Foreign Ministers from the five recognized nuclear weapons states (NWS) meet on Thursday with members of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). There had been an expectation that the NWS would at last endorse the Southeast Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (NWFZ) by signing up to its Protocol, but they are still expressing reservations over the scope of the Treaty and its restriction on the passage of NWS vessels through the surrounding seas. China also has particular concerns that the Treaty treads on its territorial sovereignty – it is already in dispute with ASEAN members over the South China Seas.
The 1995 Bangkok Treaty, which established the Southeast Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone, came into force in 1997 with all members except Philippines, who eventually ratified it in 2001. Nuclear-weapon-free zones have become an important pillar of the non-proliferation regime, both in limiting the drivers behind proliferation, but also in restricting the freedom of NWS’ actions. They represent an obvious link, albeit a regionally-focused one, between tighter limits on NWS’ deployment of nuclear weapons and commitments from the non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) to stronger non-proliferation measures. They give states in these regions the clear opportunity to opt out of the nuclear deterrence game, and the chance to influence the global context within which nuclear disarmament negotiations sit.
The vast majority of states within the United Nations support the NWFZ approach and have consistently supported NWFZ proposals coming to the General Assembly, but some have also experienced robust opposition from NWS over practical implications – particularly in the case of the South East Asian and Central Asian NWFZs. The United States in particular has stipulated that NWFZs “should not disturb existing security arrangements to the detriment of regional and international security or otherwise abridge the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense”, and it was this that led to US objections to the Central Asian NWFZ, established when the Treaty of Semipalatinsk entered into force in 2009. The United States, France and Britain also wanted central Asian states to allow the transit of nuclear weapons through their territory.
Clearly, for the United States and other NWS, alliance relationships and the freedom to use staging posts for their forces trump the collective advantages to be had from restraint. This ought to be a focus for reconsidering their posture at the next round of ‘P5’ talks in the context of the NPT. The languid pace in which the NWS have considered changes to their posture in response to NWFZ initiatives is just one more threat to the momentum behind non-proliferation.
These are the views of the author.