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Asia’s Nuclear Future

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This photo provided by the North Korean government shows what it says is a ballistic missile in North Pyongan Province, North Korea, on March 19, 2023. North Korea says that its ballistic missile launch simulated a nuclear attack against South Korea. The content of this image is as provided and cannot be independently verified. Credit: Korea Central News Agency/ Korea News Service via AP and The Diplomat.

Katie Putz, editor of The Diplomat, asked me to write an article looking at potential nuclear proliferation in Asia. The Diplomat is an online magazine that focuses on foreign policy issues in Asia. If you are interested in Asia, it’s worth subscribing.

The article is the April feature: Asia’s Nuclear Future and is behind the paywall.

I tried to look at the issues from the point of view of the countries involved, rather than an Americentric approach of What It Means For Us. I included Iran, and things look a little different there when you focus on Asia.

My bottom line is that I don’t expect any new nuclear weapons nations in the near future, but the situation is very fluid.

Several states in Asia have motives to proliferate, inspired by complex regional conflict dynamics and domestic ambitions alike. North Korea tests missiles. China builds up its nuclear arsenal and patrols the South China Sea aggressively. India, Pakistan, and China contest borders. Iran ratchets up its uranium enrichment. The mix of nuclear and non-nuclear nations and the complexity of the conflicts in Asia can make nuclear weapons look attractive.

On the other hand, Asia has nuclear weapon free zones too. The Treaty of Bangkok covers Southeast Asia, and Central Asia has its own treaty against nuclear weapons.

Japan and South Korea could build nuclear weapons relatively quickly, probably within a year. Iran seems to find the threat of building nuclear weapons most useful for its negotiations. Myanmar and Taiwan look like long shots. The temptation of nuclear weapons is always there, but so are the downsides of making oneself a target and the expense and opportunity costs of a program.

Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner

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