for mutual assurance that nuclear weapons are unnecessary and seek to reduce the nuclear umbrella. Second, Japan should introduce a more flexible nuclear recycle policy and reduce the surplus plutonium stockpiles. Third, there should be a multilateral verification scheme for civilian nuclear programs in Northeast Asia.

President Minsoon Song (former Foreign Minister of the ROK) stated that ROK is concerned in regards to two levels: upper tier and lower tier. The upper tier is strategic balance between the U.S. and China. However, geopolitical tensions between them are giving more burdens to ROK. THADD is a good example of ROK being pushed to stand at the frontline of strategic divide. At a lower tier, the inability to stop DPRK’s nuclear program has had such great effect that public opinion is now more open towards the idea of ROK taking care of its own security. ROK is concerned that there is no serious engagement in regards to the nuclear development of DPRK. There is popular perception that the latter’s nuclear weapons target ROK. President Song believed that the lack of synchronization of actions taken by DPRK, ROK, and Japan led to bad implementation to what otherwise would have been good agreements throughout history. Russia, China, and the U.S. should all combine their efforts to enforce DPRK to follow up to their promise.

Finally, there was a debate regarding a more comprehensive solution for the nuclear diffusion in DPRK. President Chen stated that China is all on board with the UNSC Resolution, but other countries should recognize that sanctions are not the main goal and DPRK should ultimately come back to the table for dialogues. As such, other countries should also not give up on diplomacy. However, President Song rebutted that China should negotiate for a dialogue between the U.S. and DPRK, and in the meantime suspend the latter’s nuclear program to fully guarantee compliance. Otherwise, the U.S. will not believe that any talks with DPRK will succeed. President Chen then argued that DPRK is an independent sovereign state with its own decision-making process. Also, external factors such as the tensions between the U.S. and DPRK during the Bush administration have worsened DPRK’s views towards the former. For China to succeed its role as a bridge-builder, others will have to help.

Professor Ikenberry argued that more sanctions should be implemented as DPRK has not yet suffered high level sanctions in comparison to Iran. However, President Song rebutted that the situation in DPRK and Iran was different as it has never been exposed to the international society.

The session closed with a brief summary from all the members regarding the possible efforts of the region and each country to diffuse the situation.

Image: Pixabay stock, Arek Socha.
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