Asean no-nuke treaty in perilous times

Asean no-nuke treaty in perilous times

The Thai word, chiew-chiew, which means relax and respond in kind, is a fitting description of Asean's current attitude towards the fiercely strategic competition between the United States and China.

But the bloc's overall responses have been more than skin-deep. On the surface, Asean members are rightfully calling for more dialogue, less tension and more cooperation. However, deep down, they are consulting with one another, bilaterally and collectively, as to what to do to ensure that the rivalry between the world's two superpowers does not impact them in ways that would harm their hard-earned peace, stability and prosperity that has developed over the past five decades. Or, rather, they are trying their best to avoid collateral damage.

During the 56th Asean ministerial meeting next month, the Asean foreign ministers will take on an important global issue they have been trying to put on the back burner for over a decade. At the recent senior official consultative Asean-China meeting in Shenzhen, China officially informed Asean that Beijing is ready to accede to the 1995 Treaty of Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (SEANWFZ) without "reservations". That was the first time that China had reiterated its position so clearly. For years, China has wanted to be the first nuclear power to accede to the SEANWFZ. Truth be told, Asean has been reluctant to grant China such a privilege as the bloc would prefer to have all the remaining nuclear powers, the US, UK, France and Russia, sign the no-nuke treaty simultaneously.

The day of reckoning is coming for Asean. At the upcoming ministerial-level meeting of the Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone Commission, the decision will be taken on whether to permit China to accede to the SEANWFZ without any conditions. Since the Shenzhen meeting, both sides have intensified their consultations to ensure that China's desires can be fulfilled. But there is one glitch.

Despite China's repeated assurances that it would sign up to Asean's no-nuke treaty, it has yet to provide a written statement to back up its intention. While most Asean members are quite satisfied with China's commitment, one Asean member has been adamant in demanding a written guarantee. As such, the next few weeks will be crucial for the SEANWFZ executive committee to gather all necessary information and written statements from Beijing before the ministerial commission vets the matter.

From the Chinese perspective, it would be unprecedented practice, especially in international law, to provide such confirmation. Beijing has told the Asean capitals that it would get back to them on this issue. At the time of this writing, nothing has come from Beijing. However, to prepare for China's accession, a working group is meeting this week to discuss the modality of signing the protocol and related documents.

Asean's pending decision has created more questions than diplomatic circles in the region can answer. After all, China's request comes amid the deepening discord between the bloc's two high-powered comprehensive partners. In addition, in September 2021, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States set up a new security partnership known as Aukus. Frankly speaking, it has caused a lot of unease among Asean members, especially Indonesia and Malaysia. Both members fear it could stoke an arms race and destabilise the region. Others remained quiet, but they could not hide their anxiety. The new security pact would deliver nuclear-powered submarines to Australia to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific.

Indeed, it is the future of the Indo-Pacific that has given the Asean leaders sleepless nights. There are now at least 11 versions of Indo-Pacific strategies competing for attention. Indeed, from a regional perspective, only three of these versions are friendly and inclined towards expanded cooperation. Japan, South Korea and the Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) can work in tandem because they are not aimed at containing a third party.

Japan is the only country to have signed back in 2021 a joint statement pledging closer cooperation with the AOIP. South Korea was the latecomer to this strategic brinksmanship. Last November, Seoul came out with its own framework, "Strategy for a Free, Peaceful and Prosperous Indo-Pacific Region". Furthermore, it has designed a strategic framework for Asean known as the "Korea-Asean Solidarity Initiative", which was well received in the region. The bloc has been trying to mainstream the AOIP guidelines, but the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic caused a delay.

The moment of truth will come in early September when the First Asean Indo-Pacific Forum is convened back-to-back with the East Asia Summit (EAS). At the moment, it is difficult to predict who will attend the forum and its possible outcome in particular areas of cooperation. All 18 members of the EAS (10-Asean nations, the US, China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, New Zealand and Russia) would be invited, along with leading international organisations and financial institutions. All the EAS members have their own Indo-Pacific strategies except for China and Russia. Both prefer the old geographical delineation of Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific, which has been widely used since 2017. Nonetheless, China has pledged to support the AOIP and its four areas of cooperation. However, one of its strong barometers has been the desire to accede to the SEANWFZ to ensure the region's peace and nuclear-free safety.

Asean is mindful that any decision it will soon make must not be construed as a favour for China or have anything to do with the ongoing dispute between Ukraine and Russia. Asean interests come first. Since the outbreak of the conflict, Asean has been navigating the tough terrain brought on by mounting pressure from the West to condemn and isolate Russia. At the same time, the West has also blamed China for doing little to help end the conflict despite Beijing's effort to push for its 12-point peace proposal.

Since the 1995 treaty was signed in Bangkok, Asean has tried to persuade all major nuclear powers to join the treaty. But its ongoing efforts have been futile. China has been one of the nuclear powers that has persistently expressed the desire to accede to the treaty, while other nuclear powers also expressed the same desire but quietly. They would do it if their demands were made. Most of their demands were unacceptable to Asean, especially the concept of "indivisible security" or "nuclear security umbrellas".

Asean's Secretary-General Kao Kim Hourn, who visited Beijing in late March, was told by top Chinese leaders that China would sign the treaty without any reservations. Since then, the Asean senior officials have taken Beijing's overtures more seriously. "First come, first accept," was the succinct answer from the Asean chief in responding to this writer's question last week on China's proposal. He said it would benefit the region by keeping nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction away from Southeast Asia. Kim Hourn also reiterated that it would have positive impacts beyond the region. Therefore, he also encourages other nuclear powers to do the same -- accede to the treaty without any reservations.

If the SEANWFZ commission gives the green light, it would be considered one of the Asean chair's huge achievements. Asean has been quite worried that talk of using nuclear weapons has ramped up considerably since the start of the Russia-Ukraine war. Lest we forget, Asean's two dialogue partners from South Asia, India and Pakistan, are also nuclear powers with cut-throat relations. In 2010, Thailand attempted to convince them to accede to the SEANWFZ during the annual meeting in Hanoi.

Whatever the decision, its outcome will be the bloc's future trajectory in relation to superpower rivalry. Asean's change of heart was a practical response to the growing US-China rivalry and the potential danger of nuclear conflict. Given its limited ability to change the dynamics of the superpowers' relations, Asean has instinctively chosen to avoid any possibility of nuclear annihilation in its backyards through a new pathway -- one nuclear power's signatory at a time.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

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