””

Asia opts for a replay of Cold War nuclear deterrence

Nine national leaders have the power to unleash nuclear devastation but, if it were not for the actions of a traitorous Taiwanese colonel in 1988, that number would be at least 10.

Mr Chang Hsien-yi at 73 years old enjoys a quiet life in Idaho. For years, he has lived in secrecy in the United States because of fears he would be assassinated by Taiwanese agents for revealing the full extent of the island's secret nuclear weapons programme. His defection gave Washington the evidence it needed to force Taipei to shut down the project.

After decades of silence, Mr Chang has recently written a book on his role in this fascinating and little-known chapter of history. One of the revelations is that his actions, carried out mostly for idealistic reasons, halted Taiwan's project when it was just one or two years away from producing the bomb.

Most worrying of all is the fact that Taiwan - a self-ruled island that China has sworn to "reunify" with the mainland, by force if necessary - could secretly restart its programme at any time and probably produce a weapon within a similar timeframe.

Get The Straits Times
newsletters in your inbox

North Korea's sabre-rattling and headlong race to build a warhead that could reach the US has brought the modern arms race into focus in recent months.

Presented with the example of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, killed eight years after agreeing to abandon his nuclear weapons, the youthful North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un is unlikely to follow suit in response to threats or bribes.

That means, unless the US and its allies are willing to risk a devastating war to remove Mr Kim, regional governments will soon have to ask whether the US is willing to sacrifice Los Angeles for Tokyo or Seoul.

As the Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan points out, the answer is obviously "no". So the outcome is that Japan and South Korea will soon be forced to develop nuclear deterrents. As in the case of Taiwan, Japan has the capability to develop such weaponry quickly - and is likely to do so, even if US President Donald Trump does not follow through on his campaign promise to lift the US nuclear umbrella from over East Asia. Seoul will not be far behind.

If this scenario is now unavoidable, the question is what that means for peace and stability. Under the theory of deterrence, made popular during the Cold War, the prospect of mutually assured destruction dissuaded all sides from acting rashly.


Missiles on show during a military parade in North Korea. The regime's race to build a warhead that could reach the US has recently brought the modern arms race into focus. PHOTO: REUTERS

Mr Kausikan uses this same logic to argue that a nuclear arms race in North-east Asia would lead to a similar uneasy equilibrium. He believes a nuclear balance of terror would have the added benefit, from the perspective of Washington, Tokyo and Seoul, of freezing the status quo in the region and thwarting Beijing's revanchist goal of recreating an East Asian order with China at its apex.

Mr Kausikan is correct that a nuclear-free North Korea is now a very unlikely prospect. The regime will probably collapse, one day, in full possession of its nuclear arsenal, a terrifying prospect but one the world has seen before with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Unless that happens soon, nuclear build-up in the region is almost inevitable.

Faced with this prospect, it is tempting to be sanguine and gamble on the logic of deterrence.

Taiwan's nascent nuclear programme should make everybody pause. Beijing has sworn to carry out pre-emptive strikes if it believes Taipei is close to deploying its own weapon. But in a neighbourhood where everyone else has gone nuclear, could the world really expect Taiwan - or Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia or Australia - to restrain itself?

Unfortunately, the days when a single idealistic traitor could halt the advance of mass destruction are far behind us.

FINANCIAL TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 27, 2017, with the headline 'Asia opts for a replay of Cold War nuclear deterrence'. Print Edition | Subscribe