South Asian Nukes: International Relations 101

Mackubin T. Owens

June 1, 1998

It is easy to understand why so many people were shocked when India recently conducted a series of nuclear tests. After all, many experts, including those in the Clinton administration, have been pushing the optimistic line that the end of the Cold War means the diminution of security concerns throughout the world leading inevitably to an unprecedented era of international cooperation.

In those parts of the world where democratic principles prevail, e.g. North America, Western Europe, and Japan, something called "international society" has emerged. Under such limited circumstances, security concerns are indeed often subordinated in practice to the pursuit of prosperity. But we make a serious mistake if we confuse the international society that exists in certain parts of the world with the natural state of international affairs in the world as a whole.

In much of the world, states are faced with a continuous "security dilemma," a consequence of "international anarchy," which refers to the fact that in the international political system, actors have no common superior. Thus, the realm of international politics is one of "self-help" in which each state is the arbiter of its own security requirements. But what one state sees as defensive steps to protect its legitimate interests, another may see as an aggressive threat to its own security. The security dilemma is the primary cause of arms races.

Where some form of international society prevails, the security dilemma may be minimized. This is the case in Western Europe since World War II. It may also be minimized in an area where international society does not prevail as long as a "hegemonic" power can deter potential aggressors and reassure allies. This describes the situation in East Asia where US presence has provided security for a diverse set of nations that largely lack a common tradition of international society, thereby permitting the nations of the region to focus on economic development.

But the security dilemma lies just beneath the surface in international affairs. Anything that changes the balance of power can cause the security dilemma to reemerge. The logic of the security dilemma underlies the recent Indian nuclear tests. Unfortunately, the United States bears a substantial part of the responsibility for bringing these tests about by contributing to the change in the Asian power balance.

The main cause of this change has been China’s recent military buildup. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was reported to have been stunned by the overwhelming nature of the US Gulf War victory, which seemed to demolish Maoist "people’s war" dogma, upon which the doctrine of the PLA had been based. Funded by China’s remarkable economic growth over the last few years, the PLA subsequently set out to modernize its military forces, purchasing a vast array of militarily useful technology.

Confronted by a massive Chinese military buildup that poses a proximate threat to its security, India could not fail to respond. Unfortunately, the Indian nuclear tests are only the first round of a new Asian arms race. China’s ally Pakistan has now responded to India’s nuclear gambit, and India has threatened to raise the ante once again.

Which brings us to the US contributions to the emerging Asian arms race. On the one hand, the logic of the Indian security dilemma was reinforced by a 1995 Clinton administration decision permitting India to purchase nuclear technology for use in facilities not subject to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Administration (IAEA). But on the other, the main US stimulus to the Asian security dilemma has been technology transfers to China.

We do know that the Clinton Administration has been remarkably nonchalant about the Chinese military buildup and indeed, has been very happy to help China increase its military power. The US has sold China advanced machine tools that the PLA can use to build improved missiles and aircraft, supercomputers that can be used simulate nuclear tests, and satellite and missile launch technology that have improved the accuracy of Chinese ballistic missiles, many of which are capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

Of course, the administration has used the same "they started it" defense that it has employed against other charges. Presidential spokesman Mike McCurry claimed last week that "this administration has pursued the exact same policy pursued by the Bush administration." But while Ronald Reagan first allowed the launch of US satellites on Chinese missiles after the Challenger disaster in 1986, and George Bush waived the Tiananmen Square sanctions to permit five such launches, neither previous administration can match the Clinton administration’s eagerness to sell militarily useful technology to China.

The source of this eagerness seems to be the Clinton administration’s acceptance, hook, line, and sinker, of its own rhetoric of international cooperation. If "it’s the economy, stupid" in the international as well as the domestic arena, President Clinton’s decision in 1996 to override State Department objections and make it easier for US corporations to cooperate with Chinese aerospace companies; indeed to shift technology transfer policy in general from the Pentagon and State Department, which have an interest in national security, to the Commerce Department, which apparently doesn’t, makes sense.

The Indian nuclear tests illustrate that in the realm of international politics, security concerns still trump commercial ones. It is bad enough that by helping to arm the world’s most populous nation, we have reintroduced the security dilemma into Asia. But even more dangerous in the long term is that we will continue to be lulled into a sense of complacency by the rhetoric of perpetual international cooperation. After all, the last time the world was as "interdependent" as it is now was on the eve of World War I. And we know what happened then.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.