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Analysis
Last Updated: 01/02/2011
New Year, Old Conflicts: Nuclear crises in 2011 and their implications for US-China relations
Rob van Riet

Rob van Riet follows three conflicts with nuclear potential -- rising tensions on the Korean peninsula, continued animosity between the US and Iran, and the persistent India-Pakistan dispute -- set against the backdrop of shifting Sino-American relations. While each of these conflicts has a potential to undermine efforts toward international security, and may trigger war on a nuclear scale, van Riet argues, much will depend on the willingness and ability of US and Chinese leaders to work together towards their resolution.


As the New Year is upon us, it is worth looking at what 2011 will bring in terms of potential international crises, especially those with a nuclear dimension to them. Two conflicts in particular seem as if they might escalate into military action: first, the sharply rising tensions between North and South Korea, and, second, the standoff between Iran and the US and its allies on Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. A third conflict worth mentioning is the ongoing dispute between India and Pakistan which, ever since both countries achieved nuclear weapons capability, has taken an especially ominous turn.

No real surprises there. These three are among the usual suspects when it comes to threats to international peace and security. Nevertheless, these cases deserve to be mentioned as they involve nuclear security concerns and, interestingly, also shed some light on the increasingly strained relationship between the United States and China.

The never ending war

First up: North Korea. Tensions between North and South Korea have been building to particularly volatile levels since the North’s apparent role in the sinking of a South Korean warship in March this year, killing 46 sailors, and last month’s shelling of the South Korean island Yeonpyeong by North Korea, which cost the lives of two soldiers and two civilians. After being criticized for responding weakly to the attacks, South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak has toughened his stance, threatening the North with “enormous retaliation” if it launches fresh attacks. On December 20th South Korea held live-fire drills on the island, raising fears of retaliation by the North. Luckily Pyongyang has showed restraint so far.

In addition to this escalation of hostilities, concerns over North Korea’s nuclear program have recently risen sharply. In May 2009 the country conducted its second nuclear test, thus fuelling the international community’s fears over its capabilities and intentions. Last month, North Korea took experts and officials by surprise by revealing a previously unknown “astonishingly modern” new uranium enrichment facility, which might provide the regime with another pathway to increasing its nuclear arsenal.

The disclosure revealed that the United Nations Security Council has not been as effective as it hoped in thwarting Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions by passing resolutions. Additionally, it indicated that Western intelligence agencies are still very much in the dark when it comes to North Korea’s nuclear progress.

Particularly worrisome is that the country seems determined to consolidate its position as a wholesaler of nuclear know-how and technology. US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks reveal that the US believes that North Korea shipped 19 advanced missiles to Iran in 2005, and that other technology has passed through Beijing on its way to Iran. Furthermore, there is evidence that suggests Pyongyang has traded nuclear equipment with Syria and Libya. Some experts are concerned that North Korea’s latest public disclosure of its nuclear capabilities is meant as an advertisement of its merchandise for potential buyers.

Interestingly, what these incidents with North Korea also bring to light is how US-China relations have recently deteriorated. Whereas Washington unreservedly condemned the North’s acts of aggression and followed up by conducting joint war games with South Korea, Beijing has been reluctant to rebuke its unruly ally, notwithstanding strong calls from the Obama administration to do so. Instead, China has reserved its strongest criticism for the US-South Korean military exercises, just off China’s borders. It views the increased American presence in its backyard with heightened suspicion. Although over the last days China has urged its neighbor to make good on its offer to allow in nuclear inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the US has found it increasingly difficult to get China on board in containing the North’s nuclear progression.

Beyond the crisis on the divided Korean peninsula, Washington-Beijing relations have further soured over US arms sales to Taiwan and several new alliances between the US and some of China’s neighbors. This competition between the two superpowers over winning the loyalty of the region could severely poison their already strained relationship.

The Iran crisis

Moving on to the second conflict worth keeping an eye on in the New Year: Iran’s nuclear aspirations and the efforts of the US and its allies to curb them. At the heart of the nuclear dispute are essentially some serious trust issues. While Tehran maintains that its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes, Washington and its allies suspect the country is seeking to build nuclear weapons.

Since 2006, Iran has been subject to several UN Security Council Resolutions aimed at thwarting its nuclear progress. Diplomatic efforts to resolve the standoff have been unsuccessful so far, yet continue to rumble on with new talks with Iran planned in January 2011. Meanwhile, the prospect of Israel–possibly with the support of the US–attacking Iranian nuclear facilities inches forward. It seems Israel has some unlikely supporters in the region, with recently leaked US diplomatic cables revealing that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia repeatedly exhorted the United States to “cut off the head of the snake” by launching military strikes to destroy Iran’s nuclear program.

Some rightly argue that the war on Iran’s nuclear program has, in fact, already begun. While heads of state, officials and experts meet in New York and Geneva, Iranian nuclear scientists are being assassinated, nuclear facilities sabotaged and highly advanced computer viruses let loose on vital software and hardware. Make no mistake; a covert war is very much in progress.

Although it seems it has thus far been rather successful in slowing down Iran’s nuclear advancements, by no means does it provide a sustainable solution to the problem. A solution could come from within–most likely through a regime change in Iran. As for a solution coming from without, an attack targeting key nuclear facilities would only temporarily stall Iran’s nuclear progress and might lead to America’s third war in the Middle East in little less over a decade. This will make it increasingly difficult to reject the notion that the beginning of the 21st century is experiencing what Samuel Huntington called “the clash of civilizations”. Ideally, comprehensive international negotiations would resolve the nuclear standoff with Iran.

However, Iran’s nuclear program is one of the most polarizing issues in global politics today. One relationship that has suffered from its toxicity is the one between the US and China. Iran is among the issues that have both countries struggling to stay on good terms. So far, Washington has been rather successful in bringing Beijing on board to pressure Tehran on its nuclear program. Although preceded by heated rhetoric between the two capitals, the Obama administration managed to secure China’s backing for UN Security Council sanctions earlier this year.

However, some Chinese officials suspect the US of using the Iran crisis to isolate their country as a so-called “irresponsible stakeholder” and to pressure it into backing American foreign policy objectives, without taking into account China’s key interests. China is heavily dependent on Iranian oil and is thus worried that signing on to anti-Iran initiatives could greatly impact its energy security. If the Iran crisis further escalates China might be less willing to side with the US, possibly forcing a showdown between the two superpowers. Similarly, if an all-out war breaks out again on the Korean peninsula, the US and China will have to significantly up their diplomatic game to make sure their relationship does not fully break down as a result of such a crisis.

Honorable mention: the India-Pakistan conflict

Of course, there are other conflicts that deserve our attention and worries in 2011. Crises might arise and catch the international community off guard. In fact, often tipped as the regional nuclear exchange most likely to happen, the India-Pakistan conflict has seen some highly volatile episodes these last few years, sometimes seemingly teetering on the brink of war.

The India-Pakistan dispute is also yet another example of an issue that could send US-China relations into a downward spiral, with both countries having vital interests in the region. China and India are having their own set of problems while the US is in an unstable alliance with Pakistan and simultaneously tries to maintain good relations with India. In addition, the US and China are making competing civil nuclear deals with, respectively, India and Pakistan, thereby fuelling the mutual nuclear anxiety between Delhi and Islamabad. Finally, both Pakistan and India sit on sizeable, and growing, nuclear arsenals, with the US fearing that Islamabad’s nuclear weapons program might lead to fissile material falling into the hands of terrorists. It makes up a volatile mix of mutual mistrust and competition that could easily set off a chain of violent events.

The deeper lying problem

What these three crises illustrate is how Washington and Beijing are struggling to see eye to eye on several important geopolitical issues. They represent some of the first cracks in an otherwise, so far, remarkably stable relationship. Unfortunately it seems that the fate of US-China relations is worryingly intertwined with each of these conflicts.

In essence, US-China relations have suffered from a widening difference of opinions on how to be a responsible stakeholder in the world order. China is unwilling to rise to power on American conditions. Neither does it seem eager to follow the example that the US has set in the last decades. The US, being in many aspects a declining power, will have to surrender some leadership to China as the world’s new presumed superpower. Expect this process to hit many speed bumps. As The Economist recently noted in a special report on the dangers of a rising China, “As China’s power grows, so will its determination to get its way and to do things in the world. America, by contrast, will inevitably balk at surrendering its pre-eminence.” The article offers a very simple, yet potent, explanation of why these struggles might turn violent. “Perhaps China does not mean ever to use its weapons aggressively. But American defence planners cannot rely on that, so they must respond. In this way two states that never intend harm can begin to perceive each other as growing threats. If you do not arm, you leave yourself open to attack. If you do, you threaten the other country.” The British historian, Herbert Butterfield, dubbed this the “absolute predicament and irreducible dilemma”.

What the conflict on the Korean peninsula and the disputes in the Middle East lay bare is rising discord and competing interests between the US and China. As such, they could act as multipliers of the deterioration in US-China relations or escalate themselves as a result of Beijing and Washington falling out. Alternatively, although it would require impressive diplomatic efforts from both sides, these crises could also offer the two superpowers an opportunity for pragmatic cooperation. The Obama administration has already devised a strategy aimed at achieving this, known as “strategic reassurance”. Let us hope that 2011 will see officials from Washington and Beijing, and diplomats between them, overcoming the vicious circle of mutual mistrust and military preparations, and instead work together to find a way to resolve these crises.

Rob van Riet, Coordinator Disarmament Working Group, World Future Council Foundation; UK Coordinator, Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament. More of his work can be accessed at www.worldfuturecouncil.org.


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