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What explains nuclear choices in East Asia?

Author: Etel Solingen, University of California Irvine

The North Korean nuclear debacle has renewed academic debates over the predictive accuracy of theories of nuclear proliferation. A recent piece found most of those theories deficient for predicting that case.

Are the same mechanisms explaining past choices for nuclear proliferation or nuclear restraint still in place? How have unilateralist statements by US President Donald Trump affected each of those proclivities? And what theories explain East Asian leaders’ responses best?

‘Neorealist’ academic and policy circles have long held that the proliferation of nuclear weapons by one state will inevitably lead others in the region to follow suit. But counter to these decades-old predictions, the East Asian ‘usual suspects’ — Japan and South Korea — have so far refrained from developing nuclear weapons.

Over the last seven decades, Japan and South Korea have witnessed the nuclearisation of three of their neighbours — the Soviet Union (which then became Russia), China and North Korea. But even as North Korea boosts its nuclear and missile capabilities and doubles down on its direct threats, Japan and South Korea have stayed the course of nuclear restraint.

That a succession of nationalist leaders in both countries have maintained nuclear restraint makes this outcome even more at odds with the predictions of nuclear dominoes. Those leaders include Kishi Nobusuke’s grandson Shinzo Abe who in his eagerness to reaffirm alliance ties was the first regional leader to meet then President-elect Trump. While nobody can predict what will happen next, neither have the many thresholds already crossed by North Korea or China’s dramatic rise led to the ‘reactive’ nuclearisation that many had predicted.

A decade ago, Nuclear Logics: Contrasting Paths in East Asia and the Middle East sought to explain why reactive nuclearisation was not inevitable. The book also underscored the vital role that domestic political economy models can play in nuclear choices. Since the inception of the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1970, nuclear ambitions have been more likely to emerge in domestic and regional contexts dominated by inward-looking economic models that reject the global economy. Nuclear proliferation in the Middle East provides a good example.

By contrast, nuclear weapons’ acquisition in East Asia would have seriously undermined the internationalising strategies of economic growth, international competitiveness and global market access adopted by Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and others. Their choices favouring US alliances were linked to those models synergistically, and together these models and alliances helped to trump domestic demands for nuclear weapons.

The leading neorealist Kenneth Waltz had deemed alliances to be ill-equipped to prevent proliferation in a ‘self-help world’. Trump’s statements reinforced allies’ concerns that self-help and ‘America first’ could dilute alliance commitments and credibility. One year later, Trump appears to have reconsidered: during his visit to the region, he sought to offer reassurances to allies, as the United States itself becomes a potential target of Kim Jong-un’s nuclear program. However, having initially planted seeds of doubt, the damage to US alliances may be long lasting, which amplifies the centrality of East Asia’s internationalising models as barriers to nuclearisation.

Nuclear Logics also documented how, contrary to the region’s general trend, North Korea’s regime has been on a long-standing and consistent search for nuclear weapons since the 1950s. The key driver in that quest was the inward-looking model of extreme self-reliance (juche) that the Kims embraced to ensure regime survival. Nuclear weapons were to become the proverbial jewel in the Kims’ crown — one that they could wield to justify all penuries that most of the population was forced to endure. While invoking external threats, the Kim dynasty regarded nuclear weapons as a guarantee against internal uprisings of the kind that replaced dictators in Eastern Europe.

The invasions of Iraq and Libya by US and NATO forces conveniently reinforced the Kims’ narrative, as have the litany of threats from Trump and his attacks on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran. All these have enabled the North Korean regime to justify its intransigence at home and abroad, which has heightened the risks of conventional or nuclear confrontation.

Trump’s attempts to blame his predecessors for the debacle he faces are disingenuous. The Kims consistently defected from earlier US efforts to compromise. The regime may have never truly envisioned nuclear weapons as bargaining chips to be exchanged for economic benefits and security guarantees. Yet a comprehensive package that could turn around North Korea’s nuclear path should still be on the table, along with tight sanctions if the package is rejected.

Political economy models are crucially relevant for explaining proliferation patterns and Trump’s election by inward-looking constituencies wary of globalisation highlights that such models underlie politics everywhere.

For over 70 years the United States has played a crucial role in East Asia not merely by providing extended deterrence but by also underpinning East Asia’s internationalising models and economic transformation. Trump’s speech at the 2017 APEC meeting signalled an epochal abdication of that role, raising the question of whether East Asia’s commitment to internationalising models and nuclear restraint can endure.

Leaders gathered at the most recent APEC and Trans-Pacific Partnership 11 meetings reaffirmed commitments to stability and to the open global economy that enabled their success. This bodes well for the near future, but East Asian leaders must redouble their determination to subordinate disputes and tensions to that larger vision. Nor can they ignore inward-looking populist turns afflicting the United States, Europe and beyond as warning signs that internationalising models must continue to broaden the beneficiaries of open economies.

Etel Solingen is the Thomas T. and Elizabeth C. Tierney Chair in Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of California Irvine. She is the author of the Nuclear Logics: Contrasting Paths in East Asia and the Middle East; this piece revisits some of the themes of that book.

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