By Colonel (Ret.) H.R. Naidu Gade, Retired Colonel, India
Colonel (Ret.) Naidu Gade outlines the main flashpoints were territorial disputes, ideological differences or economic competition could ignite war. Though conventional and military in nature, these conflicts could potentially escalate into a nuclear altercation.
In the past decade there has been an alarming and continued rise of geopolitical and military tensions involving nuclear-armed states and their allies. Strategic experts who have been reviewing the situation on potential nuclear flashpoints assessed that the risks of nuclear weapons use — intentional or otherwise — are unacceptably high, and voiced an urgent need for global action, leadership initiatives and steps by weapon possessing states to reduce nuclear risks. Presently, there are nine declared nuclear weapons nations in the world holding a total inventory of about 14 600 warheads that could be delivered through multiple means. In addition, a couple of countries like Iran and Turkey are aspiring to acquire nuclear weapons. It is also believed that crude/improvised nuclear devices are held by some of the non-state players and terrorist organisations for employment in acts of terrorism.
Strategic and security analysts have identified a number of potential flashpoints around the world as a result of territorial disputes, ideological differences, economic competition, religious and sectarian rivalries and historical enmities. According to the Nuclear Crisis Group, these flashpoints are mostly limited to Asia and Europe. In Asia these are the Indo-Pakistan and the Indo-China territorial disputes; the Korean Peninsula involving the US; the North Korean bullying tactics against Japan; the China-Japan and the China-South East Asian States standoffs over the island territories and maritime boundaries in East China and South China Seas respectively; the Israel-Iran animosity over Iran’s overt support for anti-Israeli militant organisations and Syria; Iran’s continued efforts to acquire nuclear weapons; and Turkish ambitions for leadership role among the Islamic countries. In Europe, the Western support to Ukraine in the war with Russia in its territorial dispute over the Crimean Peninsula, as well as the eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). The biggest flashpoint could be between the US and China due to trade, economic and ideological wars, the sovereignty of Taiwan and due to US obligations to protect Japan and South Korea from China and North Korea. These generally conventional and military flashpoints could escalate to nuclear, if either one of the parties to the dispute is either a nuclear weapon state or backed by one.
India – Pakistan – China
India and Pakistan fought four wars in the last seventy years over the accession of Kashmir to India. The Shimla Agreement of 1972 signed by both countries supersedes all earlier UN resolutions and calls for resolving all disputes bilaterally. But Pakistan harbouring anti-India terrorist organisations in its territory and directing their terrorist activities has stalled any bilateral negotiations over a decade. India is firm in its stance that terrorism and negotiations cannot go together. Earlier, Pakistan has been threatening India with use of nuclear weapons on every pretext, until its bluff was finally called by India through airstrikes against terrorist organisations deep inside Pakistan’s territory in 2019. China is illegally occupying 36 000 km2 of Indian territory of Aksai Chin and lays claim to the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh (86 000 km2) as it refuses to recognise the British-era McMahon line demarcating land boundary between the two countries. Fortunately, both the nuclear powers enunciate a mature ‘No First Use Policy’ of nuclear weapons.
Korean Peninsula – Japan
The risk of nuclear escalation in the Korean Peninsula and Japan is now unacceptably high. The inconsistent and unpredictable behaviour of North Korea towards its Southern neighbour and Japan might draw the US into a nuclear conflict with North Korea. There were some positive moves in the last few years with summit meetings between the President of the US President and the Leader of North Korea, as well as the leaders of North and South Korea. However, since there has been no further advancement. Resolving all outstanding disputes will require both formal negotiations in the six-party context, as well as directly between the US and North Korea and via inter-Korean discussions. The normalisation of the relations between North Korea and Japan remains important.
China – Japan – Taiwan – Southeast Asia
China, with illegitimate territorial and economic ambitions has been bullying its way to dominance in the East China and South China Seas by claiming island territories and altering maritime boundaries, resulting in frequent standoffs with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan, Japan and also with the US. The US is bound to protect its interests in these seas and also that of Taiwan and Japan. There has been an alarming escalation in tensions over the passage of US warships in these waters. US-China relations tend to escalate over the issue of defence cooperation between Taiwan, Japan and the US.
The election of Donald Trump as US President has resulted in spiralling trade and economic wars between the US and China. In addition, the US has been repeatedly pressuring China on its human rights record and anti-democratic clamp down of its minorities. The changing balance of forces and the deep lack of trust have undermined the ability of both sides to cooperate and is dragging them into a regional conflict. Conflicts are emerging as China’s growth in power and influence comes into tension with America’s global power and status. If not wisely managed on both sides, an incident in the region runs the serious risk of escalation.
In the Ukraine-Russia war, the US/EU alliance has been openly siding with Ukraine and have not only put in place a number of sanctions against Russia, but have been supplying large quantities of arms and ammunition to Ukraine. Russia has been very sensitive to any eastward expansion of NATO. There is a growing concern that military and doctrinal moves by NATO and Russia could provoke a conflict with nuclear ramifications. The US unilaterally walking out of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and Moscow suspending its participation in the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) has brought down the confidence levels in the US-Russia relations. The precarious US/NATO engagement in armed confrontations in Syria, Ukraine and Georgia have pushed US-Russia relations to the brink.
West Asia: Iran-Turkey
The US-Israeli strategy of systematic destabilisation of strong anti-Israeli Arab and Muslim states over the last two decades has brought great volatility to the region. Libya, Egypt, Iraq, Syria and now Iran have been the principal targets of this strategy. The unresolved issue of an independent Palestinian state, Kurdish nationalism, the factional war in Yemen, the out-casting of Qatar by the Saudi alliance, Turkish ambitions to gain a leadership role in the Islamic world over Saudi Arabia and the ongoing war in Syria have made this region the most dangerous. None of the Arab nations accept Israel possessing nuclear weapons. However, use of Improvised Nuclear Devices (IND) by non-state players with the tacit support of some states is a possibility.
The only way to fully eliminate the risks of nuclear weapons use is through their abolition – a non-achievable proposition. States with nuclear capabilities need to reduce their reliance on nuclear weapons as part of their national defence plans, take action to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, ensure adequate security of all nuclear-weapon usable materials and pursue policies and dialogue that enables them to adopt “no first use” (NFU) postures. Enhanced nuclear risk reduction also requires increasing the means to communicate in a crisis and adopting defence postures that increase warning time.
About the Author:
Colonel H.R. Naidu Gade is an Indian Army Veteran, a Civil Engineer, Management, and Security Professional, with rich experience in the field of Combat Engineering, Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosives (CBRNe) Defence, Security & Disaster Management. Presently, Chief Consultant with ‘CBRNe Secure India’ a ‘forum and a knowledge centre’ for bringing awareness to the general public, government and security entities on the threats arising from the use of CBRNe material and their disastrous consequences.
*Heading picture: Nuclear Weapons States, ©Arms Control Association