The new AUKUS security partnership in the Indo-Pacific launched by the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia to counter China’s presence in the region shall enhance the development of joint capabilities and technology sharing, deepening integration of security and defence-related science, technology, industrial bases, and supply chains. It will require a trilateral, 18-month-long diplomatic effort to seek an optimal pathway. Nevertheless, the first initiative under AUKUS will be to support the Royal Australian Navy acquiring a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson stressed the fact that the program will be fully in line with the non-proliferation obligations. However, the consequences of a such move might go far beyond such intentions or expectations, affecting an already crippled non-proliferation regime.
In March 1963, President John F. Kennedy expressed his concern about the possibility that in a few years dozens of countries could acquire nuclear weapons. His prediction turned out to be overly pessimistic, and despite some proven failures (in the case of Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea), the United States and the international community have, on the whole, succeeded in promoting a generally effective non-proliferation regime (NPR). Although between 1950 and 1990 several countries explored the possibility of becoming militarily nuclear, few moved to an implementation phase and even fewer came close to acquiring such capabilities. South Africa dismantled its small arsenal, the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union put an end to the nuclear ambitions of Belgrade and Kiev, while those of Brazil, South Korea, Syria, Iraq, and Libya were subjected to diplomatic pressure or pre-emptive military action. Legislative barriers, disincentives, controls, and sanctions have allowed the number of militarily nuclear states to remain exceptionally low. Nonetheless, international dynamics are currently eroding the foundations of the non-proliferation regime. The apparent decline of American power and willingness to maintain global balances has resulted in a general deterioration of regional security. Russia has intervened militarily in Georgia (2008), Ukraine (2014), Syria (2015), and Libya (2019), while launching a series of cyber-operations in the West, and it is developing a new delivery system and dual capabilities for conventional forces as well. Similarly, China is working on new anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) systems, it imposed sanctions against Seoul in retaliation against the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system, while a recent series of cyber-attacks — likely originating from Beijing — seriously compromised some Australian strategic infrastructure. These developments have put pressure on both the US’ alliance system and the architecture of the NPR, with several smaller players intent on acquiring new weapons systems and modernizing arsenals.
Keeping all of this in mind, this article will assess the current state of the NPT regime, the concept of latency as a new framework to approach nuclear proliferation issues, the risk of nuclear decoupling between the US and its allies, and how to start over a dialogue on disarmament.
The weakening of the NPR and the concept of Latency
Less cooperative and more competitive relations between the main great powers of the international system — primarily between Washington and Moscow but also between Washington and Beijing — prevent the revival of the dialogue on disarmament that has been at a standstill for at least a decade since the 2009 New START. The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) is quiescent, negotiations for the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT) were stillborn, while in August 2019 the United States withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). The withdrawal was motivated by Russia’s alleged violations, though there is a clear connection between the restrictions the INF imposed on Washington and China's ability to freely deploy intermediate-range weapons in the South China Sea. However, a future US installation of such weaponry in East Asia in the name of extended deterrence would provoke a cascade effect, tarnishing North Korea's already precarious security perceptions, and pushing away the prospect of an agreement that could contain or eliminate its nuclear threat. China would react with additional deployments or new missile programs, a threat that would eventually involve Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea. Although this vertical proliferation (i.e. nation states that do possess nuclear weapons and keep increasing their stockpiles) may not have any consequential effect on horizontal proliferation (i.e. nation states or nonstate entities who do not have, but are acquiring, nuclear weapons or developing the capability and materials to produce them), it does directly impact on the implicit meaning of the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and on the entire nuclear security architecture: namely, the commitment of non-militarily nuclear countries to stay that way in exchange for the promise that militarily nuclear countries will disarm.
In addition, both China and Russia, and — to a lesser extent — others such as France have begun to erode the American monopoly of the nuclear technology market. A monopoly that, by restricting access through strict regulations, inspections, and additional protocols, has allowed the international community to monitor the nuclear programs of many countries at risk. However, the Russians and the Chinese are offering more competitive access to these technologies, a market strategy that could weaken the non-proliferation regime in the long run. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, and the UAE are just a few of the countries who are negotiating — or will soon have to negotiate — new contracts for the supply of nuclear technologies and who could use the leverage of commercial competition to cut better deals.
Nevertheless, and with the exception of Iran, it is unlikely that regional actors and US allies will decide to withdraw from the NPT and acquire atomic weapons. For this reason, it is important to start approaching the problem of proliferation in a different way, not so much looking at the development of military programs per se as at their potential, that is, latency (the potential ability to develop nuclear weapons). It is much more dangerous than Saddam Hussein’s or Muhammar Gaddafi’s attempts at obtaining the atomic bomb: while the latter had to face many procurement issues (enrichment technologies, reprocessing, uranium supply, lack of technicians and engineers with adequate preparation, lack of delivery vehicles, etc.), latency requires only a clear-cut intention to acquire nuclear weapons. States who are most exposed to the deterioration of their security framework have adopted a practical approach, advancing on the path of developing and acquiring conventional dual use weapons such as ballistic and cruise missiles. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and above all South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan are expanding their missile programs and their space launch programs. Although they possess highly diversified levels of technological development and are in no way overtly related to military applications of nuclear energy, they nevertheless increase the latency of these states. If, on the one hand, the acquisition of conventional capabilities by its allies makes deterrence less costly for the United States; on the other hand, these new programs have an implicit destabilising effect on the non-proliferation regime and on the regional balance of power.
Case Studies of Latency: South Korea and Japan
South Korea already embarked on the nuclear route in the 1970s. The country’s public opinion still favour the idea of a national deterrent, while South Korean nuclear scientists are interested in the development of technologies for the reprocessing of plutonium and uranium enrichment. Seoul’s concerns regard not only the possibility that the United States will eventually accept a nuclearized North Korea, but the development of missile and conventional capabilities by the Japanese, too. However, the South Korean government is unlikely to authorize a military program because it would automatically mean losing access to civilian nuclear technologies (an obvious retaliatory measure by the international community) that remain vital to the country's energy supply.
Similarly, Japan’s latency is particularly high and advanced, albeit primarily linked to energy security. Moreover, public opinion, despite three of its neighbours being militarily nuclear powers (Russia, China, and North Korea), shows clear opposition to any hypothetical acquisition of nuclear weapons. Only the unlikely hypothesis of a unified and nuclearized Korean peninsula could push Japan to rethink its posture, but South Korea, aware of these fears, has repeatedly excluded this possibility. Tokyo is much more concerned by the Chinese deployment of A2/AD capabilities that threaten the Japanese islands and the United States’ capability to intervene promptly in the area. Nuclear vulnerability between Washington and Beijing has induced the latter to adopt a strategy of localized conventional superiority while maintaining a minimalist approach to deterrence and a doctrine of Non-First Use (NFU). However, worried by the American development of nuclear counter-force capabilities (an Australian fleet of nuclear-powered submarines could only worsen the situation), the CCP is thinking of adopting a more ambiguous nuclear posture and modernizing its arsenal.
Credibility, Decoupling, and the Disarmament Dialogue
However, the problem is only partially military as it raises a more relevant political question about the credibility of the American commitment. Perception of credibility is ultimately more important than deterrence itself because the latter concerns the use of nuclear weapons only theoretically; more concretely, deterrence is a promise of commitment. The perception of credibility (although the concept itself is debatable) increases when political commitment is clear, defined, and comprehensible: as such,language and posture are oftentimes more important than the actual nuclear doctrine. This is an aspect only indirectly related to US enemies. Indeed, extended deterrence is a promise of commitment and loyalty that defines the perimeter of an alliance, consequently affecting its cohesion and strength. The only way to avoid a nuclear decoupling that could badly impact latency and intentions is to strengthen extended deterrence through credibility of commitment. In the Indo-Pacific, the newly established AUKUS (together with the QUAD, Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) goes in that direction. At that point, one could envisage a dialogue on disarmament but with a reversed order: from tactical and conventional weapons to strategic ones. To not jeopardize the commitment to extended deterrence and to general disarmament on top of regaining parity of conventional forces in the region, especially in Eastern Asia, are the necessary premises for strategic weapons reduction talks.
The apparent similarities with the Euro-Missile Crisis in the late 1970s should not lead to a mistaken overlap between the Cold War and contemporary dynamics. The bipolar world was radically different, with two superpowers competing on economic, military, and ideological levels, while competing globally for those areas that fell outside their spheres of influence. Today's power politics clashes are not the result of competition between two systems, rather the result of the erosion of US unipolarity and the transition to an apparently multipolar international order. But moments of change are by definition unpredictable and uncertain, and the increasing interdependence of actors in the international community has made the nuclear security architecture increasingly dependent on factors thatmight seem unrelated at first glance, such as supply chains or market regulations. Reading these dynamics through the lenses of the Cold War would not only be useless but also dangerous.
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