The changing balance of power in Asia could lead to another missile crisisby / June 16, 2016 / Leave a comment
These are busy times in defence ministries and security think tanks around the world. Terrorism in Western European capitals, hybrid warfare on Eastern European borders, civil war in the Middle East and an old-fashioned great power confrontation in the Western Pacific make a strategic mix more complex than at any time since 1945. Throw in the increasingly tense nuclear relationships in East and South Asia and you have a situation potentially more dangerous than the Cold War.
We have weathered confrontations like the Cuban missile crisis: a face-off between two nations with well-established hotline communications, a comprehensive understanding of each other’s military doctrines and sophisticated nuclear inventories. But we are now presented with untried and likely unstable conditions: simultaneous multilateral deterrence between nations with relatively crude nuclear inventories.
The first flashpoint is the relationship between China and the United States. The press has reported on the contested ownership of islands in the South and East China Seas and the mutual provocations that have arisen. Less well covered are the growing complications of the countries’ nuclear deterrence strategies. North Korea, effectively a Chinese client state, is continually testing missiles and warheads. In response, earlier this year the US has announced plans to deploy its Thaad anti-ballistic system in South Korea.
Separately, the US Prompt Global Strike programme aims to develop a precision-guided missile capable of engaging any target in the world within an hour. Taken together, these two things will lead China to conclude that its land-based nuclear deterrent has been simultaneously nullified as an offensive capability and made more vulnerable to US pre-emptive attack. The obvious step will be the deployment of nuclear armed submarines into the Pacific to reserve a second strike capability that, in Beijing’s eyes, would restore the balance.
To the US, this action would be a clear escalation and mark the point at which nuclear and conventional strategies collide. To get to the area in the central Pacific from which its missiles could threaten the US, Chinese submarines would have to pass through the gaps between the first and second island chains around which Chinese and US naval forces are already contesting control. Unless China controls the gaps its noisy Jin Class submarines will be sitting ducks for the near silent American hunter-killer submarines, which are supported by lines of sensors along the ocean bed and land-based aircraft.
To make its nuclear strategy viable, the Chinese will therefore be forced to secure the island chains for its own use or at least deny access to the Americans. This, in turn, will make the case in Washington DC for an “archipelagic strategy” which requires holding the first island chain against Chinese aggression. So, the scene is set for a conventional confrontation, the aim of which is to seek nuclear strategic advantage but the consequence of which, by the logic of escalation, could be recourse to nuclear use.
And China and America are not the only factors in this equation. Recent assessments suggest that Pakistan now has up to 130 nuclear warheads, more than India. In one sense, it is predictable that a state that lacks conventional military might well try to make up the difference in its nuclear capability, as NATO illustrated in the latter stages of the Cold War. But India’s benchmark, laid out in a series of public announcements, is not Pakistan but the maintenance of a minimum deterrent against China.
Any increase in the Chinese capability therefore has clear implications for India and the development of its nuclear-powered ballistic submarines and associated missiles. Yet in responding to China, India will disrupt the existing balance with Pakistan. In short, nothing illustrates the law of unintended consequence better than the actions of a tyrant in North Korea precipitating confrontation in South Asia.
Since its 1960s heyday, nuclear deterrent theory has become a minority academic discipline. It must be brought front and centre as the world proceeds in the direction of multilateral nuclear deterrence, a condition that is more like three-dimensional chess than the draughts we have played until now.