Friday 22 Oct 2021 | 11:31 | SYDNEY

Asian strategic mistrust holding back nuclear disarmament: Lowy report

A web of strategic mistrust in East Asia involving China, North Korea, America and key US allies is holding back President Obama’s global push to rid the world of nuclear weapons, according to a major new Lowy Institute report.

 The report, Disarming Doubt: The Future of Extended Nuclear Deterrence in East Asia, is based on extensive consultations with nuclear and strategic specialists in Japan, China, South Korea and Australia, and includes contributions by nine expert authors from those countries.

 According to its principal editor, the Lowy Institute’s Rory Medcalf, the nuclear disarmament push in Asia had stalled, owing to the region’s tangle of strategic mistrust.  In particular:

 ·      North Korea’s provocative nuclear and missile programs were continuing, leaving Japan and South Korea looking to their defences;

 ·      US allies were unwilling to weaken the ‘extended deterrence’ umbrella under which they are defended by American nuclear weapons;

 ·      China was unwilling to cap the growth or modernisation of its nuclear arsenal, or to begin a ‘strategic stability’ dialogue to help cope with a potential arms race;

 ·      China was unlikely to change these positions unless America accepted a growing degree of vulnerability to Chinese nuclear weapons, which in turn would worry US allies;

 ·      And the China-India-Pakistan triangle of mistrust and arms competition added another major obstacle to nuclear arms control and disarmament in Asia.

 Mr Medcalf said this situation could be worsened if the high cost of conventional weapons ever drove a future US Administration to expand the role of nuclear armaments in America’s strategic ‘pivot’ back to Asia.

 The report outlines practical policy recommendations for governments to untangle Asia’s nuclear dangers, including a seven-stage process of dialogue, confidence-building and defence policy adjustment. These steps include refining extended nuclear deterrence to countering ‘existential’ threats only, the strengthening of conventional defences by US allies, a US-China strategic stability dialogue not confined to nuclear weapons, and a shift by Beijing away from tolerating North Korean provocations. 

 The report is part of a wider collaborative project between the Lowy Institute and the Center for the Promotion of Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, Japan Institute of International Affairs. The project was supported by the Nuclear Security Project of the Nuclear Threat Initiative. All views contained in the report are the authors’ alone.

 The report will be launched in Canberra today (19 April), with follow-up outreach events in Asia and the United States.

 For more information, please contact Rory Medcalf, the director of the Lowy Institute’s international security program, at rmedcalf@lowyinstitute.org, on twitter @Rory_Medcalf or by telephone on + 61 (0) 417 799278