Biden, Asia, and the Politics of Nuclear Arms Control

To construct a new balance of power in Asia, Washington needs a better approach to nuclear arms.

This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, detailing key administration policies as they get drafted—and the people who will put them into practice.

Activists with masks of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump protest against nuclear weapons in Berlin on Nov. 18, 2017.
Activists with masks of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump protest against nuclear weapons in Berlin on Nov. 18, 2017. Adam Berry/Getty Images

The Biden administration’s renewal of New START, the strategic arms reduction treaty between the United States and Russia, has drawn barely a yawn in Asia. That should surprise no one. Asia has long been marginal to a nuclear balance of power long defined by U.S. and Soviet (later Russian) arsenals.

It’s not just in Asia, of course, that interest in U.S.-Russian arms control has declined since the end of the Cold War. The sense of a perpetual confrontation between the two Cold War superpowers that could escalate into a nuclear catastrophe at a moment’s notice has eased. Even in Washington, nuclear arms control is no longer the all-consuming political preoccupation it once was. It is now a boutique issue in U.S. political discourse.

In Asia, the main strategic concern is about coping with China’s rapidly rising military power and Beijing’s demonstrated political will to deploy it to its advantage in the region. This overshadows any marginal Asian interest in U.S.-Russian arms control and sends an important message to the Biden administration: Nuclear arms are, at most, only a subset of a much larger strategic picture. And the strategic, political picture must precede arms control.

Although China has had nuclear missiles since 1964, its arsenal had little impact on the nuclear balance between the United States and the Soviet Union. Beijing also sensibly avoided playing the kind of nuclear numbers game into which Washington and Moscow were locked. Instead, China limited itself to a small, minimum deterrent that stayed in the low hundreds of warheads—even as Washington and Moscow built thousands of nuclear weapons.

Washington and Moscow learned to live with Chinese nuclear weapons. They were also happy to bring Beijing into the nonproliferation framework to limit the spread of these weapons to other countries. Together, they worked to mobilize the widest possible support for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and get countries with nuclear capabilities to formally renounce nuclear weapons.

The old framework has broken down in the face of geopolitical turmoil in Asia and profound changes in U.S. domestic politics.

As with Germany, the United States and Russia had a special interest in keeping Japan nonnuclear. In both Europe and Asia, the United States offered to extend its nuclear umbrella to protect its closest allies, which were in the line of fire from the Soviet Union.

Now, this decades-old framework has broken down in the face of profound changes in U.S. domestic politics affecting nuclear arms control, as well as geopolitical turmoil in Asia.

Two major problems stand out. The first is a chicken-and-egg question that has dogged arms control from the beginning of the nuclear age: Should the regulation of nuclear weapons, which pose such a fundamental threat to national and global security, take precedence over reducing the political conflicts that drive such an arms race in the first place?

The initial U.S. consensus that arms control helps improve trust and reduce conflict between the superpowers did not last long. By the time Washington and Moscow moved from the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I), concluded in 1972, to SALT II in 1979, there was a domestic U.S. political revolt against the nuclear talks. While Democrats insisted that nuclear arms control was a virtue in itself, a large section of the Republican Party argued that the exclusive focus on the nuclear question masked the far more threatening challenges arising from the nature of the Soviet system itself and Moscow’s expansionism around the world.

Fast-forward to the current context, and this dilemma remains intact. Few among the U.S. establishment lose sleep over the fact that Russia is the world’s second-largest nuclear power and continues to modernize its arsenal. For Washington, the real issues with Russia are about its political behavior, including conventional, hybrid, and information warfare. For Moscow, however, nuclear weapons are the supreme symbol of its great-power status—and the strategic arms limitation process is an expression of parity with the United States.

Not everyone outside Russia might see the value of this presumed parity, or agree with it, but there is no escaping the Russian view. Moscow certainly needs a new modus vivendi with Washington. Strategic arms control talks might provide a channel for engagement, but they can’t be the instrument to unfreeze ties.

The second cause for the breakdown in the traditional nuclear arms reduction framework lies in Asia and is equally acute. Take the Middle East: Was the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 about eliminating Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons program, or was it really about promoting democracy in the Middle East through regime change in Iraq? Today, that question is equally relevant with regard to a potential conflict with Iran.

Notwithstanding the occasional crisis, old-fashioned deterrence appears intact. 

Is the nature of Iran’s nuclear program the main problem for Washington—or is it the political character of the Iranian regime and its efforts to destabilize the region? Washington’s internal division on this issue has fused with the deep concerns of U.S. allies in the region—Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—that saw the 2015 nuclear deal as empowering Iran rather than containing the threats emanating from it. U.S. President Joe Biden and his team will find it hard to uncover a better answer than the divergent approaches of the Obama and Trump administrations.

The nuclear weapons of India and Pakistan have drawn international attention much longer than those under development in the Middle East. But thanks to initiatives under former U.S. President George W. Bush, the South Asian problem has found a resolution—of sorts. Recognizing the difficulty of isolating India for undermining nonproliferation, Bush found a way to live with India’s nuclear weapons and paved the way for mutual political trust and New Delhi’s cooperation in constructing a broader Asian balance-of-power system. China, which was opposed to this, has responded by stepping up nuclear support for Pakistan. Barring a few nonproliferation purists, few in Washington worry about South Asia’s nuclear weapons threatening the world. Notwithstanding the occasional crisis, old-fashioned deterrence appears intact.

On the Korean Peninsula, there has been little success in rolling back Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs. In Washington, the policy debate has long been focused on a narrow range of options for disarming North Korea, including attempts to enlist Beijing’s help. Former U.S. President Donald Trump sought to turn the sequence around and first try political reconciliation with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un. South Korean President Moon Jae-in, along with much of the political left in that country, wants a renewal of Trump’s political approach rather than a return to disarmament negotiations seen as futile. But the pressures on Biden to sustain the policy of putting nuclear steps ahead of reconciliation are very strong.

It is of course the rise of China that dominates the broader picture in East Asia and the Western Pacific, where the United States’ extended nuclear deterrence and the alliance system underpinning it are under great stress. No degree of nuclear arms control between Washington and Moscow—or, for that matter, attempts to constrain China’s nuclear arsenal—can address the consequences of China’s new nonnuclear capabilities. These include the growing military threat to the U.S. forward presence on China’s periphery and the intense Chinese political effort to weaken Asian alliances with the United States. This has been reinforced by emerging Asian concerns about America’s staying power amid the multiple troubles it confronts at home.

Tangible deterrence against Chinese regional behavior—not arms control—holds the key to nuclear stability in Asia. 

The early signals from the Biden team to worried Asian allies have been positive. It is conveying a strong intent to stand up to China and offering political reassurances to its allies and partners in the region. Translating these signals into tangible deterrence against Chinese regional behavior—and not arms control—holds the key to nuclear stability in Asia. If the United States is unable to deter China, some of Beijing’s neighbors might be tempted into developing their own nuclear weapons.

Whether in the Middle East, on the Korean Peninsula, or in the Western Pacific, the real challenge for Washington lies in constructing a sustainable regional order. The Biden administration can’t allow the question of nuclear arms control, which is only a subset of that problem, to overwhelm the main issue: how to build durable balances of power in different parts of Asia.

C. Raja Mohan is the director of the National University of Singapore’s Institute of South Asian Studies and a former member of India’s National Security Advisory Board. Twitter: @MohanCRaja

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