Features | Security | East Asia

Grappling With Nuclear Asia

The latest NPT review had interesting implications for Asia’s nuclear security. But securing binding agreements was tough.

Last month saw the conclusion of the eighth Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (otherwise known as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or NPT) in New York City. Membership in the NPT is virtually universal. At present, it has 189 states parties—more than any other disarmament treaty—with only 4 countries recognized by the United Nations that are not members. But this broad tent makes significant progress extremely difficult.

Given that all countries must consent to a decision, the parties generally seek to achieve progress on measures that already enjoy consensus, while seeking greater backing in the future for other steps that remain in dispute. Yet even if the parties can agree on a Final Document, as they did this year, it typically includes only those provisions that no party finds highly objectionable.

And even when agreement is reached, there’s another problem—ensuring that parties actually do something about the commitments they’ve made. These obligations are often vague and lacking in specific benchmarks or deadlines. In addition, the conference lacks its own means of enforcement, and must rely on the UN Security Council to address violations, which can prove tricky.

Despite these limitations, the 2010 conference took a number of decisions that could affect the security of its diverse range of Asian members. China, Russia and the United States are recognized under the NPT as three of the five official ‘nuclear weapons states’ and, according to the treaty provisions, they’re obliged to try to reduce their nuclear weapons over time. At the 2010 conference, the delegations from each of these governments affirmed their commitment to nuclear disarmament. The Russian and US representatives sought to highlight their recently signed New START Treaty, which obliges them to cut their nuclear forces still further in future years, while the Chinese delegation expressed a willingness to join in these reductions once the Russian and US arsenals fell to Chinese levels.

But most of the representatives from the non-nuclear weapons states considered these affirmations, as well as their recent reductions, insufficient and instead wanted the nuclear weapons states to commit to a specific date by which they would disarm. The nuclear weapons states in turn resisted the proposed 2025 deadline. The compromise wording in the Final Document obliges them simply to ‘accelerate concrete progress’ toward abolishing their nuclear weapons, and they also refused to offer the non-nuclear weapons states legally binding commitments never to use, or threaten to use, nuclear weapons against them.

Asia contains three of the four countries (Israel being the outlier) that are not NPT parties. India, Pakistan and North Korea have all tested nuclear weapons and are continuing to strengthen their nuclear arsenals. The NPT considers their nuclear forces illegal under international law since they were not recognized nuclear weapons states at the time the treaty entered into force. India and Pakistan have never signed the NPT, while North Korea withdrew in 2003 and has since twice detonated a nuclear explosive device.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

This year’s Final Declaration took the unusual step of directly appealing to India and Pakistan by name to ‘promptly and without conditions’ join the NPT and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty by eliminating their nuclear weapons, never testing them again, and by placing their remaining nuclear facilities and materials under the comprehensive safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency. But both countries have proved resistant to pressure.

The Indian government’s position has been that it will adhere to the NPT’s injunctions against assisting other countries to acquire nuclear weapons, but that it won’t accept legally binding constraints on the development of its own nuclear forces. Indian officials have refused to sign the treaty because of its discriminatory nature—it allows some states to retain nuclear weapons, at least for a while, while denying other countries the same privilege. They argue that, besides being inherently unfair, such a situation is fraught with tension and encourages conflict and non-compliance within the NPT framework.

Indian officials claim that they’d support an agreement that applies universally and denies any country the right to possess nuclear weapons. For example, some Indians have supported negotiating a Nuclear Weapons Convention that, like the Biological and Chemical Weapons Conventions, would eliminate this class of weapon of mass destruction entirely. Pakistani officials for their part have made clear they will keep their nuclear weapons as long as India does.

Some of the delegates also grumbled about the recent waiver granted to India by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), whose guidelines generally prohibit members from engaging in nuclear commerce with countries that have not applied full-scope safeguards to their nuclear facilities, as required of non-nuclear weapons states under the NPT. In March 2009, the IAEA approved an additional protocol to India’s safeguards agreement that codified India’s commitment to place certain of its nuclear facilities under agency monitoring even while excluding others, which would remain part of India’s nuclear weapons program. But this year, conference delegates warned against offering similar NSG waivers in the future, fearing that it would remove one of the few disincentives to states refusing to join the NPT.

The Pakistani government, supported by China, has lobbied to be treated like India in terms of nuclear sales. But there’s considerable resistance to doing this as most other states consider it a greater proliferation risk, not least because it was earlier the base of the A Q Khan illicit trafficking network. In addition, the Chinese and other governments continue to disagree over whether China has the right to build two more nuclear reactors at Chashma Nuclear Power Plant, in central Pakistan. Chinese officials claim that, since the contracts for these two reactors were signed before Beijing joined the NSG, they were ‘grandfathered,’ a position disputed by other NSG members. Chinese officials also cite Pakistan’s clear need for the additional electricity, though Western experts argue could be met through other energy sources. Some Chinese nuclear experts have in turn criticized the US-India civil nuclear cooperation agreement and although the Chinese government decided in the end not to block the NSG decision to grant a waiver for the deal, Chinese representatives argued that Pakistan deserved equal treatment.

But it was the opening day of the conference that saw one of the most interesting developments for Asia, when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the Obama administration would now ask the US Senate to ratify several Protocols to the Africa Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty (Treaty of Pelindaba) and the South Pacific Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty (Treaty of Rarotonga). These protocols include a pledge not to test nuclear weapons within the zones and legally binding assurances not to use, or threaten to employ, nuclear weapons against the treaty Parties, which have agreed to renounce the possession of nuclear weapons. At the same time though, Clinton noticeably declined to commit to sign the protocols to nuclear-weapon-free zone treaties in force in Southeast Asia and Central Asia.

The Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone was established at the December 1995 ASEAN Summit in Bangkok. All ten ASEAN member nations signed the Treaty of Bangkok, which came into force in March 1997. Its single protocol requires all nuclear weapons states to pledge not to violate the treaty by using—or threatening to use—nuclear weapons against any country adhering to the zone. Unlike in the other zones, the Southeast Asia zone extends coverage to the continental shelves and the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of the parties as well as the members’ territories. In addition, its negative security assurances apply even to non-treaty parties whose ships and planes may be in the zone.

The United States and some other countries consider these restrictions excessive and difficult to enforce, especially since some of the members’ continental shelves and EEZs, such as those in the South China Sea, remain contested. The US government believes the accord unduly limits freedom of navigation within the treaty area, including the right of warships carrying nuclear weapons to make port calls.

Meanwhile, the Central Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (CANWFZ), which entered into force in January 2009, encompasses the territories of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. China and Russia support the zone, but France, Great Britain and the United States have declined to sign its protocol until the treaty signatories address certain objections.

The most serious concern is that the treaty text allows Russia to deploy or move nuclear weapons in or through the zone. Article 12 says the zone doesn’t affect the rights and obligations that its members might have assumed under prior accords, which could include the Collective Security Treaty, signed in Tashkent in 1992 by Russia and the other CANWFZ parties. But the CST can be read as allowing Russia to use nuclear weapons to defend its members or to move nuclear weapons on their territories, so Western governments want to ensure that the zone prohibits the entry of any nuclear weapons within its area of jurisdiction before they agree to support it.

And perhaps unsurprisingly, North Korea presented even more serious problems for the conference, and the NPT more broadly, with the United States and its allies citing the need to close a loophole exposed by Pyongyang a few years ago.

In 2003, the North Korean government, after IAEA monitors detected its illicit diversion of plutonium, simply announced it was withdrawing from the NPT. North Korea was never penalized for its cheating or subsequent withdrawal, though it was later sanctioned after it tested a nuclear bomb and launched long-range missiles. Yet, other countries resisted Western proposals to impose automatic penalties, or at least conduct an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to deliberate on possible sanctions or other responses, on countries that withdraw from the NPT while exploiting nuclear assistance they received within the treaty framework to develop nuclear weapons. There was, though, more unanimity on the need for North Korea to eliminate its nuclear weapons. Although the Final Declaration toned down the condemnatory language in some earlier drafts, it did call on North Korea to rejoin the Six-party Talks and implement its previous commitments to the ‘verifiable abandonment of all nuclear weapons.’

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

There was a timely reminder at the end of the conference of why many governments feel it is critical to make progress over North Korea as new fears surfaced that it was assisting Burma to acquire nuclear weapons.

According to documents and testimony provided by a defecting Burmese military officer, the government has been importing specialized material and technologies used to manufacture a nuclear weapon. Although Burma’s current nuclear capabilities are rudimentary, fears persist that North Korean assistance could enable Burma to make rapid progress toward developing a nuclear weapon. Such a move would undoubtedly risk contributing further nuclear proliferation in Asia, which already has more countries with nuclear weapons than any other continent.