PolicyMic has seen much debate in recent days and weeks about the threat a nuclear Iran poses not only to America, but also the world. If the sanctions are any indication, we might say that it is largely a global sentiment that we should try to prevent Teheran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
The European Union passed an oil embargo against Iran and an American aircraft carrier, escorted by European vessels, moved into the Strait of Hormuz to prevent Teheran from blocking it in light of this most recent escalation. What follows may be an inevitable conflagration that will see Iran become a permanent member of the nuclear club.
This outcome is undesirable, because American credibility in the Middle East may be irreversibly damaged and it will be only a matter of time before Teheran militarizes nuclear power. In the past 60 years, Washington has always been capable of forming working relationships with nuclear powers, especially states including China, India, and Pakistan. There is no reason that a nuclear Iran should be an exception to this trend, and simply accepting Iran in the nuclear club with a sense of pragmatism and willingness for direct dialogue is the best policy choice Washington can make.
China, in particular, provides an interesting case study. China became a nuclear power in 1964 under Mao Zadong’s leadership – during this time in the 20th century, China was embroiled in a costly Cultural Revolution and Washington did not have official diplomatic relations with the country until President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. Since then, the Sino-American relationship has broadened, deepened, and developed new tensions, which make both countries allies and competitors in many respects.
Washington did consider strategic nuclear strikes against China upon the country acquiring nuclear weapons in 1964, but deemed that option too risky. However, a look at Chinese nuclear doctrine reveals that Beijing has no offensive aims for its nuclear stockpile.
In principle, China supports total disarmament, provided all other members of the nuclear club choose to do the same. The doctrine itself calls for a minimum level of deterrence, purely on a defensive basis, with support for retaliatory, but not first strike capability. While Beijing’s foreign policy is more assertive in recent years, Chinese nuclear policy stays true to a tradition of strategic thought that is opposed to expansive militarism and instead favors subtler means of engagement. China’s policy is that a country does not need many warheads to provide a minimum effective deterrent, which is why Beijing’s stockpile may be comparable with that of England or France in size, instead of America's and Russia’s arsenals. Given that the risk of large-scale conventional attack on China is not great at the moment, or a nuclear attack for that matter, China’s nuclear policy will remain stable in the medium- to long-term.
A source of worry for the U.S. during the 21st century is the rapid economic growth of China and the funds it is pouring into the modernization of its armed forces, and notably, its nuclear arsenals. There is a possibility that a change in doctrine will include the development of a first-strike capability, which will add an unprecedented offensive capacity to Beijing’s nuclear options. However, it is unlikely that it will change the overall defensive character of Chinese military doctrine. A possible extension of Chinese nuclear assets may come through the development of a fleet of aircraft carriers with the ability to carry nuclear weapons — effectively, creating conventional and nuclear military parity with the U.S. first in the Pacific and then on a global scale.
The mutual economic dependence between the two superpowers will create new paradigms of security cooperation between them. Until the 1980s, the Sino-American nuclear relationship was characterized by distrust; several American administrations made nuclear threats to China and located assets targeting the country, even before Beijing exploded its first device in 1964.
Washington focused on containing and eliminating China’s potential nuclear force, while Beijing’s secrecy on what nuclear assets are located where makes accurate estimation of China’s capabilities by external sources very difficult. Yet, both countries recognize the importance of their strategic relationship and the tensions surrounding Taiwan and the Koreas. Particularly troublesome is North Korea and its nuclear program. While Beijing is perceived as the backer of the regime in Pyongyang, having a nuclear option gives North Korea the ability to have a more independent and assertive foreign policy with unpredictable and potentially destabilizing results.
With respect to their relationship, America and China remain geopolitical competitors, but economic allies. While they differ on nuclear policies and doctrines, it is unlikely that there will be sharp confrontation between Washington and Beijing on nuclear weapons, even if they are factored in potential conflicts over the Koreas or Taiwan. China’s growing economy will translate into enhanced nuclear capabilities, but Washington and Beijing will continue to have a tense, but tolerable nuclear relationship. An additional source of difference will be the development of Ballistic Missile Defence systems and China’s opposition to American initiatives in this direction. Diplomacy of tolerance and dialogue, analogous to the status quo, will again play a key role here in gradually modernizing nuclear policy to account for BMD and possible bilateral frameworks for its management.
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