A major-power system of war is forming in Asia. It’s easy to miss this structure because it is in the early years of formation and most attention is focused on the details of Asia’s missiles, submarines and aircraft. But this view of Asian security is like looking through a straw. One sees interesting features, yes, but not the bigger picture. Stepping back and taking a broader look, we see that an interrelated nuclear system is forming based on the strategic postures of China, Russia, India and the United States, plus the missile defenses for Japan.
These five major powers make up Asia’s “pentapolar” nuclear system described in this essay. During the next decade, this system may tend toward slow change, risk avoidance and conservative behavior – much as the war system of the first nuclear age did. Or it may change in dynamic, goal-seeking and innovative ways. A framework is needed to understand and organize these possibilities, because we can’t say for sure in which direction it will go since the Asian nuclear system is just too new, and too dissimilar from the structure of the first nuclear age.
Asia’s new missiles, submarines and other weapons systems could be interpreted merely as “routine” nuclear modernization by China, Russia, India and the United States. But my thesis in this essay is that a “routine modernization” theory offers an inadequate conceptualization of the deep structural change now occurring and of the growing risks this has for the world order. It is more deeply embedded in the new Asian political order than any business-as-usual modernization suggests. And the risks of something going wrong, whether from strategic miscalculation, bad luck or sloppy thinking, are so great that this subject requires a lot more sober attention than it has received.
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