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Editorial: Britain’s plan to increase nuke stockpile risks new arms race

  • March 19, 2021
  • , The Asahi Shimbun , 3:45 p.m.
  • English Press

Britain’s plan to raise the cap on the number of its nuclear warheads will splash cold water on international efforts to achieve the common goal of reducing the threat to the security of the human race posed by nuclear weapons.


The British government recently announced the plan to expand its nuclear arsenal by raising the upper limit on warheads from 180 to 260 as part of an “integrated review” of its defense and foreign policies.


In stressing the need to enhance the country’s nuclear deterrent, the review says, “Some states are now significantly increasing and diversifying their nuclear arsenals.”


It is obvious that the move is aimed at countering perceived threats from China’s surging might and Russia’s power ambitions, although the report does not say so.


Even though Britain’s nuclear arsenal is far smaller than those of the United States or Russia, London has been pursuing a path of gradual nuclear disarmament since the end of the Cold War. Reversing the policy now is a grossly wrong-headed decision that will only push the world toward a new global arms race. 


The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which has Britain among its signatories, requires nuclear powers to engage in sincere negotiations for nuclear arms reductions. London’s policy reversal may violate this obligation.


Britain should withdraw the decision to maintain the relevance of the valuable international rule.


In recent years, the global situation surrounding nuclear weapons has been deteriorating.


The United States, China and Russia have been locked in increasingly intense great power competition and stepping up their efforts to develop new types of nuclear weapons.


Washington and Moscow have avoided letting the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) expire by extending it for five years just before the deadline. But there is no prospect for a new treaty to succeed it.


The international community is grappling with the complicated challenge of building an effective multilateral framework for nuclear arms reductions that includes China while reining in the dangerous nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran.


Britain’s move to lift the cap on its stockpile of nuclear warheads under these circumstances has come as a deep disappointment for the international community.


It is difficult for Britain to maintain and renew its nuclear arsenal without cooperation from Washington since the only operational nuclear weapons system in British service is composed of submarine-launched ballistic missiles developed and built in the United States.


London’s decision to beef up its nuclear deterrent despite this fact appears to reflect its unreasonable sense of being able to act as a great power.


An NPT review conference is scheduled to be held this summer. At the conference, countries that have joined the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which came into effect in January, will criticize nuclear powers for their irresponsibility.


The nuclear armed nations have been taking a dim view of the treaty, arguing it creates a division among countries. But they should realize that their own privileged point of view is destroying the moral foundations for world peace and generating a rift among countries.


Britain left the European Union last year and is now seeking to expand its presence and influence in Asia.


In addition to some strategic economic moves, including a free trade agreement with Japan, London is also beginning to expand its military footprint in the region. The British government plans to dispatch an aircraft carrier, which is to be brought into active service this year, to waters in the region.


Britain apparently has an ambition to ramp up its global presence. However, if it increases activities that smack of gunboat diplomacy, including expanding its nuclear arsenal, the country will end up being trapped in anachronism.


The Japanese government has good reason to enhance cooperation with Britain and other European nations to help maintain a stable international order.


But Japan, as an atomic-bombed nation, should express clear opposition to any move that runs counter to the goal of building a “world without nuclear weapons.”


–The Asahi Shimbun, March 18

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