The Counter Proliferation (CP) challenge in the Asia Pacific (AP) region is more complex than at first meets the eye. A mix of state and non-state actors (NSAs) are engaged in proliferation activities across the many wide-open seams of ungoverned spaces that exist in the region and between the PACOM and CENTCOM AORs. These spaces are physical, ideological, political and temporal. Asia has been an afterthought compared to the Middle East in US foreign policy for the past decade. At the same time, the US security alliance system in the region is under challenge. Long removed from the Philippines and unlikely to be invited back, the US is under pressure to move units from Okinawa. The problems extend beyond military force posture. Both the US nuclear umbrella and the Non Proliferation Treaty appear weak at best, and a chimera at worst, thereby tempting legitimate states to consider developing their own nuclear deterrent.
Rather than think of CP in geographic terms, it makes more sense to see CP as a nexus of overlapping lines of operations (LOO) of anti-democratic regimes and anti-civilizational terrorist groups. Some LOOs, nuclear and missile technology transfer, small arms, money laundering, and maritime transshipment for example, connect the dots between unusual bedfellows, such as PRC - North Korea - Myanmar - Iran - Syria - Hezbollah.
There are a range of scenarios in the CP nexus. In some cases the likelihood of a scenario is low, but the consequence of it happening are extreme. In others, both likelihood and consequences are high. Getting the assessment right across the LOOs is a significant challenge for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is finding an analyst who can weave together intelligence across the LOOs, as well as thematic, state, and non-state intelligence streams into a common operating picture of the hydra-headed challenge that is CP. The scenarios include:
- Pakistan collapses and its nuclear weapons and their triggers are compromised.
- Pakistan and US break ties and Pakistan responds by dramatically escalating its proliferation to Iran, possibly working in consort with the PRC and/or DPRK.
- Iran completes the development of the nuclear cycle and moves to weaponize its material.
- Syria seeks to enhance regime security against Arab Spring elements by restarting its nuclear program halted by Israeli strike in 2006.
- Nuclear power plants and associated arms race in the Gulf, in response to Iranian developments.
- North Korea continues to export delivery vehicles and related technologies for hard currency (ongoing).
- Myanmar’s suspected nuclear programs and transshipment point for NK and PRC (see text box below).
- PRC uses proliferation to keep the focus of US effort off its main strategic activities (on going).
- An individual emerges who can alter the WMD balance of terror in ways we cannot yet estimate – the AQ Khan scenario.
In anticipation of these developments, friendly states have significant reasons to develop their own nuclear deterrent. What might be the tipping point for Japan and/or Australia to go nuclear? Kurt Campbell’s book explains the five reasons why friendly states might adopt WMD programs.
- Change in direction of U.S. foreign/security policy
- Breakdown of global non-proliferation regime
- Erosion of regional/global security
- Domestic imperatives
- Increasing availability of technology*
All of these issues are currently in play in the Asia Pacific region. For just one example, given North Korea’s extensive proliferation track record, its unprovoked military attacks (the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong incidents being the most recent), missile launches, and bellicose rhetoric, the non-proliferation restraint of Japan is remarkable and cannot be explained away due to its Constitution and anti-nuclear culture.
Japan’s defense posture has been finely calibrated on a parity calculus against its principle competitors. Since 2006 its parity has been slipping relative to the military balance in NE Asia and the consequences of proliferation between the region and the wider world. Japan is now under a whole new umbrella – that of both the PRC and DPRK missile envelope. In fact there is a diminishing case for US forces to be deployed in numbers in Japan due to their vulnerability to a first strike by the PRC.
The Okinawa issue is problematic for the Japanese government in light of China’s military build up. Together with its recent tsunami and overall stagnant economic situation, there may come a point where a nuclear deterrent will appear to be a cost effective solution to a wide range of strategic and domestic challenges. The impact of all of this on the US position in Asia and US prestige globally are plain for all to see.
Like the CT challenge, the CP challenge is increasingly at the individual level. Whether acting on behalf of rogue regimes or transnational terrorist groups, the rise of the individual within the CP matrix vastly complicates the challenge. There is a shadow coalition of the willing stalking the world – a shadow coalition of proliferators. It is linked via informal and formal networks like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Beijing’s answer to NATO in central Asia (focused on energy security, control of minorities, and engagement with those states whose interests are inimical to those of the US and its partners). Members of the shadow coalition use proliferation to alter the global balance of power in their favor and indirectly undermine the US and its allies. It’s a very high-risk strategy given the dramatically heightened possibility of miscalculation or overreaction between the players involved. The DPRK, Hezbollah, Pakistan and AQ are not well known for their moderation or restraint.
But the good news is that there are many seams among and between the shadow coalition of proliferators. The challenge of the US is designing a comprehensive approach from the strategic level (global political efforts as well as military posturing and cooperation, like the PSI) to ‘on the ground’ strike teams, to work the seams from both an intelligence, as well as an operational, angle. It will be challenging work. But it is work for which the US has been finely honing its skills over the past decade. The individually targeted Intel and SOF driven CT efforts culminating in the spectacularly successful operation against OBL, are precisely the kind of skill sets that will be required in many aspects of the future CP challenge.
*Kurt Campbell et al, The Nuclear Tipping Point: Why States Reconsider Their Nuclear Choices, Washington DC: Brookings, 2004. See also Scott Sagan, “Rethinking Nuclear Proliferation: Three Models in Search of a Bomb,” in The Coming Crisis: Nuclear Proliferation, U.S. Interests, and World Order, ed. Victor Utgoff (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000.
Another concern is Myanmar’s relations with North Korea and fears surrounding its access to weapons of mass destruction. In June 2009, the press reported that the North Korean cargo ship Kang Nam might be making a port call in Myanmar. The US military was tracking the Kang Nam because of suspicions that it was carrying embargoed weapons. Myanmar announced beforehand that it would not permit the ship to enter port and, in fact, the Kang Nam did not put in in Myanmar. In May 2007, another North Korean freighter entered Yangon harbor and reportedly unloaded a shipment of small arms. The United States apparently suspects that, in addition to direct arms dealing between the two nations, Myanmar is providing transit services for weapons exports from North Korea to Syria and Iran. Then, in July 2009, it was reported that General Thura Shwe Mann, defense services chief of staff, had visited North Korea in November 2008, at which time he signed a memorandum on the development of closer military cooperation between the two countries and also inspected missile manufacturing facilities and other sites.
In August 2009, citing as its source Burmese refugees, an Australian newspaper reported that Myanmar, with North Korean cooperation, was building a nuclear reactor and plutonium extraction facility underground in the mountains to the north of the country with the aim of deploying nuclear weapons by 2014. Since 2002, Myanmar has also been cooperating with Russia on nuclear energy. In June 2007, the two countries signed a nuclear cooperation agreement under which Russia, in addition to helping Myanmar establish a nuclear research center— which would include a light water research reactor—would provide testing support and training of scientists, engineers and technicians. Myanmar informed the International Atomic Energy Agency of the agreement and said that it will place all nuclear materials, equipment, and installations that result from the arrangement under IAEA safeguards, declaring that these would not be used for military purposes. While there is no official confirmation of such uses, it would be a major problem if Myanmar turns out to be involved secretly in the development of nuclear weapons.
Source: East Asia Strategic Review, National Institute of Defense Studies, Tokyo, 2010, pp.144-145 http://www.nids.go.jp/english/publication/east-asian/e2010.html