Updated: February 2, 2010 10:58 IST

The Asian nuclear dynamic

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It is almost 65 years since the mushroom cloud rose over Hiroshima in August 1945 and ever since, the apocalyptic nuclear weapon that paradoxically kept the ‘uneasy peace’ in the Cold War continues to cast a very long shadow. In the context of the post-9/11 turbulence, it is pertinent that much of the regional instability engulfing large parts of Asia has a linkage with the nuclear weapon — either factual or illusory — and Iraq is an abiding instan ce of the United States’ certitude proving to be a catastrophic policy blunder.

Tour de force

Alagappa’s edited volume is a veritable tour de force of this complex subject — the long shadow cast by the nuclear weapon — and how it is perceived in the national security strategy of individual states in the extended Asian context. It is instructive that the study includes both the U.S. and Russia — the latter being the inheritor of the Soviet nuclear mantle — as part of the Asian nuclear matrix. While Asia had just a peripheral role in the Cold War decades, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the global strategic focus moved eastward significantly, and this book seeks to examine this development. As the editor notes, “this study investigates the roles and strategies for the employment of nuclear weapons…in a substantially different nuclear environment.” The focus is on Asia, “which has emerged as a distinct and core world region.”


This ambitious volume brings together 20 authors of varying nationality, who have contributed the 18 different chapters. Many eminent scholars including Nobel Laureate Thomas Schelling participated in the three-year effort to produce this tome. Contrary to the rather pessimistic texture of the dominant refrain in the global nuclear narrative that portrays Asian nuclear capabilities as crisis-prone and hence undesirable, the study argues that “…although it is possible to envisage destabilising situations and consequences, thus far nuclear weapons have had a stabilising effect in the Asian security region.” This conclusion goes against the grain of the received wisdom on the subject — that nuclear weapons must be regulated according to the tenets of the NPT and that the chosen five have a higher index of responsibility and rectitude than their less privileged peers in husbanding the apocalyptic nuclear weapon.

Alagappa, who is precise in his formulations, identifies five issues and advances eight propositions based on two premises that inform the main body of the volume. He makes a persuasive case when he avers: “The study posits that the Cold War nuclear order is not in sync with present realities and must be substantially adapted or constructed anew with a focus on Asia.” The elements of a new nuclear order distil much of the current thinking about nuclear weapons in a methodical manner.


The individual chapters on China, India, and Pakistan are rich in detail and analysis that are at the core of the current Asian nuclear dynamic. Personally, I found the muted but insightful observation on the Sino-Pak nuclear linkage to be of great import. Lavoy and Feroz Khan say that “China is the only major power that sees the utility of a nuclear Pakistan as a balancer against India. China’s public position is not to support nuclear proliferation, but the unspoken reality of its preference is well known.” This is an understatement that Jeeves would have approved of! The long shadow in Asia is further muddied by the ‘nuclear weapon-support to terrorism’ linkage through the medium of the deviant regime and Pakistan is the elephant in the drawing room that is yet to be acknowledged in an authoritative and rigorous manner.

The Alagappa volume makes a laudable probe but it is tentative. The perceived stability in Asia as derived from nuclear weapons is valid on the conventional deterrence plane but the subterranean links with revisionist convictions, radical ideologies, and recourse to terrorism warrant a more intensive study.

But this observation in no way detracts from the inherent value of this pioneering study. Alagappa is to be commended for this painstaking compilation, and his conclusion is unexceptionable: “The propositions advanced here, however, require further development, refinement, and even reformulation.” The last word may well prove to be prophetic.

THE LONG SHADOW — Nuclear Weapons and Security in 21st Century Asia: Edited by Muthiah Alagappa; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 995.

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