Thursday, August 18, 2016

Modi and CPEC Put Gilgit-Baltistan On the Table

I made the case that the South China Sea was a case of high-functioning, cautious states not interested in blowing each other up…while in South Asia the core Chinese gambit, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, was at the mercy of Pakistan and India, two borderline dysfunctional states that were interested in blowing each other up.

Indian PM Modi added some tinder to the bonfire with his August 15 Independence Day speech and another internal speech, in which he made an issue of Pakistan-Occupied-Kashmir (POK), Balochistan, and (drumroll) Gilgit-Baltistan.

In my opinion, the ongoing unrest in India’s slice of Kashmir is an embarrassment and reproach to Modi, who has to live up to the rep of World’s Largest Democracy, Upholder of the Rules-Based Liberal International Order, and Worthy US Ally.  

Awkward fact is that while the PRC has done an OK job of coloring inside the lines post-Deng, India suffers by comparison as a historically Anschluss-happy (Sikkim) terrorist exporting (Sri Lanka), nation-shattering (Bangladesh), bullying (Nepal), brutal occupier (Kashmir) and recklessly malicious regional actor (Afghanistan) with appalling social problems, and run by an unapologetic, pogrom-executing fascist.

Sorry, Indian friends!

Anyway, in lockstep with Modi’s speech, nationalist-friendly Indian media started cranking out videos on how terrible things are in Pakistan, which was presented as a brilliant riposte to Pakistan pointing fingers at India over Kashmir.

Commentators swarmed all over the Balochistan issue, which is a hot button thanks to what is apparently an unbelievably brutal Pakistan security operation intended to destroy Baloch’s capacity for political action and nationhood by death-squad operations against Baloch activists and intellectuals.  

In Balochistan, the Pakistan army seems to be recapitulating the horrors of Operation Searchlight in East Pakistan in 1971, which started with systemic slaughter at the universities and, when the project was lurching to defeat, wholesale exit massacres of Bengali intellectuals and professionals.

I’m guessing the Pakistan army is reassuring itself that it’s different this time. 

Balochistan, unlike East Pakistan, is contiguous to the Punjab heartland, sparsely populated, and lacking an Indian border to provide havens and bases for subversion and intervention.  The army’s probably right, especially since Iran has a Baloch problem of its own (exacerbated, of course, by the Pakistan army with its traditional brilliance, since it enables Saudi-backed Baloch militants making mischief in Iran’s Sistan and Baloch Province), and is unlikely to view Baloch self-determination with great enthusiasm.

Gilgit-Baltistan is, hopefully, another kettle of fish.  Sometimes referred to as “GB”, it’s a mountain district of around 2 million people in northern Pakistan, abutting China, and hosting the northern stretch of the CPEC road network to Kashgar.

I take the road less-traveled and write about GB in my most recent piece for Asia Times, India Plays its cards in Gilgit Baltistan.

And here’s probably the best map you’ll find of the area, courtesy of the Gilgit Baltistan Scouts.

GB has suffered the usual sectarian and demographic divide and rule abuses at the hands of the federal government, spawning a nascent localist movement that veers into calls for some kind of independence or self-determination, and which has been met with the usual ham-fisted central government suppression justified on security/counterinsurgency/counter-terrorism campaign.

The temptation for India to meddle in GB to wrongfoot the CPEC must be irresistible, and indeed a two-city general strike was called in Gilgit Baltistan on the same day Modi namechecked the region in his Independence Day speech.

Indian media pitched in with reports on the unrest whose obvious objective was to send the message: Not like India in Jammu/Kashmir; Worse!

However, I’m hopeful that things are actually Better! up in GB and some combination of civilian common sense in Pakistan’s federal government and PRC pressure will turn GB into a “win-win showcase” instead of another demonstration of Pakistan’s suicidally counter-productive security-through-death squad military strategy.

Some encouragement can perhaps be derived from the fact that GB’s most noteworthy activist-dissident, Baba Jan, apparently got detained, kicked around, had his fingers broken and got sentenced to forty years in prison by the central government, instead of being abducted, tortured, shot, and dumped in a ditch by security forces as is apparently the norm in Balochistan.

It’s also inspiring that the Awami Action Committee, which organized this week’s strike, has been able to stick with Baba Jan’s determinedly non-sectarian political strategy (though I wonder how many of the resented Sunni Punjabi interlopers jointed the strike enthusiastically) and the movement seems to have broad backing from professional as well as religious groups.

And the PRC can take the fact that the local activists have not, like the Baloch independence activists, categorically repudiated the CPEC as exclusively an instrument of central government oppression and exploitation.

The local expectation in GB appears to be that the CPEC is a potential positive, especially if the government can be strongarmed into putting some economic development zones into the district.

The CPEC already has a sizable footprint in GB thanks to a crash $275 million/three year project to improve the Karakoram Highway to convert it into an all-weather road capable of handling semis pulling 40 foot containers year round back and forth to (eventually) Gwadar.

The project was desperately needed since a landslide in the Hunza district in 2010 had not only cut the road; it had blocked a river and created an enormous new lake, dubbed Lake Attabad, that had to be crossed by boat before the PRC realigned the road, building five tunnels with an aggregate length of 7.2 kilometers in the process.

The federal government’s initial dilatory and parsimonious response to the disaster—which killed 19 or 20 people and displaced 25,000 villagers—became a key issue for local activists, including Baba Jan (he was arrested after security forces fired into a Hunza-related protest, killing two, and tried to evade culpability by accusing Baba Jan of terrorism).

From what I can tell, the project was funded primarily by the China Exim Bank and contracted by Pakistan to China Road and Bridge Corporation.  Local employment, if any, during the construction was pretty minimal.  So, something of corporate welfare to China’s beleaguered infrastructure section.

I have to admit, I can’t get too worked up about it.  I was struck by the fact that the U.S. under President Obama alone has sold $110 billion in weapons to Saudi Arabia, providing a similar service in keeping domestic industry fat and happy.  And for its $46 billion from China, Pakistan is getting some roads and power plants out of it, and not just tanks and cluster munitions.

The new Karakoram Highway in GB, by the way, looks pretty impressive, at least until the next landslide comes along.

I’m guessing that local activists hope to use the heightened attention to GB thanks to Modi’s remarks to demand more from the CPEC than the road link and the promise that the beauties of Lake Attabad will bring more tourists to the region.  GB has also risen on the domestic political agenda since the opposition PPP sees it as a stick to beat Nawaz Sharif with.  And, as I wrote over at AT, I’m guardedly optimistic that the PRC will prevail on the Pakistan army not to turn GB into the usual hell-hole.

But it’s still an open question how badly Pakistan can mismanage the GB issue, and how far India can and will go to exploit it.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

How Fidel Castro Almost Made Cuba the World's 5th Nuclear Power


[I went in and cleaned up this post for clarity--and to add Walter Sweeney's name--in September 2017.  China Hand]

Fidel Castro's 90th birthday celebrations might have been a bit more extravagant if Cuba had emerged from the 1962 missile crisis as the world's fifth nuclear power.

Everybody loves to talk about the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, when America’s Best and Brightest under Jack Kennedy stared down Nikita Khrushchev and his attempt to position strategic nuclear weapons in Cuba.

Revisionist history a.k.a. facts have as usual removed some of the good v. evil gloss slathered on the US by Kennedy hagiographers to reveal the political calculations underlying the confrontation. 

It has emerged that Khrushchev was waaaaaaaay on the wrong end of the notorious missile gap, contrary to Kennedy's claims during the 1960 election, with major shortfalls in operational ICBMs and no strategic submarine capabilities and, indeed, with only 300 strategic nuclear devices overall compared to 1500 for the US.  Soviet strategists were appalled by the introduction of US Jupiter nuclear-tipped missiles into Turkey and Italy and justifiably anxious about the prospect of a pre-emptive US strike.

Kennedy understood that standing up to the Soviets over Cuba was more a matter of US (and his)  credibility and a reflection of US determination over Berlin than an issue of US national security.  From the beginning of the crisis, his advisors are unambiguous in their analysis that the missiles in Cuba, when operational, would not effect the strategic balance.  

Furthermore, the CIA informed Kennedy that the missiles apparently had not yet been armed with their nuclear warheads (correct) and the missile sites were not strongly defended and could be seized in a military operation with a minimum of fuss and muss (wrong wrong wrong).  

In other words, the US saw Khrushchev as way out on a limb that was ripe for sawing off, thanks to the premature exposure of the Soviet missile gambit on Cuba thanks to US intelligence operations. 

Missiles in Cuba were intended by Khrushchev as a) a stabilizing strategic riposte to the US missiles in Italy and Turkey and b) a neat way to succor Cuba and bind it into a Soviet alliance by deterring a widely expected US “regime change” style invasion.  

Recently, the tape recordings of the Oval Office discussions during the crisis were declassified and, according to Benjamin Schwartz in The Atlantic, yielded this priceless nugget:

On the first day of the crisis, October 16, when pondering Khrushchev’s motives for sending the missiles to Cuba, Kennedy made what must be one of the most staggeringly absentminded (or sarcastic) observations in the annals of American national-security policy: “Why does he put these in there, though? … It’s just as if we suddenly began to put a major number of MRBMs [medium-range ballistic missiles] in Turkey. Now that’d be goddamned dangerous, I would think.” McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser, immediately pointed out: “Well we did it, Mr. President.”

As for regime change, Soviet expectations were spot on; after the Bay of Pigs debacle the Pentagon was busy with Operation Mongoose planning for Castro’s overthrow.  Declassified documents reveal that the US would, as usual, take the high ground by invading only in response to a Cuban outrage, albeit one manufactured by the CIA.  One scenario, thanks to an anonymous writer with a strong historical understanding of what had worked in US-Cuban relations:

A “Remember the Maine” incident could be arranged in several forms:
a.      We could blow up a U.S. ship in Guantanamo Bay and blame Cuba.

The key assumption underlying the US strategy for facing down the Russians in Cuba was that the United States didn’t think that the Soviet Union had any operational nuclear weapons capability in Cuba when it decided to go public and issue the ultimatum to Khrushchev.

In a piece I wrote about dead horses in Soviet Ukraine (one of my favorite pieces about a pivotal event in Ukrainian history—must read!) I remarked in passing on the assertion by Victor Marchetti, a CIA whistleblower perhaps little remembered today, but a big deal in the last century:

Marchetti, by the way, claims to have been intimately involved in the intelligence aspects of the Cuban crisis.  He alleges that President Kennedy was well aware that the missiles in Cuba were still lacking their warheads and therefore posed no threat to the United States.  Nevertheless, Kennedy and his hagiographers, perhaps in order to provide America’s youth with sufficient pretext for a frantic pre-apocalypse f*ckfest, have skated over this aspect of the crisis.

[We didn’t] come as close to war as many think, because Khruschev knew he was caught. His missiles weren't armed, and he hadn't the troops to protect them. Kennedy knew this, so he was able to say: "take them out." And Khruschev had to say yes.

Ah, history.  Or, as we say, “Whaddya know?”

Well, at the time Marchetti wrote that in 2001, the USSR had met its demise, rehashing the Cuban Missile Crisis had become a cottage industry and occasion for mutual backpatting by Russian and US national security types who had saved the world, at least certain paleskinned bits of the Northern Hemisphere, from destruction…

…and it was pretty categorically stated that Cuba was loaded to the gunwales with usable nuclear weapons in October 1962, when the crisis started...

...and Marchetti was defending his initial, less alarmist assessments and dismissing the subsequent revelations as nefarious tag-team U.S.-Russian Federation disinfo... post-1989 revelations do have to be parsed carefully since the Cuban missile crisis is apparently still a useful text for geopolitical jockeying between Russia and the United States...

...but emerging documents and memoirs pretty convincingly support the latter assessments.


162 gadgets is the number bandied about, a mixture of strategic warheads for the medium and intermediate range missiles targeting the US, and 92 tactical nuclear devices for defensive purposes, especially cruise and short range missiles but also including a pair of nuclear mines. 

As we shall see, Marchetti was right about the strategic warheads that could target the U.S. not being ready for prime time, but the tactical nukes were apparently good to go...

And as for Khrushchev “not having the troops”, that was apparently a pretty major flub by the CIA.  There were allegedly forty thousand Soviet troops in Cuba, not the few thousand estimated by Marchetti and the CIA, infiltrated together with shiploads of military equipment under the noses of the CIA and including infantry, anti-aircraft, and other defensive units to protect the core strategic nuclear force. 

Soviet forces were commanded by officers whose concept of operational routine was the Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany, had control over those tactical nuclear weapons, and had authority to use them if the U.S. invaded and communications with Moscow were severed.  Plenty of material, in other words, to turn Cuba into a major battlefield, starting with the U.S. base at Guantanamo as a focus of Soviet attentions.

Here’s a photo of the general in charge of Soviet forces in Cuba, Issa Pliyev, wearing the “volunteer” civilian garb he detested, standing with Castro, who is wearing the rarely-seen clunky glasses that, apparently, he detested)…

…and here's General Pliyev in his full military fig as veteran of Stalingrad, two time Hero of the Soviet Union, seven time Order of Lenin, Hero of the Mongolian People’s Republic, Member, French Legion of Honor, etc. etc.

However,  Marchetti is correct in terms of describing US perceptions at the time of the crisis.

The part about the strategic missiles not being operational was something of a lucky guess. 

According to the record, even after a U2 flight yielded unambiguous photographic evidence that, indeed, the Soviets had established intermediate and medium-range missile launch facilities in Cuba (built under a crash program involving the labor of hundreds of thousands of Cubans), the CIA didn’t know for sure that the warheads had arrived in Cuba.  

Indeed, the photos reveal something that looks more like construction sites than comfy bases of mass destruction (the Soviets apparently cloned their homeland missile facilities in Cuba, making photo analysis of the nature and progress of the projects a bit easier), supporting the inference that the warheads were not yet on site and integrated with the missiles. The CIA conclusion appears to have been that the warheads weren’t in Cuba and if they were, they were off in some warehouse somewhere and the missiles were unarmed.    

It turns out the the warheads for the strategic missiles were in Cuba but had not been deployed to the launch sites yet.

Another indication that the strategic missiles were not operational in October 1962 is that Khrushchev was not yet prepared to formally announce their existence.  

Apparently, Khrushchev planned to announce the existence of the missiles during a visit to the United States in November 1962, bringing to mind this exchange from Kubrick’s 1964 film, Dr. Strangelove:

Dr. Strangelove: Of course, the whole point of a Doomsday Machine is lost, if you keep it a secret! Why didn't you tell the world, EH?
---Ambassador de Sadesky: It was to be announced at the Party Congress on Monday. As you know, the Premier loves surprises.

As for the tactical nuclear weapons, McNamara states that his knees wobbled when he was told about them at a thirtieth anniversary get-together in 1992 between the US, Russia, and Cuba.  However, it's more accurate to state that he had been informed of the possible presence of tactical nukes on Cuba at the time of the crisis, but had simply refused to believe it.

According to the Kennedy tapes, by October 29, 1962 it was known thanks to low altitude surveillance that there were nuclear capable Soviet tactical missiles on Cuba, and US military commanders were asking for permission to use tactical nuclear weapons in the planned invasion: McNamara himself refused.  I'm guessing McNamara chose to assume (erroneously) the missiles were not nuclear tipped and this was the version presented to Kennedy.

Therefore, President Kennedy had the certain luxury of gaming his Cuba scenarios on the assumption that Cuba didn't have any usable nukes yet (which was true of the strategic missiles the US knew about, but absolutely wrong concerning the tactical nukes the CIA had missed).

US planners therefore set aside the worry that a nuke would get lit off in Cuba, and gamed the nuclear element as if it would play out only within the parameters of a potential direct nuclear exchange between the US and Russian homelands.

The assumption was, in other words, that any nukes would have to come out of Russia, and Khrushchev probably wouldn't escalate to global nuclear war if the U.S. dropped the hammer on Cuba.

The consensus opinion in Washington in October 1962—buttressed by the reports cited by Marchetti that the warheads had probably not arrived and there weren’t a lot of Soviet troops on the island--was to launch massive airstrikes followed by invasion to take out the missiles (and also, though it’s not much discussed in the official hagiography, provide a useful pretext for going into Cuba big and dealing with that pesky Castro problem once and for all). 

However, according to McNamara, Kennedy was swayed to go for the quarantine* --> ultimatum --> airstrikes + invasion to follow option instead by the general in charge of U.S. Tactical Air Command, Walter Sweeney, who cautioned that maybe a nuclear-armed missile might survive the massive U.S. strike to hit the United States.  

In other words, the group opinion was 99% sure everything would go great, but Kennedy wanted 100%.

If the group opinion had prevailed and the US had invaded Cuba and been surprised by 40,000 nuclear-armed Soviet troops, things would have gone south in a hurry (together with McNamara's knees and career).  Which is why expert opinion has started to tilt away from “masterful statesmanship” toward the “lucky accident” interpretation of the crisis.

 As it transpired, the most immediate nuclear risk during the crisis didn’t even involve the weapons on Cuba.  It was created by the US Navy enthusiastically depth charging a Soviet sub nearing Cuba that was armed with a nuclear torpedo.  Unaware that the USN was dropping undercharged “we want you to surface and identify yourself” ashcans and not “we want to sink you” depth bombs and worried that his vessel was about to be destroyed, the Soviet captain decided to dish out his 10-kiloton nuclear torpedo and go down in a blaze of glory.  Fortunately, the launch was vetoed by his flotilla commander, who happened to be on the boat.  The sub, happily, survived, as did significant swaths of the Soviet Union and US.

Khrushchev eventually obliged Kennedy, climbing down in a nice superpower-to-superpower way, receiving in return a pledge that the United States would not invade Cuba (a pledge honored somewhat in the breach) and a sub voce US undertaking to remove soon-to-be-obsolete Jupiter missiles from Turkey and maybe Italy (which were subsequently replaced by invulnerable sub-based Polaris missiles).

And that, of course, did not oblige Fidel Castro, who regards Khrushchev as an ass and a wimp.

An ass, because instead of declaring to Kennedy that the missiles were a deterrent and an sovereign Soviet security interest covered by the USSR’s nuclear force when a U2 flight detected initial signs of missile facility construction in August 1962, Khrushchev fudged and called them defensive (with the apparent mental reservation that “defensive” meant “offensive weapons that defend Cuba by virtue of their deterrent function”).  This put the Soviet foreign policy establishment on the wrong foot in vigorously and credibly defending the initiative when it turned out in October that there were four dozen strategic missiles in the package capable of reaching most of the continental United States.

And wimp, because Khrushchev backed down in October 1962 and threw Cuba under the bus.  Cuba under Castro had irrevocably burned its bridges to the United States by hosting the missiles, and was ready to do that socialist shoulder-to-shoulder thing and risk US annihilation in an attack if the USSR was ready to take out the United States in retaliation.  But not to be.  Khrushchev caved to the US and removed all the nukes, not just the strategic weapons he had promised Kennedy to remove, but also the tactical nuclear weapons he had promised Castro in the initial agreement would eventually be delivered to Cuban control—and Washington didn’t even know about.**

So instead of getting a powerful, nuke-based alliance with the USSR that would give Castro bargaining leverage against US security and economic coercion—and maybe diplomatic recognition, who knows? The US had extended the courtesy to a number of Soviet proxies with considerably less national legitimacy than Cuba--  Cuba was left as a lonely piƱata twisting in the wind while the US took whacks at it for over 50 years.  President Obama marked the continuation, rather than conclusion, of the effort by going to Cuba for a triumphal visit that was interpreted, especially in the United States, as receiving the Castros’ surrender to the forces of US democracy and capitalism, notwithstanding Raul Castro’s effort to literally spin Obama’s flaccid wrist into a display of equality and popular solidarity.
Here's how those socialist photops are supposed to look, by the way.

For the Soviet Union, a dismal botch that helped cost Khrushchev his job and, coming on the heels of the China debacle, pretty much put paid to Soviet overseas nuclear junketeering.

What about Cuba? What would have happened if the USSR, instead of putting its own nukes on Cuba, had just given Cuba some nukes?  Or, in a strikingly plausible scenario, let Castro keep the tactical nukes after the Soviets withdrew?  How would US relations with Cuba and the rest of Latin America evolved?

Looking at the cavalcade of instability in places like Chile, Argentina, Colombia, Honduras, and Guatemala engendered by the successful US rollback of socialism after Khrushchev bugged out, Latin America would certainly have been different if Cuba had nukes…and maybe not worse off.   
But that’s a possibility the US, for obvious reasons, has no interest in exploring.

*There was no basis under international law for the unilateral US blockade of Cuba in 1962.  The legal recourse for the US would have been to obtain a 2/3 vote from the Organization of American States authorizing a blockade against a member state, something that the US wasn't willing to wait for.  The legal end-around was to call it a "quarantine". 

**The report that Khrushchev had decided to let Castro keep the nukes post-crisis, but his envoy, Deputy Prime Minister Anastas Mikoyan, evaluated that Castro (admittedly at that time 32 years old, emotionally vigorous, and under tremendous stress) was too headstrong & irrational, & decided on his own initiative to negotiate their withdrawal is, by the way, false.  Mikoyan determined that Khrushchev's serial mismanagement of the crisis had alienated Castro to the degree that effective co-management of the weapons was impossible.  Castro, in desperation, was prepared to inform the world through the UN that, despite the Soviet withdrawal, Cuba still had the nukes and an effective deterrent against US invasion.  The decision to notify Castro the tactical weapons were being pulled from Cuba was made in consultation with the Soviet Party Presidium.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Nuclear Blackmail and America’s Fantasy War with China

Another day, another piece of US think-tankery poo-pooing the prospects for a nuclear confrontation with the PRC.

RAND came up with a new report on the economic costs of war with China, Thinking the Unthinkable.  In RAND's view the war won’t escalate beyond a limited conventional war fought in the West Pacific and over Chinese territory, China gets devastated beyond its ability to resist and keep military forces in the field, we win, the world economy staggers but carries on, The End.

I beg to differ, for reasons given in my current piece for Asia Times, RAND’s ‘Unthinkable’ War with China.

It’s always possible that I’m out of line here, but I think RAND’s public confidence is borderline delusional.

The PRC is narrowing the conventional military disparity with the US and it seems most likely sooner or later, maybe around 2025, the US is going to have to bring nukes into the equation to make sure it can win a war with China.

That’s what we had to do with the Soviet Union—that’s why we’ve still got those nukes at Incirlik in Turkey—and I don’t see any reason why this wouldn’t happen in Asia.

My personal theory is that Thinktankistan has been put on notice not to provide any oxygen to the nuclear narrative right now because, if a nuclear exchange is seen as feasible, then Japan, South Korea, and even Taiwan are going to want to have their own nuclear deterrent.  

Faith in the technical capabilities of Raytheon missile defense ain’t gonna cut it, in my opinion, if we’re talking about a clutch of Chinese missiles making it through the shield to take out US bases in Japan and that nice THAAD installation in South Korea…and they might be nuclear-tipped.
If everybody’s got nukes, they not only don’t need the US nuclear umbrella; they’ve got their own defense and security policies and the US, instead of acting as the maestro of the China-containment orchestra, is just the fat guy with the tuba in the back row who provides some extra oompah to support the front line players.

The PRC therefore has two incentives to abandon its old fashioned No First Use/MAD deterrent based on a few ICBMs.

First, naturally, is that the threat of a nuclear deterrent based on first use or launch on warning becomes more useful, maybe necessary, as the US packs offensive capabilities, including dual use (nuke as well as conventional) enabled fighter-bombers and cruise missiles into the East Asian theater.

Second, triggering a nuclear arms race in Asia shreds the US nuclear umbrella that underpins US leadership of the pivot, fragments the alliance, and allows the PRC to target—and intimidate—US allies bilaterally and bring its local superiority to bear.

Interesting element of PRC leverage, isn’t it?  Evaluations of PRC current and future nuclear policy (and the US dance of provocation and accommodation with China) should probably weight this factor pretty highly.

China isn’t the only country with the ability to upset the US nuclear applecart.

If the genuine history of US strategy for East Asia is written, it will of course cover the multi-decade effort to d*ck with China.  But it will also include the secret history of the US effort to direct and control Japanese rearmament as an asset for US hegemony, while keeping a rein on Japanese geo-strategic ambitions…and keeping Japan from turning the nuclear assets covertly gifted by the Pentagon into a declared nuclear weapons capability (Joseph Trento can write that section).

This is not a theoretical issue.  Shinzo Abe is a dyed-in-the-wool anti-American revisionist Japanese nationalist who is determined to exploit the US eagerness to remain the official East Asian hegemon to extend Japan’s geopolitical sway into East Asia and restore its dignity as a full-fledged regional power.

For Team America, keeping a leash on Japan and the US in the driver’s seat for Asian security policy is Job One.  That means the pot has to keep boiling enough to keep the US in control of the pivot polarization narrative and development of security alliances with the Philippines, Vietnam, et al.  while  keeping things calm enough that Japan stays on rez as a nominal junior partner of the coalition, whose military adventurism is still officially circumscribed by the principal of “collective self defense” in support of US operations.

As it pays lip service to US leadership, Japan has used the US pivot to develop its own bilateral security ties down ASEAN way and with India—and is reaching out to the Tsai Ying-wen government on Taiwan, which probably gives US planners a distinct case of the collywobbles.

Japan is, in other words, edging toward the full formal resumption of a “normal” role in overseas military affairs, one in which it officially pursues its own interests and doesn’t just follow US policy.

If Japan goes nuclear, it’s pretty much game over.  The US becomes just another passenger on the pivot bus.  So Japan can also use its nuclear weapons potential as leverage over the US to shape policy and extract concessions. 

Which means, in my opinion, RAND has to pretend, at least publicly, that nuclear weapons are not a factor in Asian strategy in order to defend the status quo of US leadership and nuclear monopoly.

Privately, I suspect, it’s another matter entirely, and US strategy is shaped both by Chinese and Japanese nuclear blackmail.