Our Brave New Nuclear World

So now we have a North Korea armed with long-range missiles and thermonuclear weapons. Make no mistake. This is the new normal. Pyongyang will never give them up, and no one can make them do so. 

The follow-on effects of this development will transform global politics and security policy. A wave of nuclear proliferation and military buildup is definitely to be expected. So one must ask: given our knowledge of what was going on in North Korea, how did we ever let this happen? Also we must ask, what realistically can be done to lower the threat of war?

In 1994, when President Bill Clinton announced the “agreed framework” with Pyongyang that he claimed to believe would solve the problem, I found myself in guest quarters at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. with my wife (from China) of just six years. President Clinton said, “North Korea will freeze and then dismantle its nuclear program. South Korea and our other allies will be better protected. The entire world will be safer as we slow the spread of nuclear weapons.”

The American president also stressed that security would be maintained and that United States determination was firm.

Puzzled, my wife asked me, “What is this man saying.” I responded, “This, my darling, is what in America we call an ‘empty threat’”  . . . and indeed it proved to be just that. Within six years, the CIA had detected North Korea’s clandestine program. In 2006, Pyongyang carried out her first nuclear test. “Experts” stated that alone North Korea was incapable of developing delivery systems or increasing the size of her arsenal. 2020 was given as the then conveniently remote date when Pyongyang might pose some rudimentary threat.

What went wrong? Intelligence failure of course. Inability to imagine what was going to happen as well. A failure of policy which sought to use negotiations and incentives (the provision of light water reactors) to bring Pyongyang around. Most important was a failure to take seriously the lessons of history.

Think of WWII. In Hitler’s time, the highest ranks of the military and security apparatus contained many opposed to war. They planned to carry out a coup if the Führer invaded Czechoslovakia. Those involved included Foreign Minister Konstantin von Neurath; Head of Intelligence Colonel Hans Osler; Head of Counter- Intelligence Admiral William Canaris; Chief of Staff of the Army Colonel-General Ludwig Beck, and  the opposition contained many others—less well organized, from political parties as well as Protestant and Catholic Christians.  When the Czech plans became known by the army, General Beck and others sent envoys to London and Paris who were rebuffed. Not, that is, until British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier came to terms with Hitler at Munich, in September 1938, sacrificing Czechoslovakia, thus inadvertently destroying the whole plan. Other plans were also made, but this one was perhaps the best chance. Reaching Czechoslovakia required passing through fortified mountain passes, and with the famous Škoda Works munitions factory supplying them, the efficient Czech army might well have broken Hitler’s momentum with a stalemate on difficult ground. It was, in other words, worth a try. The French and British governments should have reacted positively. Terrified, however, Chamberlain and others became intoxicated by a delusional vision of peace through sincere negotiation with Hitler and appeasement—i.e. letting him invade other countries, but not yours. The might-have-beens continue to add literature to an already substantial mountain of speculation.[1]

The historical lesson here is that often prairie fires are started by discarded matches showing almost no flame. Douse the match somehow and all will be well: otherwise, hundreds of thousands of acres may go up in a firestorm.

In geopolitical language, this means force or the credible threat of force are best used the instant a threat is detected. Civilized people, however, tend to place actual force far down the list—after engagement, negotiations, incentives, embargoes, etc. which do not work when a country is genuinely on the warpath.

Possibly, World War II could have been averted as late as 1938, but by 1939, Germany learned that the allies would not resist, so the war could only be fought to the bloody finish.[2]

Likewise, North Korea could have been stopped in 1994 by military threats or even strike operations against their nuclear facilities. Instead, we wasted time heedlessly and profligately. We weren’t even serious. No one had a gut sense of how bad things could really get. Yet, ask our people about how appeasement strengthened Hitler, and many could have given intelligent answers. But to them, this was history; it resided in their brains, but not their bones; they would never have made nor make such mistakes. 

At that time, we also still harbored grave delusions with respect to Beijing’s interest in cooperation on the issue. In fact, one year after Clinton’s speech, China’s government made her first tentative move toward what is now territorial expansion greater in size than even that of the Third Reich at its largest—with the annexation of Mischief Reef from the Philippines.

Had we or the Philippines sent forces simply to demolish this minor maritime feature, China might well have desisted. Likewise, had the allies prepared for war or actually fought over Czechoslovakia, Hitler would never have acquired the aura of invincibility that so benefited his campaigns.

Now, the new situation has ratcheted into place. South Korea and Japan will likely become full nuclear powers. The existing East Asian arms race will pass through India to the western borders of Russia, thus menacing Europe. No solution exists any more, except a balance of terror. Sad nay tragic, but SO human. Welcome to the pre-war period.


[1] See among many others, Peter Hoffmann, The History of the German Resistance 1933-1945 (Cambridge, MA: MIT press, 1997))

[2] See Williamson Murray, The Change in the Balance of Power (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984)

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China’s Nuclear Interest in the South China Sea

Economic and sovereignty interests are commonly cited as the reasons for China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea. The security of China’s sea-based nuclear deterrent could be added to that list of reasons.

Since the founding of the People’s Republic, China has worried about external threats—and justifiably so. During the Cold War, it faced down both the world’s superpowers, first the United States and then the Soviet Union. Both were armed with nuclear weapons at a time when China was still developing its own arsenal. But even after it successfully produced nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, China could not rest easy. It still had to ensure their survivability to create a credible nuclear deterrent.

China’s Sea-Based Nuclear Deterrent

Early on, China understood that ballistic missiles based on land would be more vulnerable to preemptive attack than those based under the sea.  And the longer they could stay under the sea, the safer they would be.  Thus, in the late 1950s, China began to acquire the technology needed for nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), which can operate underwater for long periods, and for their associated submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM).[1]

By the 1980s, China built its first SSBN, the Type 092 (or Xia-class), along with its first SLBM, the JL-1. Though only one Xia-class submarine ever became fully operational, China went to great lengths to protect it. Chinese engineers tunneled under a rocky promontory at Jianggezhuang, adjacent to the Yellow Sea, to provide the submarine with a hardened shelter. As it turned out, the Xia rarely went to sea during its service life.[2] But if it sailed into the Yellow Sea today, China might have some cause for concern, given the proximity of capable naval forces from Japan, South Korea, and the United States on the sea’s eastern edge.

China’s Southern Strategy

After the Cold War, China continued to improve its sea-based nuclear deterrent. About a decade ago, China began serial production of its second SSBN, the Type 094 (or Jin-class). So far, the Chinese navy has commissioned four Jin-class submarines; the completion of the JL-2 SLBM followed.[3] But years before the submarines entered service, China had already started construction on a new naval base for them that runs along Yalong Bay, near the South China Sea. With satellite imagery, one can see the grand scale of the new base.  (See image below.) It even features a submarine tunnel, like the one at Jianggezhuang, but with enough room for loading facilities and multiple submarines.[4]

Yalong Bay Naval Base

 

China’s Jin-class SSBNs are now regularly seen at the base.  (See image below.)  South of it is the South China Sea—a region increasingly dotted with Chinese military outposts and airfields. It is also a region with no navies capable of directly challenging China’s. Indeed, Chinese strategists may have envisioned the South China Sea to be a naval bastion, a partially enclosed area where China’s SSBNs could safely operate under the protection of friendly air and naval forces. The Soviet navy operated in the Barents Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk in much the same way during the Cold War.

Jin-class Submarines
Source: Jamestown Foundation

To be sure, the South China Sea carries drawbacks as a naval bastion. The biggest is probably the fact that operating there would put China’s SSBNs further from potential targets in the Western Hemisphere, though future SLBMs may have longer ranges. Still, the South China Sea does enable China to disperse more widely its undersea nuclear forces, and thereby improve their survivability. If China has come to see the South China Sea as important to the security of its sea-based nuclear deterrent, then those who hope that patient economic and diplomatic engagement will persuade China to change its behavior in the region are very likely to be disappointed, as they have been to date.


[1] John Wilson Lewis and Xue Litai, China’s Strategic Seapower: The Politics of Force Modernization in the Nuclear Age (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), pp. 23–125, 129–205.

[2] Stephen Saunders, ed., Jane’s Fighting Ships 2014-2015 (London: Jane’s Information Group, 2014), p. 128.

[3] Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2016 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, Apr. 2016), p. 26.

[4] Richard D. Fisher, Jr., “Secret Sanya: China’s new nuclear naval base revealed,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, May 2008, pp. 50–53.

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