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A new Cold War is developing in Asia Pacific, and nuclear weapons are set to play an increasingly important role in the strategies of both the U.S. and China. Nuclear posturing exacerbates the conventional arms race already underway in the Region.

Military vehicles carrying DF-5B liquid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) march past the Tiananmen Rostrum during the military parade to commemorate the end of World War II and Japans capitulation in Beijing, China, 3 September 2015.

Over the past decade, China has made remarkable strides in its nuclear weapons capabilities. The military parade last September, ostensibly to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War, rolled out a series of new nuclear-capable missiles in a gesture to underline China’s military advances. It was a show of strength to address what Beijing perceives as U.S. efforts to contain China’s rise.

The two Pacific powers are caught in a classical security dilemma, in which each side assumes the worst about the intentions and actions of the other and reacts with measures to strengthen its defenses. Those measures are seen as further evidence for hostile intentions and aggressive designs by the first party, which feels justified in increasing its own military preparations. The result of such a dilemma is an arms race like the one that is currently underway between the U.S. and China.

But the scenario in East Asia is more complicated than a struggle between an established and a rising superpower. Regional tensions on the Korean peninsula and in the South China Sea are dangerously contributing to instability of the global (nuclear) balance of power.

Beijing views U.S.-led anti-missile system as provocation

The rogue nuclear power North Korea is keeping its neighbours on edge. Pyongyang’s initial nuclear capabilities already threaten South Korea and Japan, and within a few years, parts of the U.S. mainland may be within their reach. Disappointed with China’s inability or unwillingness to reign in its ally, South Korea has now decided to strengthen its defenses against the North Korean missile threat by deploying THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense), a U.S. anti-missile system.

Washington has been keen to share THAAD with South Korea and Japan, not only to protect its East Asian allies. It also wants to get its two uneasy partners Tokyo and Seoul to cooperate more closely on defence matters. The THAAD systems deployed in and around Korea and Japan would have exactly this effect: shooting down an incoming North Korean missile will require close coordination of missile defence command and control.

Such a de-facto collective defence alliance between America, Japan and South Korea around THAAD would not only target North Korea, but it would also strengthen U.S. containment of China. Defence planners in Washington may see possible side benefits in the powerful TPY-2 radar of the THAAD weapons system: it could be easily reconfigured so as to provide deep insights into Chinese air space.

It should thus not be a surprise that China views the deployment of THAAD as a provocation. It feels encircled by Washington and its allies in the region and worries about possible disarming attacks on its own nuclear deterrent against the U.S. (note the nefarious psycho-logic of the security dilemma at work!). The current situation probably reminds Beijing of Washington’s unsuccessful attempt to get Seoul and Tokyo to join in a collective defense organization along the lines of NATO in the 1960s.

South China Sea plays role in nuclear calculations

Current tensions in the South China Sea also have to be viewed in connection with strategic motives and nuclear deterrence. The leadership in Beijing feels provoked by the recent tribunal ruling in The Hague, which undermines the legal foundations of China’s military activities in the South China Sea. Beijing has made clear that it will not accept this decision – and the motives may extend beyond pure nationalism. China seems to see the South China Sea as a key area for deploying its submarine-based nuclear deterrent against the U.S.

After the decision in The Hague, China made it amply clear that it will not give up its aspiration to control the region and to counter perceived U.S. efforts to contain its rise. One of its more aggressive responses to the tribunal ruling has been the announcement of joint Chinese-Russian military exercises in the South China Sea in September.

In light of the increasingly tense standoff, it is extremely worrisome that military strategists and planners on both sides are constantly raising the stakes. Concerned about the vulnerability of its own nuclear deterrent in the case of surprise attacks, the Chinese military is reportedly considering to adopt a nuclear posture of "launch on warning" or “launch under attack”. While not yet part of China’s official nuclear strategy, such plans set off alarm clocks among experts in the West: in an acute crisis, such a posture can have catastrophic consequences. Nuclear war might be started by an accident or false information.

Disarmament remains a distant dream

Conversely, there does not seem to be much concern among American military planners about Chinese sensitivities. Washington is charging ahead with a one trillion dollar programme to overhaul and upgrade its nuclear arsenals over the next thirty years. This programme hollows out earlier commitments by the Obama administration to reduce, and eventually eliminate, strategic reliance on nuclear weapons. It also undermines the Non-Proliferation Treaty that the U.S. has long tried to protect and promote as a cornerstone of world order.

All signs therefore suggest that the world will see a new round in the nuclear arms race. The vision of a world without nuclear weapons that U.S. President Barack Obama so forcefully promoted with his speech in Prague in 2009 seems like a mirage at a time when the shadow of nuclear war is growing longer again – especially over East Asia.