Low-hanging fruit: revisiting South Asia’s nuke-free zone

In light of increasing schisms between nuclear and non-nuclear states, Maxwell Downman considers the prospects for consensus on gradual steps towards disarmament

The Asia Pacific seems more divided over pathways towards nuclear disarmament than ever. From emerging international criticism over China’s nuclear modernisation, the slow-burning nuclear crisis in North Korea and the increasing likelihood of conflict between India and Pakistan going nuclear, there appears to be little to celebrate. Indeed, on February 1 Donald Trump confirmed that the US decision to leave the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was as much about China as it was about Russia, and nuclear tensions between China and the US are increasingly coming to the fore. There are few easy solutions to these mounting challenges.

On the other hand, Non-Nuclear Weapon States (NNWS) throughout the Asia-Pacific have sought to demonstrate their frustration over NuclearWeapon States’ (NWS) lack of progress towards disarmament. In July 2017, with the wide support of South East Asian and the Pacific Island nations, the UN General Assembly voted to adopt the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The Ban Treaty, as it is more commonly known, is the first legally binding international agreement to comprehensively prohibit nuclear weapons, with the ultimate goal being their total elimination.

All ASEAN members, apart from Singapore, voted to adopt the Treaty. It is widely acknowledged that Singapore abstained in the final vote, given its security cooperation with the United States. Since then the rest of ASEAN have signed the Treaty, with Thailand and Vietnam already completing ratification, and it has also received widespread support amongst the Pacific Islands. Matthew Bolton, director of the International Disarmament Institute, has noted the role of the Pacific in pressing for ‘positive obligations’ on states to assist victims of nuclear weapons use and testing and remediate the contaminated environment. States were influenced by the region’s history as a site of nuclear weapons testing in the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, and French Polynesia and earlier diplomatic efforts regionally linking denuclearisation with decolonisation.

NWS and their allies allege the Ban Treaty has undermined the NPT

The adoption of the Ban Treaty was widely criticised by NWS and their allies, who allege the Treaty has undermined the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and does not account for states’ security concerns. So, given increasing polarisation between states, what prospects are there to find consensus and make tangible steps towards nuclear disarmament?

One such measure may be for NWS to ratify the protocols to the South-East Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone. Since 1997, all ten members of ASEAN have been signatories of the Treaty of Bangkok, which created the South-East Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (SEANWFZ). Since then, its members have pressed China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States to adopt the protocols to the Treaty. These protocols would commit those states to not contribute to any violation of the Treaty and offer legally binding negative security assurances to not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against states within the Zone.

Matthew Bolton, director of the International Disarmament Institute
Matthew Bolton, director of the International Disarmament Institute

These calls continue over 20 years after the adoption of the Treaty. On 27-31 March 2017, at the Ban Treaty negotiations, statements from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Myanmar stressed the importance of the SEANWFZ and expressed the view that a Ban Treaty should be compatible with the Bangkok treaty and other existing Nuclear Weapons Free Zones. More recently,during the 2018 Preparatory Committee for the 2020 NPT Review Conference, Vietnam stressed the importance of the Zone and called on states once again to consider joining the Treaty. Yet the five Nuclear-Weapon States continue to resist signing the protocols. As Tong Zhao, aFellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center’s Nuclear Policy Program,notes, they have a number of concerns with these protocols.

First, there has been resistance to giving some states within the Zone unconditional negative security assurances. The United States reserves the right to threaten states with nuclear weapons it believes are not in compliance with the NPT. Washington has previously expressed concerns over the non-proliferation record of Myanmar and has been reluctant to issue such a sweeping legally-binding negative security assurance.

Second, it has commonly been interpreted that the protocols of the Treaty of Bangkok restrict states’ ability to transit nuclear weapons through the Zone. Some see this as undermining their capabilities to nuclear-armed submarines (SSBNs). Similarly, the United States has been uncomfortable with the Treaty’s expectations for states to declare whether vessels making port calls in the Zone carry nuclear weapons or not. The United States maintains a deliberate policy of neither confirming nor denying whether ships carry such weapons.

Third, ratifying the protocols would limit NWS’ ability to fire nuclear weapons from within the Zone, which is seen as a large and strategic operating theatre stretching from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea. Indeed, China’s nascent nuclear submarine fleet struggles to operate in blue water. Instead, Beijing prefers to keep its SSBNs close in the South China Sea, protected by the rest of its fleet.

Finally, the borders of the Zone are unclear, given maritime disputes in the South China Sea. Four ASEAN countries – the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei – have unresolved maritime territorial disputes with mainland China and Taiwan. Beijing has worried that signing the protocols may be interpreted as tacit recognition of ASEAN members in territorial disputes.

Despite these concerns, there are convincing reasons why the Nuclear Weapon States should ratify the protocols.

The Ban Treaty has put increasing pressure on all NWS to demonstrate the credibility of the step-by-step process towards incremental disarmament. States will struggle to persuade the international community they are upholding their disarmament commitments and reducing the saliency of nuclear weapons in their security doctrines if they resist signing the protocols,thus maintaining the right to threaten non-nuclear weapons states with nuclear weapons. The Non-Proliferation Treaty and the following review conference consensus documents explicitly discuss the benefits of the Nuclear Weapon Free Zone and legally binding negative security assurances not to threaten non-nuclear weapons states with nuclear weapons.

Increasingly, arguments against ratifying the protocols look more and more far-fetched. For one, concerns over Myanmar’s non-proliferation record have dissipated. If any ASEAN members did decide to flout the Non-Proliferation Treaty and develop nuclear weapons, they would be in contravention of the Treaty of Bangkok, and thus not receive these assurances anyways. Offering legally binding NSAs would strengthen the NPT as well as the regional non-proliferation regime.

Similarly, concerns that the protocols would undermine NWS’ deterrence postures and undermine their security seem increasingly remote. Realistically, it is only China and the United States that see a military necessity to operate nuclear-armed vessels from South-East Asia. Signing the protocols could provide both China and the US with the chance to ameliorate concerns over the other’s nuclear weapons programme. For the United States, it would provide the assurance that China was not seeking to ‘nuclearise’ the South China Sea, given increasing tension there. For China, who have concerns over US sea-launched and air-launched cruise missiles, it would provide reassurances that these systems could not operate within certain ranges to China’s south. In both cases, this would increase crisis stability and ensure that South East Asia does not become an area of great power competition.

It is unlikely, given the deteriorating security dynamic globally, that NWS will make sweeping progress towards disarmament in the near future. Indeed, it is a pipe-dream to expect them to sign on the Ban Treaty. However, if NWS are committed to a step-by-step approach to disarmament and hope to rally the international community behind them, they need to demonstrate their commitment to it. With many of the traditional concerns about ratifying the protocols to the Treaty of Bangkok arguably fading, there is an opportunity to reinvigorate the step-step approach. Indeed, ratifying the protocol would demonstrate a willingness to make progress on stalled issues, an acceptance of the need to gradually reduce the saliency of nuclear weapons and an understanding of the key principle that it is unjust to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states.


Maxwell Downman is a political researcher with the British American Security Information Council(BASIC), London’s independent disarmament and arms control think-tank. He focuses on nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation and East Asian international security

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