Civilization has always faced the possibility of annihilation. Whether it was due to a volcano, asteroid, earthquake, or plague, Mother Nature has always had the ability to devastate humanity at a whim. Although the prospect of facing a natural disaster has terrified societies throughout history, there has never been a threat as terrifying as the one that faces modern societies, nuclear annihilation. Since the creation of the nuclear bomb, humanity has held the ability to cause destruction on an unfathomable scale. While nuclear weapons have evoked fear ever since they were used by the United States against the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the threat that they pose has continuously grown as nukes become more powerful and more widely available. The following paper will examine the history, policies, and risks of nuclear weapons in Asia, the continent that contains the most nukes on Earth, in order to gain some insight into two questions. Which, if any, potential nuclear threats exist in Asia? What degree of risk do these potential nuclear threats place on the United States? This paper will begin by explaining the history and background of nuclear weapons in the region. An analysis of each of the major potential threats stemming from this region, such as the potential threat of nuclear war between Russia, the USA and China, the tensions between India and Pakistan, the unpredictable antics of North Korea, and also the risk of a terrorist organization acquiring a nuclear weapon will follow.

In order to begin understanding the issue of nuclear proliferation in Asia, it is necessary to first have an understanding of nuclear proliferation in general. To begin, nuclear proliferation refers to “the spread of nuclear weapons, materials, technologies and information to states not recognized as “Nuclear Weapon States” by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (USLegal, 2014). In 1970, the international community implemented the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (or NPT for short) in an effort to thwart nuclear proliferation. The NPT was created with four main objectives in mind; “to stop the further spread of nuclear weapons, to provide security for non-nuclear weapon states which have given up the nuclear option, to encourage international co-operation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and to pursue negotiations in good faith towards nuclear disarmament leading to the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons.” (WORLD NUCLEAR ASSOCIATION, 2014). As of now, there are 189 states (plus Taiwan) signed onto this treaty. One aspect of the NPT is that it designates states as either “nuclear weapons states” or as “non-nuclear weapons states”. Currently, out of the eight states confirmed to have tested nuclear weapons, only the United States, China, Russia, the United Kingdom, and France have been recognized as nuclear weapon states. Interestingly, not only does Asia contain China and Russia, two of the recognized nuclear weapons states, it is also home to all three of the states that are confirmed to have tested nuclear weapons, but have not been recognized by NPT; North Korea, India, and Pakistan. In addition to being home to the majority of the nuclear-capable nations of the world, the United States is also heavily involved in the region. Even without counting the nuclear arsenal of the United States, Asia is home to at least 8,850 nuclear warheads, the largest amount on any continent (CNN, 2015).

In addition to having a general understanding of nuclear proliferation, it is also important to understand the history of nuclear weapons in Asia, in order to further analyze the potential threats that stem from the region. Although nuclear bombs were first created in the United States, their historical significance began in Asia. In 1945, the United States became the first and only country to ever use a nuclear weapon in an act of war when it dropped nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These bombings shocked the world, as they unleashed a destructive force far beyond anything man has ever unleashed before. With two bombs, the United States managed to end WWII by decimating two cities, resulting in the deaths of countless innocent people. Although this tragedy made Japan the first and only country to have ever experienced the destructive power of nuclear weapons first-hand, it was not until Russia conducted its first nuclear test in 1949 that an Asian nation gained a nuclear weapon of its own. The next Asian nation to develop nuclear weapons was China, which tested its first weapon in 1964, followed by India, which tested its first nuclear weapon ten years later, despite the fact that in 1954 President Jawaharlal Nehru called for a ban on nuclear testing in India1. In addition to making India the 6th country to test a nuclear weapon, it also made India the first country to do so after the passing of the NPT, resulting in India becoming the first country with nuclear weapons that was not recognized by the NPT as a nuclear weapon state. Unfortunately, India was not the last Asian country to develop and test nuclear weapons. Despite international agreements such as the NPT and the 1986 South Pacific Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone, Pakistan tested its first nuclear weapon in 1998, and North Korea tested its first nuke in 2006, despite having signed the NPT in 1994 (WORLD NUCLEAR ASSOCIATION, 2014).

Now that the basics of nuclear proliferation and the history of nuclear weapons in Asia have been covered, we will now begin examining the potential nuclear threats present in Asia. One of the oldest and most dramatic potential nuclear disasters is the possibility of a nuclear Armageddon if a war was to break out between the United States and Russia. Since the beginning of the Cold War, this threat has been one of the most well known, and most feared. Not only do the United States and Russia both have nuclear weapons, they also have the most powerful nukes, and by far the largest stockpiles. The United States has the second largest stockpile containing 7,650 nuclear warheads; Russia has the largest with 8,420 nukes. To make a comparison, France, which has the third largest stockpile, only has 300 nuclear weapons (CNN, 2015). Despite some very close calls, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the world has been fortunate enough to have avoided devastation by a nuclear war between these two nuclear giants. Although the Cold War came to an end with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990’s, some believe that the chances of a nuclear war between the United States and Russia has recently escalated. With tensions rising between the two nations, due to the Ukrainian crisis, rising anti-Western sentiments in Russia and other international matters, some believe that the relations between the United States and Russia may be approaching tensions comparable to the Cold War period (Vice, 2014). One of the main theories of why there has not yet been a nuclear war between these two countries is referred to as “Mutually Assured Destruction”, or MAD for short. According to this theory, countries have avoided war with other nuclear powers, since it is likely that both countries, possibly even the world, would be destroyed (Hellman, 2008).

Another potential nuclear thereat would occur if there were to be a war between the United States and China. While this scenario seems unlikely due to the current relations and economic interdependence between these nations, there are some tensions. One such tension is due to the fact that China supports Pakistan, while the United States gives more support to India. Due to these relations, if there was a nuclear conflict between Pakistan and India, there is a chance it could drag in the United States and China. Arguably, the most significant tensions between the United States and China stem from the competition between the United States and China for influence over Asia (Joshi, 2007).

One of the most immediate potential nuclear threats in Asia is due to the tense relationship between India and Pakistan. These two nations have been in a state of limited-cross border conflicts since the 1990’s, which could have potentially resulted in nuclear war on several occasions if it had not been for intervention by the international community. Although international actors have helped to prevent war between Pakistan and India on more than one occasion, in some instances they have in a sense, “added fuel to the fire”. As mentioned previously, India has been backed by the United States, and Pakistan by China. Despite the restrictions that the NPT placed on unrecognized nuclear weapon states, in 2005 President George W. Bush agreed to change the United States’ domestic non-proliferation policy, and to also convince the international community to lift the restrictions placed on India’s civilian nuclear cooperation program. This deal not only upset Pakistan, but also China, which views India as a strong rival for influence over Asia. In part, the United States’ deal with India led to China taking comparable actions in favor of Pakistan. In 2010 China proposed a deal to trade two civilian-nuclear power plants to Pakistan. When confronted about the restrictions placed on Pakistan through the NPT, Beijing argued that the trade would not have been much different than the deal that President Bush had made with India back in 2008 (The Economist, 2010). Although international influences have added to the threat of nuclear war between India and Pakistan, the most significant danger is due to the defense policies of both of these countries. The governments of both Pakistan and India have implemented doctrines of “massive retaliation”. These policies of retaliation have it possible for even a relatively small, non-nuclear issue to escalate very quickly, especially because unlike India, Pakistan does not have a no-first-use doctrine, due to India’s conventional military superiority. To make matters worse, in order to balance India’s more powerful military, Pakistan has resorted to unconventional tactics and, may use mass-casualty attacks in urban center, if tensions were to escalate (Krepon, 2010).

While it is scary to think that a country might even consider using nuclear weapons in order to gain the upper hand over a rival, it is even scarier to imagine what an unpredictable regime with a potentially unstable leader could potentially do with nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, North Korea is that regime. Although North Korea was originally singed onto the NPT, in the early 2000’s it withdrew from the treaty, kicked the international inspectors out of the country, and then announced that it had a nuclear weapons. On more than one occasion North Korea has threatened to use nuclear weapons against the United States, but fortunately they have yet to follow through on any of their threats. Interestingly, in 2013 VICE reporters managed to get an extremely rare opportunity to visit North Korea. Although North Korea is usually very reluctant to allow tourists, and practically never allows reporters in, they allowed VICE reporters to enter their country with Dennis Rodman and four members of the Harlem Globetrotters; Ryan Duffy, Moose Weekes, Buckets Blakes, and Bull Bullard, to play a game of basketball with North Korea’s ”dream team” (VICE, 2014). One of the first things that the VICE crew was shown was a celebration of North Korea’s recent successful missile test, and also a video of their most recent nuclear weapon test. Despite their visit starting on a threatening note, the crew wound up making history. Not only did they become the first Americans to play on the same team as North Korean players, they became some of the first Americans to actually meet Kim-Jung-Un. During the post-game ceremony, the crew had dinner and drank with the North Korean leader, who expressed his desire to improve relations between the two countries during his toast. Not only did this event make history, but also, it showed just how unpredictable the North Korean leader is. Only weeks after this event, Kim-Jung-Un issued even more threats of nuclear war to the United States (VICE, 2014).

Although all of the potential threats mentioned thus far are worrisome, none are as new or dangerous as the threat of a terrorist organization getting their hands on a nuclear weapon. As nuclear proliferation becomes a more widespread issue, it becomes easier for terrorist organizations to get their hands on a nuclear material. One of the main fears is that terrorists may get their hands on enough nuclear waste to create a dirty bomb. Unlike a normal nuclear weapon, a dirty bomb is not complicated to create. To create a dirty bomb, all a terrorist needs to do is obtain a large explosive and some nuclear waste. While the explosion produced by these types of bombs may not be as large as regular nuclear weapons, they still can irradiate relatively large areas, rendering them unlivable for a long time (Leventhal & Chellaney, 1998). While the threat of terrorists getting their hands on dirty bombs is a significant hazard, it is even more frightening that they can potentially obtain weapons grade uranium, and possibly even real nuclear warheads through the black market. These weapons and materials are likely left over from insecure stockpiles that were left behind after the collapse of the Soviet Union, or obtained from regimes with insecure stockpiles, such as Pakistan. (USA TODAY, 2012).

In conclusion, although there are clearly many potential nuclear threats that stem from Asia, how much of a threat are any of these potential issues to the United States? While Russia and China have large stockpiles of nuclear weapons, they are unlikely to attack the United States due to the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction. Although India and Pakistan may have a nuclear conflict in the future, both of those countries are far from the USA, and will likely leave the United States unscathed unless it chooses to involve itself in the conflict. Even North Korea, which makes direct threats against the United States, seems to be unlikely to follow through on its threats. Although North Korea does have nuclear weapons and the missiles to carry them long distances, their threats have repeatedly been extinguished through diplomatic means. Unfortunately, the biggest nuclear threat facing the United States is also the most difficult to detect or deter, the threat of a nuclear terrorist attack. Unlike other nations, it is unlikely that the theory of Mutually Assured Destruction applies to terrorist organizations. To make matters worse, unlike other nations which would likely have to use a ballistic missile, or some other detectable, long distance delivery system, a terrorist may be willing to use a nuclear weapon in a suicide attack, which could be much harder for security forces to detect. According to former Secretary of Defense William Perry “the chance of a nuclear terrorist incident within the next decade will be roughly 50 percent”. While it is uncertain if or when there will ever be another nuclear attack, it is certain that if there is no one would benefit from it. With the creation of the nuclear bomb humanity opened a door that it may never be able to close. Depending on the decisions that will be made in the future, nuclear energy may wind up leading to technologies that benefit all of mankind in ways that we cannot presently imagine, or it may lead to the destruction and irradiation of the entire Earth. To sum this all up only one thing in regards to nuclear weapons is certain; that it is absolutely terrifying that humanity now controls a power capable of utterly destroying itself, along with the rest of the planet.

Contributed by F.B.

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