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The Eurasian Challenge to Nuclear Non-Proliferation

January 4th, 2016

By Davis Florick – Junior Fellow

For the foreseeable future, the nuclear non-proliferation community may be faced with mounting challenges not from the United States, but from various Eurasian governments seeking to significantly alter geopolitical conditions. Throughout the seventy years of the nuclear age, Washington and Moscow were regarded as the global nuclear weapons leaders both qualitatively and quantitatively. While the US and Russia still enjoy numerical and, to a lesser extent, technological advantages, the gaps with other states are beginning to close. Governments in Beijing, Islamabad, New Delhi, and Pyongyang are exploring opportunities for expansion, modernization, or a combination of both to reconfigure geopolitical dynamics. Meanwhile, nuclear programs or latent capability in Jerusalem and Tehran have motivated governments in Ankara, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, and elsewhere to reexamine their postures. Unfortunately, as both horizontal proliferation (additional states acquiring nuclear weapon capabilities) and vertical proliferation (advancements in weapons technology, quantity, or both) are contemplated, the likelihood of “global zero” seems an ever-more distant goal. Collectively, potential proliferation concerns challenge the prospects for drawdowns today and place in doubt the probability of denuclearization over the long term.

Five states in Eurasia are taking the lead in nuclear weapon modernization and/or increased warhead inventories: China, India, North Korea, Pakistan, and Russia have embarked on ambitious programs designed to reform and update their arsenals. Considering that each case offers unique elements that compound the overall proliferation issue, a brief examination of a few key developments for each state is warranted.

  1. China is estimated to possess approximately 260 Having introduced the new JIN class ballistic missile nuclear submarine (SSBN), Beijing now possesses a more survivable capability. Additionally, the expansion of its road-mobile ballistic missile arsenal compounds matters because these systems further complicate the ability of other states to monitor China’s nuclear forces.
  2. India is estimated to possess approximately 90-110 In the summer of 2015, open source analysts reported that New Delhi was expanding a covert uranium enrichment plant which can produce a substantial overage of nuclear material and can be capable of supporting an increased number of warheads. The new enrichment plant will also support three new SSBN’s, capable of carrying either four or twelve nuclear-tipped warheads.
  3. North Korea is estimated to possess approximately 8 As Pyongyang continues to reduce the size of its nuclear warheads, thereby making them more operationally practical, systems such as the road-mobile KN-08 missile may increase the viability of its intercontinental capabilities.
  4. Pakistan is estimated to possess approximately 100-120 Islamabad’s recent announcement that it would use non-strategic nuclear weapons (NSNW), including the Nasr missile, against New Delhi’s conventional forces only heightens regional tensions. More broadly, Pakistani officials openly discuss the possibilities of increasing their warhead stockpile and the scenarios in which they would consider nuclear use acceptable.
  5. Russia is estimated to possess approximately 8,000 Of note, this number includes NSNW capabilities and aging systems in line for elimination. Regardless, Moscow’s modernization efforts across all three legs of its nuclear triad – air, sea, and land – and its NSNW upgrades could potentially spark major arms races across the nuclear community.

The abovementioned items are some of the major headlines for each program. Clearly, the current assault on the non-proliferation agenda is broad and extensive. However, the real issue is not necessarily what these five have done, but what responses their decisions might precipitate from other states. Taken in conjunction with questions over Washington’s willingness to become embroiled in any Asia-Pacific conflict, concerns about possible nuclear and conventional arms races are changing the acquisition precepts for many regional states.

In the Far East, attitudes are shifting as fears of potential Chinese aggression increase. States including, but not limited to, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Vietnam have explored the possibility of developing indigenous nuclear weapon programs. Indeed, their ongoing civil energy projects offer the technical expertise to produce a potential capability in expedited timeframes. Considering mounting support for acquisition, for instance a majority of South Koreans recently said they would support Seoul acquiring its own nuclear weapons, states across the region may find it unacceptable to sit back. As a result, due to misperceptions and misunderstandings leading to miscalculation, a push to improve defense armaments – including nuclear capabilities – is well within the realm of the possible. Considering the potential for proliferation across the region, maintaining the status quo, including successful localized nuclear weapon free zones supported by the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), appears difficult.

Tensions in the Middle East, due largely to ethnic and sectarian divisions, could motivate a number of states to explore developing nuclear assets. Deep concerns over Iran’s potential to circumvent its nuclear agreement, combined with its conventional capabilities and support of non-state actors, have opened the possibility of horizontal proliferation. From the perspective of all involved, the challenges to regional stability may well warrant a guarantee of regime survival. Indeed, should the Middle East outlook devolve further, Ankara and Riyadh could be the first of a handful of states to pursue some sort of indigenous nuclear capability. Considering the current volatility in the region, horizontal proliferation in the Middle East may prove to be more disconcerting from an international perspective than are acquisitions in the Asia-Pacific region. Certainly the efforts to formalize a Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone would come to an end, marking a major failure for the 2010 NPT Review Conference’s Action Plan.

Having considered the potential for nuclear proliferation across Eurasia, there is utility in examining the impact these dynamics are already having. The NPT holds a review conference every five years, which, more often than not, concludes with a final statement. At the 2015 Conference, language in the culminating document could not be agreed upon. While there may be many reasons behind this development, there are two leading explanations. First, the major nuclear states are deeply divided over how best to pursue nuclear reductions. For instance, Russia would prefer further drawdowns to include capabilities beyond nuclear weapons like ballistic missile defense. Similarly, China desires Russia and the US incur substantial reductions prior to any discussion of multilateral nuclear arms control. Second, despite their divisions, the nuclear powers seem to be in agreement that the most strident anti-nuclear weapon states have taken nonnegotiable positions with regards to disarmament. Regrettably, some of the staunchest supporters of “global zero” have attempted to ban nuclear weapons with seemingly little consideration for the geopolitical ramifications. At the plethora of proliferation meetings, issues such as the pace of reductions and the Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone are becoming stagnant. Quite possibly of greater concern, the Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone has come under criticism recently with regional threats motivating a reexamination of the accord. Invariably, across the board the supporters of nuclear drawdowns appear to be losing the momentum once ignited under President Obama’s early years in office.

Beyond the current challenges to nuclear drawdowns, there are three more substantial long-term issues that must be examined. First, the US-Russia New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (NST) expires in 2021. In the context of current tensions, the probability of a follow-on agreement is low. A rapid increase in nuclear weapons by either side is unlikely, but without the transparency and verification mechanisms of NST, the chances for misperception and misunderstanding will likely increase. Second, India’s, Israel’s, North Korea’s, and Pakistan’s continued separation from the NPT calls into question the potential for negotiated multilateral reductions. Without their full inclusion in the nuclear drawdown dialogue, the ability to limit both horizontal and vertical proliferation will be minimized. Third, while the nuclear states have approached arms control cautiously, the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons (HINW) body has pushed hard to attain a more strident ban on nuclear weapons. In the process, it has divided proponents of de-nuclearization between those seeking a rapid draw down versus those pursuing a more gradual decline. Unfortunately, each of these three issues will create major tensions in the debate on nuclear weapons. Rather than fostering an environment in which “global zero” becomes increasingly feasible, over the long term Eurasian states are moving disarmament increasingly out of reach.

The future of non-proliferation could well hinge upon events in the next few years. NST’s expiration in less than six years will offer an assessment of where the two leading nuclear powers stand.  At one time, there were hopes the agreement could evolve into a multilateral arms control initiative, but if the US and Russia cannot find common ground bilaterally, hope for a broader accord will fade. Similarly, should Iran circumvent its deal or if North Korea or Pakistan were to export their nuclear expertise, either actions may incentivize horizontal proliferation. Even disagreement within the denuclearization community has arisen in recent years as the slow progress toward elimination has become unacceptable to some. Indeed, with the risks of Eurasian states increasing their stockpiles and exporting knowledge and technology, the threats to a future “global zero” have never been greater.

About Davis Florick

Davis Florick is a Senior Fellow in the Security and Defence division. He recently completed his master's in East-West Studies at Creighton University and is a member of the 2015 Nuclear Scholars Initiative with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. His foreign relations areas of concentration include, East Asia and the former Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union.