Asia’s secret nuclear arms race

For all the hoopla about North Korea, a far more significant threat on the Asian continent is getting virtually no coverage: the nuclear arms race between China and Pakistan on one side and India on the other. Quartz magazine reported June 3 that China is the only "internationally sanctioned" nuclear weapon power currently increasing its stockpile. Beijing added about 10 warheads to its arsenal over the past year, according to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). But the key phrase here is "internationally sanctioned," as China is one of the five nuclear nations "grandfathered in" by the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), along with the US, Russia, UK and France (although these are obliged by the NPT to seek disarmament, as is frequently forgotten). A June 16 interview with SIPRI researcher Phillip Schell in the Times of India reveals that the problem isn't just China—India and Pakistan similarly boosted their arsenals by about 10 warheads each over the past year…

Since these three nations are secretive about their nuclear arsenals (the US, with a far bigger arsenal, gets higher marks on transparency, followed by Russia), SIPRI uses informed estimates. Says Schell:

We extrapolate from a number of factors. SIPRI uses exclusively open-source material. Primarily, it is from government statements on nuclear strategies and policies, we conduct interviews with experts working in this area, fissile material production capacities, and information on the development of delivery systems that can give an idea of the numbers of war heads on delivery vehicles. We work with the International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM) to estimated fissile material production and with Federation of America Scientists to derive the numbers of nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles.

India and Pakistan are characterized as "non-declared nuclear powers" and "NPT outliers," as they are not signatories to the treaty. By SIPRI's definitions, battlefield nuclear weapons are counted as "warheads," but, alarmingly, much of the increase in both China and India has been in long-range ballistic missiles. SIPRI's analysis sees Sino-Indian rivalry as the real motor of the regional arms race:

India is similarly working on expanding its capabilities to use nuclear weapons through new ballistic missiles in development. With India we see the gradual expansion of its longer-range ballistic missile capabilities which are not really targeted at Pakistan but rather at China. India appears to be moving towards a "faster consolidation" of India's nuclear deterrence posture based on an operational triad of nuclear forces. 

"Triad," as Cold War nostalgists will recall, refers to the combination of land, air and sea-based missiles, once the domain only of the "superpowers." And what about North Korea and Iran? A slightly equivocal answer, but one refreshingly devoid of the alarmism that dominates mainstream reportage (or the apologism and denialism that characterize too much "alternative" reportage):

North Korea is a subject of much debate. It maintains a secretive and highly opaque military nuclear programme. Although there is no evidence of an operational nuclear weapon capability, obviously there have been three nuclear tests, which point at technical progress in that direction. But at this point we can say North Korea has probably produced enough plutonium for about six to eight rudimentary weapons. Iran appears to be trying to get close to the ability of making a nuclear weapon but there has neither been clear statement nor evidence that they will do so. 

The India-China border stand-off that flared in the Himalayas in April seems to have de-escalated. But this regional rivalry remains a far greater threat than the empty bluster from North Korea…