The Future of Arms Control is Global: Reconsidering Nuclear Issues in the Indo-Pacific
On Feb. 1, a reporter asked President Donald Trump if the announced U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty was as much about the Western Pacific as it was about Russia. In response, Trump affirmed his view that for the arms control pact to work, more countries would need to be added: “I hope that you’re able to get everybody in a big and beautiful room and do a new treaty that would be much better.”
The good news is that the Indo-Pacific region is flush with big, beautiful rooms where experts and officials can and should gather to discuss the future of arms control. What such gatherings might look like is a pressing but under-explored question. Rectifying this imbalance must begin with a recognition of the many ways in which Indo-Pacific nations shape the international nuclear landscape. This region is likely to play a variety of roles — with and without the United States and Russia — in shaping the future of global arms control. For the United States, it will be imperative to launch new arms control dialogues with regional allies and find productive ways to engage with China and identify potential mutual gains.
Nuclear Affairs in the Indo-Pacific
In the United States, discussion of Indo-Pacific nuclear weapons issues often centers on how existing and developing nuclear weapon capabilities in the region affect U.S. strategic calculations. Imagining future arms control pathways that could more deeply integrate the Indo-Pacific requires recognizing that along with the region’s mix of both nuclear weapons advances and restraint, its nations have long played important roles in arms control and nuclear risk reduction.
Indo-Pacific countries have engaged in numerous efforts to mitigate nuclear weapons threats. All 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are party to the region’s nuclear weapon-free zone. Australia has long played a leading role in strengthening export control regimes and countering weapons of mass destruction. Japan has for decades led in international nuclear diplomacy: For example, it has for 25 straight years introduced a United Nations resolution calling for the eventual elimination of all nuclear weapons, often angering both nuclear-armed states and countries that seek faster progress toward nuclear disarmament. More than a dozen Indo-Pacific countries signed onto the 2017 nuclear weapons ban treaty. Many are partners in the Missile Technology Control Regime.
In spite of these strong voices and actions — and the risks stemming from the gradually expanding nuclear weapons capabilities in the region — there is insufficient exploration of how to more effectively include Indo-Pacific countries in arms control concepts. This reflects the fact that the United States and the Soviet Union have rightly long dominated the conversation because they hold tens of thousands of nuclear weapons at Cold War heights and each still deploys more than 1,000 strategic nuclear weapons today. China in particular has long held that the United States and Russia must bring their numbers of nuclear weapons far lower (closer to the approximately 300 or fewer other possessing states likely have) before it will engage in meaningful discussions on caps and reductions.
Beyond numbers mismatch, the sheer complexity of nuclear issues in the Indo-Pacific has stalled the region’s fuller integration into arms control discourse. Most of the region’s nuclear weapon-possessing countries are not party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), including India and Pakistan. This clouds all discussions on nuclear weapons, civil nuclear cooperation, and broader security issues. The international community constantly contends with the question of how to better bring non-NPT nuclear weapon-capable states into international norms and frameworks while avoiding steps that may encourage other countries to withdraw from the treaty or otherwise lower nuclear governance standards. Moreover, of course, the North Korean threat has loomed for decades, and its recent progress in nuclear and missile capabilities — and opening to diplomacy, however sincerely or insincerely it is being pursued — further complicates the region’s nuclear landscape.
Amid such complexity, no singular, sweeping approach to arms control will work in the Indo-Pacific — just as U.S.-Soviet and later U.S.-Russian arms control progress resulted from a series of diverse agreements and policy shifts over many decades of effort. The international community should develop a menu of options that over time could form a similarly strong web of nuclear constraints.
A Multitude of Options
The United States and Russia are both Pacific nations, so the trajectory of nuclear measures involving these two countries will certainly shape the future of Indo-Pacific arms control. Both countries must resume bilateral work on steps to reduce their nuclear arsenals, and future U.S.-Russian arms control agreements should certainly include mechanisms for additional countries joining over time. Yet this will be only one aspect; there are many options for arms control measures to extend to the Indo-Pacific. Some may include active U.S. and Russian participation, while others will not.
In substance, future arms control pacts may be most likely to focus first on countries abstaining from developing or deploying new types of nuclear capabilities. While China, India, and Pakistan are all striving toward full nuclear triad capabilities, beyond that, there are other, more specific capabilities that no Indo-Pacific countries currently possess or that are only present on a very small scale. These capabilities present an opportunity. Countries across the region likely share a common interest in preventing the proliferation of nuclear-armed cruise missiles, given their uniquely destabilizing characteristics. A measure limiting these missiles would not require China, India, or Pakistan to cut back their current nuclear arsenals; it would only require them to refrain from fully developing stocks of this class of nuclear weapons.
The same may also hold for coupling nuclear and hypersonic capabilities, and for marrying stealthy missiles to stealthy delivery platforms in air-based systems. Giving countries confidence that such systems are only armed with conventional payloads would significantly reduce the risk of nuclear war.
New arms control concepts may also focus on specific attributes that cross a variety of systems. For example, global awareness is growing regarding the danger of new nuclear weapon capabilities that introduce unnecessary risks of miscalculation and inadvertent escalation. International dialogue on reducing ambiguity is expanding. New arms control agreements might focus on dual-capable missile systems that may be either nuclear or conventional. Multiple countries, particularly those in close proximity, agreeing to keep specific systems conventional-only could prove invaluable. Alex Bell and Andrew Futter have recommended that new arms control concepts could emerge from discourse on “points of agreement on dangers” such as unauthorized launch of nuclear weapons.
Just as they have in the past, future nuclear agreements will take a variety of formats. Formal treaties with strong verification are critically important, but they are not the only option. New arms control deals may begin with political commitments, and may or may not evolve over time into legally binding agreements. Future pacts may be bilateral, “minilateral,” or multilateral.
We’ve heard these and other ideas often in our conversations with officials and experts in many Indo-Pacific nations. From a U.S. perspective, it is important to develop tracks to explore many creative approaches, yet figuring out how to do so will require care and sequencing.
Start With Allies
The United States should launch new tracks of dialogue with its Pacific allies on how the future of arms control can enhance their security.
Notably, there are several existing deterrence-focused dialogues among U.S. and allied officials. But as we wrote recently, these dialogues often tilt toward merely justifying U.S. decisions: “Dialogues that are intended to reassure allies can easily bleed into sales pitches that seem designed to convince our partners to support new nuclear capabilities — even those that may seem redundant or excessive, or put them at greater risk.” Moreover, there is a dearth of similarly in-depth bilateral conversations about the role of arms control in bolstering regional security.
In many ways, the U.S.-Japan alliance remains strong and grounded in deep, respectful collaboration. However, nuclear issues are frequently thorny. In 1991, as part of his Presidential Nuclear Initiatives, President George H.W. Bush announced the withdrawal of nuclear Tomahawk sea-launched cruise missiles from the Asia-Pacific. Many Japanese officials were taken aback by the near-total lack of consultation with or advance notification to their country. This history still colors bilateral discourse and official Japanese statements regarding U.S. nuclear weapons decisions — as does, of course, the U.S. decision to drop nuclear weapons on Japan in 1945. In 2016, then-foreign minister Fumio Kishida hosted his G7 counterparts for a forum on nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation in Hiroshima, the target of the first U.S. nuclear attack on Japan. Though the final foreign ministers’ statement acknowledged the “human suffering” caused by the use of nuclear weapons, for months in advance U.S. officials pushed against acknowledging the humanitarian effects of nuclear attacks. In 2018, the United States abstained from backing Japan on its aforementioned U.N. resolution on disarmament. These past challenges show the urgency of a concerted bilateral dialogue on how future arms control agreements can advance U.S.-Japan alliance interests.
Close coordination with South Korea on these challenges is essential as well, and not just because the denuclearization of North Korea is a shared imperative. The United States and South Korea should work together to prevent the spread of more usable nuclear capabilities and risky deterrence concepts that place the Korean Peninsula in the crossfire. This is an important lesson from the INF Treaty, which reduced the threat of nuclear warfighting in Cold War Europe by eliminating destabilizing classes of nuclear weapons that were most likely to be used on that territory.
Finally, public debate on nuclear weapons in Australia has expanded in recent years, highlighting the importance of deep U.S. Australia dialogue on arms controls. Ideas span from the country signing onto the ban treaty, to hosting U.S. nuclear weapons, to developing an Australian nuclear arsenal.
The United States should also continue supporting Indo-Pacific countries in expanding their exchanges with European and NATO counterparts, and backing diplomatic leadership by Japan and Australia in minilateral fora like the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative. Deeper collaboration, building on the region’s already substantial efforts to reduce nuclear risk, would help define a strong leadership role for the United States and its allies in Indo-Pacific arms control and serve as important tool of U.S. reassurance.
Find Ways to Talk to China
There is plenty of common ground that allows the United States and China to begin exploring common interests that could inform future arms control and nuclear risk reduction measures. Some contours of how such cooperation may proceed are already clear.
The notion that China can simply roll into existing nuclear arms control frameworks, such as the longstanding Russian proposal to multilateralize the INF Treaty, is unrealistic. Likewise, frameworks focused solely on nuclear weapons numbers will not fly so long as China remains so far below any sort of parity with the United States or Russia. On top of China’s already complex strategic calculations with Russia and the United States, it must also account for dynamics with India, Pakistan, and North Korea, among other considerations.
Still, China may have a strong interest in preventing escalation risks along its borders, through an uptick either in the numbers of non-strategic nuclear weapons or in the types of nuclear weapons in the region. Highly focused arms control measures could help address specific challenges like these.
In our private discussions in Beijing since leaving government service, some of the strongest concerns we’ve heard focus on nuclear capabilities that could undermine China’s command and control or second-strike abilities. Early warning of attack seemed to play a central role in our interlocutors’ perceptions of stable deterrence. James Steinberg and Michael O’Hanlon offered similar observations in their 2014 book, Strategic Reassurance and Resolve: U.S.-China Relations in the Twenty-First Century, in which they suggested promoting mutual trust by “reducing as much as possible the ambiguity and uncertainty associated with unilateral security policies,” and providing “timely indicators and warnings of any less benign intentions to allow each side adequate time to adjust its own policies.”
Even if it begins with unofficial or academic discussions, the United States and China must work toward better understanding of one another’s definitions of strategic stability. Tong Zhao of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy recently noted how jarring to Chinese officials it was when the 2018 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review “conspicuously dropped the previous US commitment to maintaining strategic stability with China.” He rightly emphasizes the importance of dialogue to explain each side’s understanding of strategic stability. Other nuclear experts have recommended the same step as a multilateral exercise to identify nuclear risk reduction steps of common interest to countries across Asia, Europe, and the Americas.
In the immediate term, the region is paying attention to questionable claims that INF-violating weapons would significantly expand U.S. military options vis-a-vis China. Statements by some defense leaders and experts that intermediate-range missiles would expand U.S. optionality for saving money while helping to deter China are certainly being heard across the Indo-Pacific. This commentary unnecessarily raises tensions with China and puts allied publics on edge at a time when it is important to be building political will for meaningful engagement.
America’s current footprint of conventional and nuclear sea- and air-based systems and some elements in development, like the new B-21 long-range bomber, are sufficient for U.S. needs at this time. There are valid arguments for thought processes for examining potential U.S. military options that may be opened if poor U.S. and Russian decisions lead to the total collapse of the INF Treaty (as defense planning must include both smart and terrible policy decisions), and we agree it is long overdue that the United States diminish the separation between its trans-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific strategies. But such strategy work and military analysis can be done in ways that avoid blurring potential nuclear and conventional intentions. This planning can also be conducted in private with careful communications to both allies and countries like China to minimize the risks of Indo-Pacific countries misinterpreting U.S. actions. Most importantly, equal or greater effort must go toward developing concepts for arms control and restraint. In the near term, new U.S. moves to deploy ground-launched intermediate-range missiles as part of its response to threats from China would be a mistake. Beyond the lack of military need, this would undermine any prospect of even unofficial U.S.-China dialogue on the future of arms control.
Continued U.S.-Russian progress in nuclear weapons reductions is imperative, but the future of arms control is global. Countries of the Indo-Pacific region will play a variety of roles in shaping that future.
For America’s part, it should turn back toward smarter nuclear decisions and work on enhancing its moral authority. In the Indo-Pacific in particular, the United States will have no credible voice in helping to halt rising nuclear risks so long as it pursues its own new nuclear weapons capabilities. And while we welcome the prospect of countries in this critical region advancing arms control agreements themselves, it will best serve U.S. interests to remain deeply involved.
Incorporating the Indo-Pacific into the global future of arms control will be anything but simple. But if the INF Treaty taught us anything, it is that history-altering nuclear agreements take years of work to shape, negotiate, and implement, but the security dividends they pay can last generations.
Andy Weber is the former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs (ASD-NCB) where he directed the Nuclear Weapons Council. Christine Parthemore was formerly the senior advisor to the (ASD-NCB). Both have lived and worked in the Indo-Pacific region and are now with the Council on Strategic Risks. You can follow Weber on Twitter @AndyWeberNCB and Parthemore @CLParthemore.
Image: MSGT Jose Lopez Jr.