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Asia and the 2015 NPT Review Conference

Can the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference help prevent future crises from escalating?

Asia and the 2015 NPT Review Conference
Credit: U.S. Department of State via Flickr.com

Since its ratification in 1970, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) has become one of the main pillars of the nuclear nonproliferation mechanisms. In 2015, state parties to the NPT gather in a Review Conference (RevCon) to ensure that both the NPT provisions and the major nuclear proliferation challenges are being properly addressed. Given that seven of the world’s nine nuclear powers are in Asia, it is important to understand the main nuclear proliferation challenges that this continent presents to the 2015 RevCon.

Some of the unavoidable topics surrounding this diplomatic assembly will be the ongoing disputes involving nuclear programs in two countries: Iran and North Korea. Pyongyang acceded to the NPT in 1985, but in 2003, after dismissing the Agreed Framework, it withdrew and resumed its nuclear program. Twelve years, numerous ballistic missile tests, and three nuclear tests later, we are likely to witness a 2015 RevCon making renewed calls for Pyongyang to halt all nuclear and ballistic missile activities.

While such calls are hardly unprecedented, it is important for parties to the NPT to understand that the more evolved the North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile program gets, the more difficult the negotiations become and the less credible the nuclear nonproliferation mechanisms look to the international community. One way to overcome the current impasse could involve the restart of the Six-Party Talks with more flexible preconditions that do not require the complete dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure. It may not be a complete solution, it is certainly better than dealing with a North Korea steadily moving forward on its nuclear weapons program.

Another very important issue for the NPT concerns the Iranian nuclear program. In November 2013, Teheran and the other P5+1 States adopted a Joint Plan of Action to address pending issues surrounding the hypothetical non-civilian traits of this nuclear program. Even though a final agreement would certainly constitute an important triumph for nonproliferation diplomacy, caution is needed to fully understand how the region may react to a final agreement. Not only has Israel publicly stated its opposition to any deal that might see Iran retain any nuclear infrastructure and indigenous uranium enrichment capability, the reaction of other countries in the region – namely Saudi Arabia – remains a question mark. In recent years, Riyadh has made moves to start its own civilian nuclear program, including agreements with the French nuclear companies Areva and EDF. Although the legality of civilian nuclear programs is not questioned by the NPT provisions, accounts report a Saudi interest in uranium enrichment technology that could indicate nuclear non-civilian interest. Moreover, in 2013 the BBC reported on a Saudi Arabia-Pakistan nuclear pact, yet unconfirmed, in which Islamabad manufactures a nuclear weapon for the Saudis. As one nuclear crisis moves closer to a diplomatic resolution, it is imperative that the NPT’s nuclear weapons states are able to contain any repercussions that emanate from the Iranian nuclear resolution and prevent any additional erosion of the NPT’s credibility.

During the last RevCon, in 2010, one of the most important planned initiatives envisioned the implementation of a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone (WMDFZ) in the Middle East. In fact, this proposal was presented at the 1995 NPT RevCon but in 2010 the idea found renewed support. Although Syria’s accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and Iran’s suspension of most of its nuclear activities may sound like good omens for the establishment of a WMDFZ in the Middle East, the chances of an agreement remain remote. Aside from the Saudi interest in nuclear infrastructure and its alleged agreement with Pakistan, Israel remains the sole nuclear power in the Middle East and a state that is not party to the NPT. Even taking into consideration its policy of nuclear ambiguity, news related to the acquisition of new nuclear-capable submarines make clear that Israel intends to keep its nuclear weapons and reinforce its second strike capability, which places an added hurdle in front of this disarmament effort. Other challenges for a WMDFZ are linked to the Egyptian lack of accession to the CWC and the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC). Hence, in spite of several meetings held over the past few years to debate the adoption of a WMDFZ, there is no evidence of progress.

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Although they are not parties to the NPT, previous RevCons have always stressed the need to persuade India and Pakistan to join the treaty. These outreach initiatives should be seen as one of the most important objectives for the NPT’s future, as both countries are strengthening their nuclear arsenals with significant strategic implications across the region. Pakistan, for instance, is believed to be developing the nuclear-capable short-range ballistic missile called the Nasr, estimated to have a range of 60 kilometers. With operational tactical nuclear weapons, Islamabad may find itself lowering the threshold of nuclear weapons use as this particular type of weapon is seen as more likely to be used accidentally or without authorization, and blurs somewhat the distinction between conventional and nuclear weapons.

India, meanwhile, has invested heavily in its nuclear military nuclear capabilities, for instance modifying the Agni-V ICBM to enable it to carry MIRV warheads. By adopting these particular warheads, India risks destabilizing the nuclear deterrence dynamic with its nuclear rivals – Pakistan and China – as increasing the number of warheads no a single missile generates additional benefits in a first strike. With this scenario in mind, the NPT RevCon must start to think about tangible actions that could allow India and Pakistan to address their security concerns and initiate confidence-building measures that can defuse the ongoing nuclear arms race in South Asia, with the ultimate goal of bringing both countries into the NPT.

A nuclear weapons modernization process is also ongoing both in Russia and China, as well as in the other NPT recognized nuclear powers (P5). Beijing and Moscow, probably in an effort to circumvent missile interceptor systems deployed to different regions, are also “MIRVing” some of their ballistic missiles or have improved their missile shield countermeasures, actions that may well ignite a qualitative nuclear arms race among nuclear powers in Asia. Article VI of the NPT clearly states that “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith (…) on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” Even taking into consideration the fact that the overall number of nuclear weapons has been decreasing, the nuclear modernization programs bluntly demonstrate a lack of interest in a true nuclear disarmament process, at least in the short and medium terms. Consequently, this topic is likely to be the subject of considerable debate during the RevCon and may call into question the credibility of the P5’s nuclear nonproliferation proposals.

Notwithstanding the emergence of new security issues and the Global Zero Movement over the last years, the nuclear factor remains a central element of international politics. Given the globally devastating effects of nuclear weapons use, it is essential that the NPT remains a thriving force behind nuclear nonproliferation efforts. However, the states present at the RevCon must be aware that the usual diplomatic jargon will not do; they must rather establish concrete plans capable of mitigating regional disputes among nuclear powers or other issues that can undermine nuclear nonproliferation endeavors. For Asian participants, the RevCon could be an opportunity to create new confidence building mechanisms among nuclear weapons countries and prevent future crises from escalating.