Asia Steps Up at Nuclear Meet

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Asia Steps Up at Nuclear Meet

Last week’s nuclear security summit showed Asian nations are ready to take a lead, says Richard Weitz. There’s a lot to do.

Although nuclear material security has traditionally been seen as a transatlantic obsession, last week’s Nuclear Security Summit saw Asian countries assume a prominent role on numerous issues. And, with Seoul now designated as the host city for the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit, the need for their leadership is becoming even clearer.

US-led efforts to secure vulnerable nuclear materials began in the mid-1990s with the Nunn-Lugar legislation and other Cooperative Threat Reduction efforts designed to eliminate surplus Soviet-era weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and ensure that any WMD-related materials and technologies were stored more safely and securely. The G-8 countries then launched the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Mass Destruction at their 2002 annual summit in Kananaskis, Canada. Yet although the G-8 includes Japan, European countries and the United States have so far been the main financers of the Global Partnership, which has pledged almost $20 billion over 10 years to support WMD-related security projects. The Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism was also originally a G-8 creation, but has since expanded its membership to include many more countries than those involved in either the Global Partnership or the Nuclear Security Summit.

The main objective of the 47 national governments attending last week’s summit, held in Washington, was to prevent non-state actors such as terrorists or criminals from acquiring dangerous nuclear materials. US President Barack Obama, who established the goal of eliminating or securing all dangerous nuclear material within four years in his Prague speech last April, decided to organize the summit to support this goal. The Obama administration stressed that the summit would focus on enhancing the security of highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium and would allow other institutions and meetings to address the related issues of nuclear non-proliferation, nuclear disarmament and the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Even so, the attendees, especially in the less formal meetings that occurred on the summit sidelines, also discussed how to reduce existing stockpiles of nuclear weapons as well as prevent additional countries from acquiring them.

The summit was notable for the presence of Asia’s leading nuclear powers, including China, India, Japan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan and South Korea. Each brought distinct national interests to the table, reflecting their diverse nuclear statuses. China is recognized as a nuclear weapons state by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), while India and Pakistan, along with Israel and North Korea are the only countries outside the NPT framework (as well as having known or suspected nuclear weapons). Japan has an enormous civil nuclear industry, with the potential to rapidly develop nuclear weapons. Kazakhstan and South Korea are emerging civil nuclear powers with ambitions to assume positions of global leadership in this industry.

Obama held less than a dozen formal bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the Washington Summit. These included sessions with several Asian leaders, including Chinese President Hu Jintao, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev and Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, among others.

Japan actually played a surprisingly minor role at the summit, despite its distinguished record in support of nuclear disarmament and security measures. The continuing dispute over where to relocate the US Futenma Air Station in Okinawa apparently led the White House not to schedule an official meeting between Obama and visiting Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. Hatoyama told the summit attendees that Japan would increase its human and financial contributions to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to bolster its ability to counter nuclear terrorism and improve the safety of nuclear materials. He also announced that Japan was prepared to train Asian experts in how to improve the security of their nuclear materials and to host an international conference of the Vienna-based World Institute for Nuclear Safety later this year.

Conversely, the administration eagerly sought a personal meeting between Obama and President Hu. Before the summit, there were fears that Hu would skip the session due to rising Sino-US tensions over Taiwan arms sales, alleged Chinese currency manipulation, Obama’s talks with the Dalai Lama and other disputes. In his address to the summit, Hu outlined a five-point plan to strengthen global nuclear security that included a proposal to consolidate the two major existing international legal instruments regarding this issue: the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, which obligates its parties to secure nuclear materials during their shipment or storage, and the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, which requires national governments to criminalize and prosecute acts of nuclear terrorism. Nonetheless, the issue of whether China would support additional sanctions on Iran was apparently the focus of the Obama-Hu meeting. Like other Chinese leaders, Hu indicated Beijing’s willingness to consider another round of sanctions providing they were not too strong and ongoing diplomatic initiatives remained unsuccessful.

Kazak President Nazarbayev was treated with a private meeting with Obama due to his country’s status as a leading global supplier of uranium as well as oil and natural gas. As chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), moreover, Kazakhstan was leading efforts to resolve the political crisis in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan. According to the joint US-Kazakh statement, Obama supported Kazakhstan’s efforts to become a member of the Board of Governors of the IAEA, but was noncommittal regarding Nazarbayev’s offer to host an IAEA-supervised International Nuclear Fuel Bank.

South Korea, meanwhile, surprised many observers last year by winning a $20 billion contract to construct and operate the first nuclear power plants in the United Arab Emirates. And it surprised the world again last week when it was announced that the next Nuclear Security Summit would be held in Seoul in 2012. Moscow was originally expected to host the 2010 summit, and other countries also wanted to serve as its host. Cho Hyun, the South Korean deputy foreign minister for multilateral and global affairs, said Obama had designated Seoul in recognition of South Korea’s good record in using nuclear energy only for peaceful purposes, the close US-ROK security relationship and the desire to further pressure North Korea to rejoin the nuclear non-proliferation regime. Cho served as South Korea’s ‘sherpa’ (national coordinator) to the Washington Summit.

During a press conference in Washington, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said that winning the right to host the next Nuclear Security Summit was ‘another diplomatic breakthrough for South Korea,’ following the decision last September to convene the November 2010 G-20 Summit in Seoul. ‘What’s urgent now for us is to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula and promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy worldwide,’ Lee continued. ‘I will work closely with the international community to attain these goals.’ Lee said he would invite North Korea to the Seoul Summit if North Korea makes greater progress in meeting its denuclearization commitments. Pyongyang was not invited to last week’s summit because it was not complying with its non-proliferation obligations. But even if North Korea doesn’t attend the 2012 summit, the decision to convene the meeting in Seoul will invariably make achieving Korea’s denuclearization a major agenda issue.

Following the summit, the South Korean government announced it would begin the process of ratifying the two international nuclear security conventions, which it has already signed. Although the Summit communiqué urging all countries to join these conventions is not legally binding, Cho Hyun, its deputy foreign minister for multilateral and global affairs, described this obligation as politically binding since the national leaders at the Summit agreed to take the measure.

The Pakistani leaders attending the summit for their part tried to establish their country’s right to become a major player in the international nuclear fuel services market, but they spent much time trying to dispel continuing concerns about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Shortly before the summit, the latest issue of Harvard’s ‘Securing the Bomb’ concluded that Pakistan’s ‘small and heavily guarded stockpile confronts immense threats from both insider theft and outsider attack.’ Nuclear security experts are still trying to assess the proliferation harm done by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear program. Before his arrest a few years ago, Khan ran an illicit WMD proliferation network that sold uranium centrifuges and even detailed designs for a nuclear bomb.

In his media events, Gilani insisted that his country was ‘a responsible nuclear state’ that was fully ‘abiding by the rules of the International Atomic Energy Agency.’ Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi argued that Pakistan had taken ‘effective steps for nuclear safety, security and non-proliferation through extensive legislative, regulatory and administrative framework.’ As a result, Qureshi added, ‘We are confident our system is second to none.’ Pakistan’s ambassador to China, Masood Khan, said that the Pakistani government was ‘confident our nuclear arsenal is safe’ due to its ‘three tier system’ and ‘stringent regulatory regime.’ Gilani, meanwhile, confirmed that the issue of the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal was discussed extensively in his meeting with Obama.

At the summit, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced his country would establish a Global Center for Nuclear Energy Partnership to research proliferation-resistant technologies and train and educate nuclear security personnel. Singh said the centre would have four schools dealing with nuclear security, radiation safety, advanced nuclear energy system studies and the application of radioisotopes and radiation technology in the healthcare, agriculture and food sectors. He added that the centre would research and develop ‘intrinsically safe, secure, proliferation-resistant and sustainable’ design systems Indian officials said they would link their centre with the IAEA’s own research facilities to support the agency’s nuclear security missions. They also invited foreign nationals to participate in the centre’s work programs.

In his summit speech, Singh justified India’s refusal to sign the NPT by stressing its ineffectiveness in averting nuclear proliferation. He emphasized India’s impeccable non-proliferation record by describing its comprehensive export control system, the congruence between India’s export guidelines and lists with those of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the Missile Technology Control Regime, and India’s commitment, as part of its nuclear energy deal with the United States, to place all its future civilian reactors under international safeguards.

Nuclear security experts worry that the US-India cooperation agreement, negotiated by the preceding Bush administration but supported by the Obama administration, establishes a bad precedent for nuclear non-proliferation because it permits India to produce weapons-usable separated plutonium despite India’s persistent refusal to join the NPT and its expanding nuclear weapons stockpile. Indeed, the Indian deal has prompted Pakistan to expand its own fissile material production and oppose a treaty that would cap fissile material stocks at present levels. Iranians cited the US-India deal at their own nuclear security summit in Tehran this weekend as an example of the hypocrisy they claim permeates US non-proliferation policy.

It’s clear that last week’s summit made important contributions to promoting nuclear materials security. In addition to its communiqué and work plan, which outlined many ways national governments could cooperate to counter nuclear terrorism, several countries announced specific commitments during or after the meeting. In fact, actually convening the summit was a notable achievement given the difficulty of securing the attendance of so many high-level leaders at any one place and time to discuss a topic few leaders know anything about and which, 20 years ago, was an issue of concern primarily to mid-level managers at US national nuclear laboratories.

As the host government of the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit, South Korea will have an important role in addressing those issues insufficiently covered at last week’s meeting. These include securing concrete financial commitments from more governments, enhancing the security of radioactive sources as well as fissile materials and establishing new projects and commitments rather than simply accelerating existing projects. South Korean officials have suggested they might discuss broader non-proliferation, disarmament, nuclear energy and other issues that this year’s summit excluded due to its occurring immediately after the signing of the New START Treaty and immediately before the May 2010 NPT Review Conference.

Perhaps South Korea’s most important contribution will be to further the transformation of the nuclear materials security issue from what has until now been primarily an ad hoc effort of the most committed and interested countries into a more rationalized and institutionalized mechanism. This new framework would integrate what exists, establish strict standards for measuring success, actively engage the global expert community while cultivating new issue leaders outside the United States, involve more countries in addition to the summit participants and develop and adequately support new nuclear security initiatives.

Despite the inevitable difficulties in making further progress on nuclear security, it is imperative that more is done to build on the work of this year’s summit with 2012’s Asian backdrop.

Richard Weitz writes a weekly column for The Diplomat on Asian defence and security. He is a senior fellow and director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Political-Military Analysis.