Growing up at the end of the Cold War in the United States, I remember a constant low-level hum of fear about a possible war with Russia and quite possibly a nuclear war.
The Russians were the villains of our movies. Mushroom clouds haunted our dreams.
Now, for many of us and perhaps for you, a new version of those anxieties is emerging.
Analysts and security officials have told me that they believe the risk of a nuclear weapon being used somewhere (although still small) has increased to a level not seen in decades. North Korea now claims to have developed nuclear warheads that it can mount on its various missiles. Russia’s threatening war in Ukraine continues. At the same time, China is expanding its nuclear arsenal, leading experts to suggest that we could be heading into another era of brinksmanship, like that which marked the initial rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, as giant powers with weapons Catastrophic attack and prick by weakness.
As Chris Buckley, our chief China correspondent, wrote in a recent article, China’s military strategists now “view nuclear weapons not just as a defensive shield, but as a potential sword, to intimidate and subjugate adversaries.”
China aims to have 1,500 nuclear warheads by 2035, up from a few hundred today, while the United States is modernizing and strengthening its own nuclear capabilities.
Many countries in the Asia-Pacific region are trying to determine what to do about it. Some officials in Seoul have floated the idea of South Korea developing its own nuclear weapons, an idea the United States opposes. Washington’s allies have also been pushing for information on nuclear protocols in the event of a confrontation, the kind of situation European allies already have through NATO.
Australia has, so far, doubled down on its ties with the United States. The AUKUS security agreement between Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom will bring US nuclear-powered submarines to Western Australian ports while new versions are built in the coming decades.
But there is also a renewed push by some former officials in Australia to try to bring Beijing and Washington together, seeking to leverage common interests and reduce tensions.
Gareth Evans, who was Australia’s foreign minister from 1988 to 1996, and Bob Carr, former premier of the state of New South Wales, recently gathered dozens of signatures for an open letter calling on Australia to support the goal of detente, which they described as “a genuine balance of power between the United States and China, designed to avoid the horror of great power conflict and ensure lasting peace for our people, our region and the world.”
Neither China nor the United States have responded. Many of the letter’s signatories, including Evans and Carr, are Labor Party luminaries seeking to influence Australia’s current Labor government and perhaps tilt public opinion towards a period when there was greater acceptance of China’s dominance, which helped make Australia very rich through trade.
The tone may not be in keeping with the moment. In recent surveys, more than 80 percent of Australians surveyed said they did not trust China.
In an interview, Evans said he knew building support would take time. He said his goal was to “drive a more substantive dialogue around this situation that is getting out of control.”
Like many others, he saw danger ahead. He said he feared that the two great powers, with their nuclear-powered armies, might accidentally descend into war, due to a mixture of excessive nationalism and a narrow-minded attitude toward worldwide competition.
“What we need is a relaxation and a balance,” Evans said. “There are too many fingers on too many triggers in an atmosphere of too much fear.”
Now for this week’s stories.
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