Written by Richard Selwyn.
The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defence system has been generating significant displeasure in Beijing for some months now. Deployed by the US to counter Pyongyang’s unpredictability, the THAAD missile defense system appears a rational insurance policy. But a diplomatic spat played out in Korean-drama bans has trivialised an issue that goes to the heart of China’s nuclear weapons policy. Since the 1960s, China has been satisfied with a small nuclear deterrent and an unequivocal no first use policy on nuclear weapons. In Beijing’s eyes, THAAD threatens China’s ability to retaliate, leaving the US impervious and China vulnerable to a nuclear weapons attack.
The THAAD incident demonstrates why nuclear capability remains important to even modest nuclear weapon states like China. It also shows why nuclear weapons continue to play a role in diplomatic relations between not just China and the US, but China and South Korea, China and North Korea, China and India, China and Pakistan and others. This issue, however, goes beyond simple dyadic relationships. When it comes to nuclear weapons, China-North Korea relations must be taken alongside the security and economic concerns of the US. Triangular relationships such as these are considerably more complex, but perhaps give us a more accurate reading of the diplomatic and security landscape.
Issues of diplomacy, security, technology, and policy are all addressed in this special issue. Out of this series of articles comes a consensus that nuclear weapons are a complex issue underscored by straightforward principles. That the Doomsday Clock now predicts the most imminent destruction of our planet since 1953 is not an indication of any country’s desire to utilise their weapons of mass destruction, but rather a reflection of the increasing complexity of 21st century alliances.