Trump and Northeast Asian Nuclearization: Not as a Terrible an Idea as You’ve Heard

Image result for nuclear weapons northeast asiaThis is a re-post of something I wrote for the Lowy Institute earlier this month. The original is here.

So yes, Donald Trump is awful. He is a threat to American democracy, an vain narcissist, doesn’t know anything about nuclear weapons or national security, and so on. I know what you’re thinking, so I will say that I mailed-in my absentee ballot today, and I voted for Hillary Clinton.

That does not necessarily impugn all of his ideas however. And when he says that Japan and South Korea might pursue their own nuclear weapons, I have never understood the hysteria that greets this notion. That Trump says it, and that he might not really even understand what he’s saying, does not automatically mean it is wrong.

The debate over SK and Japanese nuclearization is a lot more variegated that we normally hear from mostly ‘liberal international order’ analysts who dominate Washington thinking on foreign policy. The essay below makes several claims, but the strongest to my mind is that a northeast Asian nuclear arms race is already underway; SK and Japan are just not participating in it – which does not mean it is not happening. It is true that they need not to some extent, because they are covered by American extended deterrence, which gives them ‘shadow nuclear weapons’ I suppose.

But the costs of them going nuclear are not that high anymore. Russia and North Korea have both substantially elevated the role of nuclear weapons in their grand strategies in the last two decades. China might start counter-building, but what is China doing for Japan or South Korea that it earns the privilege of them staying non-nuclear? Specifically, if China won’t rein in NK, the case for SK and Japanese nuclear restraint diminishes.

The full essay follows the jump.

One of the great misfortunes of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is that some of the policies he has suggested do actually deserve discussion. But they are tainted by the Orange One’s lunatic style, policy shallowness, and lack of focus. For example, Trump has raised long-overdue issues about America’s gargantuan, expensive global posture – is world-spanning, interventionist primacy really in America’s interest decades after the Cold War? There is disagreement on this; the two relevant intellectual communities on this question – academic international relations, and the think-tank set – seem to genuinely drifting apart on the issue. But Trump, after raising it, has spoken to it only in passing, and in such an off-the-cuff way, that one does not know if he actually meant it. Given that he just went ‘soft’ on his signature proposal – mass deportation of illegal immigrants – he probably does not actually have any genuine beliefs beyond his own narcissism. I’ve argued elsewhere that Asian elites need not worry about Trump retrenching out here. He is almost certainly too lazy and intellectually unfocused to do the necessary hard work.

Nuclear Weapons and Northeast Asia

One of Trump’s most interesting ‘proposals’ – if a slap-dash interview remark can be called that – is allowing Japan and South Korea to acquire nuclear weapons. Of course he did not follow-up on this – because he has no idea what he is talking about – and the Washington consensus against this is pretty strong. The last thing he wants to do is the hard intellectual work to actually argue this. But the issue is hardly so black-and-white. If Trump were not so dumb he might note:

1. Extended nuclear deterrence will always suffer from massive credibility problems.

Because South Korea and Japan do not have nuclear weapons, they implicitly rely on an American nuclear umbrella that, if invoked, would chain-gang the United States into a nuclear conflict. This is obviously hugely risky for the United States, because it requires America to fight a nuclear war when it has not been struck itself, and for that reason, it will always suffer from an obvious credibility problem. Will the US nuke Pyongyang or Beijing for Seoul or Tokyo? My own sense is no. A majority of US public opinion has never supported the US of American ground troops in a second Korean War. I find it even less likely that US opinion would support going nuclear barring an actual strike on the US homeland.

This problem is not new. During the Cold War, US European allies worried about the same thing and ultimately concluded that they needed their own nuclear weapons. They have since managed them responsibly, just as Japan and South Korea would.

2. Japan and South Korea are quite capable of managing the complexity of nuclear weapons.

One of the general fears about nuclear proliferation is that many states are simply not bureaucratically capable of supervising them properly. Well-known concerns include accidental launches or bomb-drops, theft and proliferation-for-sale, the loss of political control of nuclear bases to a rogue actor. These concerns apply to all states, but most obvious to badly governed ones or failed states. Hence there is a great deal more concern about Pakistan and North Korea’s nuclear weapons than Britain or India’s.

But South Korea and Japan have the modern bureaucratic and legal structures, such as tight civilian control over the military and secure nuclear facilities, to be trusted with such weapons. No one serious believes there would be an AQ Khan network out of Seoul or Tokyo.

3. Japan and South Korea are stable liberal democracies.

Another obvious concern about nuclear proliferation is that dictators, or worse, expansionists like Hitler, get them. But this obviously does not include stable liberal democracies like Japan and South Korea. Neither have started an armed conflict since WWII. Both broadly fit the ‘democratic peace’ theory. The same reasons that lead the US to accept Indian nuclearization, while clandestinely planning to take Pakistan’s weapons if necessary, apply here. South Korea and Japan will not lose them, nor use them aggressively, just as France and Britain never have.

4. Japan and South Korea are US allies who would never use them against the US alliance network.

Both are longstanding US allies with deep ties to the US military and Washington, D.C. There is no reason to think their nuclearization would ever threaten the US or its allies – again, just as Britain and France have never used them for coercive diplomacy against the US or its partners.

5. There is already a nuclear arms race in northeast Asia.

One of the most common objections is that South Korean or Japanese nuclearization would ignite an arms race in northeast or east Asia. This may be so, in that Russia, China, or North Korea might decide to build even more nuclear weapons. But Russia already has thousands and Putin has lowered Russia’s threshold for nuclear use, while North Korea has ignored UN resolutions and global opinion for three decades to acquire nuclear weapons. These states have already nuclearized the regional environment, put South Korea and Japan on the nuclear defensive, and forced them to rely on the US for deterrence.

China, to its underappreciated credit, has maintained a small nuclear arsenal for decades (rumors suggest around 400 warheads). But that is more than enough to devastate Korea and Japan; China has not made much effort to rein in its North Korean client’s nuclearization; and Beijing has insistently rejected South Korean and Japanese ballistic missile defense (Terminal High Altitude Air Defense – THAAD) which would obviously make it easier for them to stay non-nuclear.

In short, there is already a nuclear arms race in Asia. Just because Japan and South Korea are not participating, does not mean that it is not happening.

Future Debate

This should not be construed as a full endorsement of Japanese or South Korean nuclearization. Generally, the fewer the states with nuclear weapons, the better. South Korea will almost certainly never use them against North Korea, even North Korea nukes South Korea. And if South Korea or (more likely) Japanese nuclearization pushed China away from its currently restrained small stockpile, that would be clear loss.

Nevertheless, the debate is hardly as clear-cut as the Washington insistence on US nuclear dominance would insist. Japan and South Korea are easily stable, capable, and liberal enough to be trusted with them – if India and Israel can have them without US complaint, why not South Korea and Japan? – while Russia’s lower threshold, North Korea’s rules-be-damned build-up, and China’s foot-dragging on North Korean nukes and THAAD all keep this issue alive. That Trump brought this up and does not understand it, does not automatically delegitimize the debate.

4 thoughts on “Trump and Northeast Asian Nuclearization: Not as a Terrible an Idea as You’ve Heard

  1. I think that even before Trump took the idea of nuclearization on as his own, the idea creates fear because it is a final admission that the now rotting non-proliferation machinery has failed. The Indians, Pakistanis and Israelis have already made a mockery of it, but allowing Japan and South Korea to go nuclear also means that we have to formally admit that the hopes of de-nuclearizing the North is dead and along with it, the ultimate failure of non-proliferation. Hard to admit to in the end for the foreign policy elite in our country.


  2. If South Korea and Japan get nukes, they would become significantly less dependent on the US military. Maybe even to a degree, that they would be comfortable expelling US troops, which is what the majority of each populations want anyway.
    I, for one, would welcome that, as it would get China and Russia to drop their support for North Korea and thus enable a Korean unification. But I don’t think any possible candidate for the US presidency is willing to give up militaristic influence in the west pacific.


    • If US troops leave South Korea, the Russian government and Chinese Communist Party will drop support for North Korea? HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHAHAHAHA Wow!!! That is hilarious!!!! Lay off the crack man?! Ah I see, you must just be a Minjoo supporting Korean? Anyway, they would clearly be much more likely to eventually instigate another invasion of the South as a result of US troops leaving. And that is why even if South Korea gets nukes they will not want US troops to leave. And with the power China has now it is unlikely Japan would do the same anytime in the next 20-30 years. I would love to see these two countries pay for their own defense entirely by themselves, but I think it’s just too good of a deal, financially and strategically, for either one of them to end the relationship anytime in the next 20-30 years.


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