Asia, the US and Extended Nuclear Deterrence: Atomic umbrellas in the twenty-first century

Asia, the US and Extended Nuclear Deterrence Atomic umbrells in the twenty-first century - Copy

Author:      Andrew O’Neil

ISBN:          978-0415644945

Publisher: Routledge

Year:          2013

Price:         £24.99


Reviewed by Professor Zhiqun Zhu, Bucknell University, USA.

The US-Asia relationship is a topic of tremendous interest and importance for students of international relations and international security.  This book covers a critical yet less-studied issue in US-Asia military relations: America’s extended nuclear protection of its key allies in Asia–Japan, South Korea and Australia.  It examines how extended nuclear deterrence relationships have evolved over time in Asia and their prospects in the 21st century.  Despite its reaffirmed commitment to nuclear disarmament, the United States has strengthened its extended nuclear deterrence to its key Asian allies.  The reason, Professor O’Neil argues, is that there is a growing demand from these allies as Asia’s security appears uncertain.  Nuclear states are not the only players in global disarmament; demand from allies determines the buoyance of the nuclear umbrella in a region.  Of all the global regions, Asia is the least receptive to the idea of nuclear disarmament, suggests O’Neil (p. 1).

To illustrate his main thesis that America’s extended nuclear deterrence is demand-driven, O’Neil first provides a historical and theoretical analysis of nuclear deterrence and how it has evolved in the post-Cold War Asia.  He then proceeds with three cases of how US allies strive to obtain nuclear guarantees from the United States with different rationales.  Japan feels most threatened by China’s nuclear and conventional force modernization program. South Korea is obviously fixated on North Korea’s nuclear program and the question of how to deter Pyongyang from carrying out dangerous military provocations. Australia, facing no immediate security threat, is apparently taking a strategy of hedging against a potential deterioration of Asia’s security landscape and the longer-term possibility of it being subjected to nuclear coercion.

Japan, South Korea and Australia all have formidable conventional weapons already.  It speaks volumes about Asian security in the 21st century that all these countries have aimed to obtain an additional layer of deterrence from the United States.  The fundamental reason is that these countries are not confident about Asia’s security environment, especially with China’s rising power and its more robust foreign policy behavior in recent years as well as North Korea’s nuclear program and its opaque political system.  Given the security situation in Asia and the persistent needs from these allies, the United States is likely to continue with its extended nuclear deterrence in Asia. How exactly nuclear deterrence will evolve in Asia is to be determined by security developments in the region as well as domestic political developments in the United States and its allies.

The author notes that the nuclear umbrella provided by the United States is a valuable and effective nonproliferation tool.  There are proliferation pressures in Japan, South Korea and Australia as a result of America’s extended nuclear deterrence (pp. 122-3).  How serious is America’s security commitment to Asia?  Interestingly, all three US allies harbor doubts about the credibility of America’s extended nuclear deterrence.  That is perhaps why in recent years the United States has had a difficult time convincing others that its “pivot” to Asia is more than just rhetoric.  The author concludes by saying that on balance, extended nuclear deterrence has had a stabilizing effect on Asia since it provided additional assurances to its allies and instilled greater caution in the behavior of America’s potential adversaries, namely China and North Korea (p. 125).

One can hardly disagree with such an assessment, but some discussions about the counter-arguments will perhaps strengthen the book’s general thesis.  For example, despite the general peaceful environment in Asia, disputes and tensions have run high.  In addition, the Chinese view of US presence in Asia, including its extended nuclear umbrella to its allies, tends to be ambivalent.  In principle, China does not oppose US military presence in Asia, and the Chinese government publicly welcomes the constructive role the United States plays in Asia.  However, with Japanese foreign policy turning assertive under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, many Chinese scholars think that the US commitment to Japan based on the bilateral security treaty may have emboldened Tokyo to seek a policy of confrontation with China. The same can be said about Vietnam and the Philippines. China’s policy appears to be more aggressive now, but whether these US allies are taking advantage of America’s “pivot” policy and trying to get the most out of the current disputes with China is an interesting question to explore.

An overall theme of the book is that Asian states have become more focused on achieving security through a greater emphasis on nuclear weapons since the end of the Cold War.   One wonders whether the book overestimates the role of nuclear weapons in these countries’ strategic thinking and their relations with the United States.  The book does not offer clear evidence that these US allies specifically requested nuclear protection in the post-Cold War era.  The United States, on the other hand, has not explicitly offered nuclear assistance either in dealing with recent crisis such as the Cheonan sinking in 2010.  The author cites an International Crisis Group report saying that some Chinese scholars believe the Obama administration’s reassertion of extended nuclear deterrence in the wake of Cheonan was decisive in restraining North Korea from further aggressiveness (pp. 116-7).  It would be helpful if the author could point out who in the Obama administration made such a reassertion and when.

Granted, there are security arrangements between the United States and its allies, but does this mean that the United States will automatically use nuclear weapons to come to the defense of its allies regardless of likely domestic opposition both in the United States and its allies?  The book may have underestimated regional efforts to denuclearize such as the Six-Party Talks, of which both Japan and South Korea are members, together with the United States, China, Russia and North Korea. The efforts have not succeeded so far, but denuclearization is the common objective of North Korea’s neighbors.  Another example is the anti-nuclear movement in Japan that picked up the momentum again in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The discrepancy between a promise to offer nuclear protection and whether nuclear weapons can or will be employed warrants more attention in the study.  In this context, some discussion about the limits of nuclear deterrence such as domestic constraints in the United States and its allies is needed.

Regional security cannot be divorced from the region’s political economy.  Though the book has a narrow focus on extended nuclear deterrence, one wonders how Asian security can be discussed without mentioning the interwoven economic, cultural and social links among these states.  In other words, can we talk about extended nuclear deterrence in a security vacuum?  Is Asia’s security environment really that dire?  One can argue that growing economic interdependence may not prevent conflicts but certainly helps offset military tensions. Indeed the business communities in Asia have been putting a lot of pressures on their governments to lower the temperature.  It will also be interesting to study whether the US extended nuclear deterrence has contributed to arms race in Asia.

The book is about Asian security, or lack of it, in the contemporary world.  By focusing on the role of US nuclear umbrellas, the author seems to imply that Asian security is and probably can only be provided by America. An alternative argument is that Asian security will be an outcome of how the United States and China will manage their interactions in the years ahead.  The United States alone will not and cannot determine Asia’s future.  In this light, the book could have devoted some space to discussing the dynamic US-China relationship that has a profound impact on America’s relations with its allies and ultimately the security environment in Asia. The book touches upon power transitions in Asia but does not elaborate on how the United States and China as well as China and Japan are handling regional power transitions and how these power transitions will shape Asia’s future security. Arguably many of the security challenges in the region in recent years are related to these power transitions.

Finally, one can also contest the thesis that America’s extended nuclear deterrence is demand-driven.  It is a hard-sell to argue that America’s allies are shaping its Asia policy. What is America’s Asia policy?  What does America want from Asia?  How will the United States deal with a rising China?  What is the real purpose of America’s “pivot” to Asia?  Some discussions about America’s own interests in Asia and its overall strategy, including nuclear strategy, toward Asia will be very useful for understanding the big picture here.

Despite the above quibbles, overall the book does a fine job in presenting and elaborating on its main thesis of America’s demand-driven extended nuclear deterrence in Asia. One can learn quite a deal about the history, theory, rationale, and challenges associated with deterrence and America’s nuclear umbrella for its key Asian allies. Recent tensions in Asia make this book extremely timely and informative.

Suggested citation:

Zhiqun Zhu (2014). Review of “Asia, the US and Extended Nuclear Deterrence: Atomic umbrellas in the twenty-first century”, by Andrew O’Neil, East Asian Integration Studies, Vol. 7, no.27.