By Kalinga Seneviratne | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis
SINGAPORE (IDN) – North Korea’s response to the United Nations Security Council’s expanded sanctions on January 22 by threatening to resume nuclear tests and failure last November of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to persuade the five recalcitrant nuclear powers to sign the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone Treaty (SEANWFZ) have focused attention on the atomic threat facing the Asian region that is fast emerging as the centre of the global economy.
Posited very much in the midst of these developments is the Obama Administration’s so-called US “pivot” or “rebalance” policy towards Asia, which is increasingly seen in the region as a security issue rather than an economic or political re-engagement.
Since this policy announcement two years ago there has been increased tension in the region with regard to China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea that has prompted some analysts in Asia to question whether the US is trying to provoke Asian countries like Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam into confrontation with China.
With North Korea’s recent posturing, the threat of a nuclear confrontation – though remote – is rather worrisome to Asia that is emerging from centuries of economic subjugation by the West.
A looming confrontation with China in Asia may be one of the major reasons why the three nuclear powered states Russia, France and Britain could not agree to sign the SEANWFZ as planned at the 21st ASEAN Summit in Cambodia in November 2012. France voiced its reservations on the right of self-defence, United Kingdom on “new threat and development”, and Russia on the right of foreign ships and aircraft to pass into the nuclear free zone, a concern similar to that of the US.
The notion of a SEANWFZ dates back to November 27, 1971, when the original five members of ASEAN signed a Declaration on a (ASEAN) Zone of Peace, Freedom, and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) in Kuala Lumpur. The first major component of the ZOPFAN pursued by ASEAN was the establishment of a SEANWFZ.
However, due to the unfavourable political environment in the region, the formal proposal for the establishment of such a zone was tabled only in the mid-1980s. After a decade of negotiating and drafting efforts by the ASEAN Working Group on a ZOPFAN, the SEANWFZ Treaty was signed by the heads of states of all 10 ASEAN member countries in Bangkok on December 15, 1995 and it took effect two years later. The negotiations between ASEAN and the five nuclear powers on the protocol have been under way since May 2001 with no progress achieved.
Among a number of rules and conditions laid out by the treaty, the main components are that signatory States are obliged not to develop, manufacture or otherwise acquire, possess or have control over nuclear weapons; station nuclear weapons; or test or use nuclear weapons anywhere inside or outside the treaty zone.
The protocol also stipulates that Nuclear Weapon States (NWS) must abide by articles of the Treaty and not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against States parties. China has previously expressed its willingness to ratify the protocol, but the other four NWS cite the geographical scope of the Treaty as an obstacle. The treaty zone covers the territories, continental shelves, and exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of the States Parties within the zone.
Malaysian political scientist, Dr Chandra Muzzafar, Executive Director of the International Movement for a Just World says that while ASEAN states must be commended for drafting and signing the SEANWFZ, at the same time “all the five nuclear weapons states are determined to ensure that their nuclear advantage is preserved at all costs, ‘self-defence’ is just a camouflage”.
“Britain and France are US allies and the US through various military and diplomatic moves is reinforcing its agenda of containing China. So it should not surprise anyone if its two European allies are seeking to bolster the US position in the region,” he said in an interview with IDN-InDepthNews.
Asked if the Asian countries should make US access to their markets conditional on the nuclear powers signing the treaty, Dr Muzzafar said: “ASEAN and other countries in Asia should first demonstrate a strong collective commitment towards the control and abolition of nuclear weapons before they make demands upon outside powers. Such a commitment does not exist at the moment. This is why I do not see them asking these powers to sign the Bangkok Treaty as a condition for access to the expanding markets in Asia.”
Dr Muzzafar is of the view that governments in the region will not be able to persuade the nuclear powers to sign the treaty and it will have to be non-governmental actors that need to mount a concerted campaign for it to happen. “In the ultimate analysis, it is only a powerful citizens’ movement that can rid the continent of present and future nuclear weapons”, he argues.
In a speech at the University of Iceland in October 2012, Dr Gareth Evans, the former Australian Foreign Minister and the Convener of the Asia Pacific Leadership Network on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (APLN), regretted that the spirit of optimism some three years ago that nuclear disarmament could be achieved in the Asia-Pacific region has evaporated.
“If the existing nuclear-armed states are serious about non-proliferation, as they all claim to be, and sincerely want to prevent others from joining their club, they cannot keep justifying the possession of nuclear weapons as a means of protection for themselves or their allies against other weapons of mass destruction, especially biological weapons, or conventional weapons,” he argued. “All the world hates a hypocrite, and in arms control as in life generally, demanding that others do as I say is not nearly as compelling as asking them to do as I do.”
Dr Evans also pointed out that nuclear weapons would not deter terrorists, as many nuclear weapons states tend to argue. “Terrorists don’t usually have territory, industry, a population or a regular army which could be targeted with nuclear weapons,” he said.
On September 13, 2012, APLN expressed deep disappointment at the evaporation of political will evident in global and regional efforts toward nuclear disarmament over the previous year. The statement was signed by 25 political, diplomatic, military and scientific leaders from 14 Asia Pacific countries.
Professor Ramesh Thakur, Director of the Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament at the Australian National University, writing in Japan Times noted that plans for upgrades, modernization or increased numbers and destructive power of nuclear arsenals by all the nuclear-armed states indicate that none is serious about nuclear disarmament.
“All countries that have and seek nuclear weapons, or are increasing the size and modernizing the quality of their arsenals, should be subjected to international opprobrium,” he wrote.
Rather than subjecting nukes to international scorn, several commentators in regional publications in recent months have argued that the US may need to be persuaded to re-deploy tactical weapons in the Korean peninsula, which the Bush administration withdrew in 1991 – in order to respond to the North Korean threat.
“Tactical nukes on South Korean soil would enhance the credibility of the US nuclear umbrella against North Korea and also reassure the South Korean public of the US security commitment” argues Seongwhun Cheon, a Senior Research Fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification in a commentary published by GlobalAsia.
“As North Korea continues to develop long-range missiles, alliance dynamics in Northeast Asia will come to resemble that of Europe in the late 1950s.” he says. “When the Soviet Union first fired its Sputnik missile and opened the intercontinental missile age, Western European allies began to worry that America might decouple its own security from alliance security in fear of a Soviet attack on the US mainland. Similar concerns on decoupling will become widespread in South Korea, and cause ripple effects in Japan. To allay looming concerns about such a possible decoupling, redeploying tactical nukes in South Korea is essential,” writes Cheon.
Yet, China may play a crucial role in decreasing tension in the region. Ties are expected to become warmer between China and South Korea under the new leaderships. The newly elected South Korean President Park Geun-Hye has already sent a special envoy to Beijing and China’s new Communist party chief Xi Jinping has called for a resumption of the six-party talks on North Korea.
While Park has indicated that she would take a more conciliatory stance towards North Korea compared to her hawkish predecessor, China’s Jinping was reported by the Korean Times as saying that he opposes the development of nuclear weapons by North Korea.
Professor Shen Dingli, Director of the Centre for American Studies at the Fudan University in Shanghai says that if the US wants stability and peace in the Asia-Pacific region it should work with China to achieve.
“Rebalancing by ganging up on China will undermine stability in East Asia, and may ultimately backfire and cause damage to the US’ own interests,” he argues in a commentary published by China Daily. “So far the US has insisted on ignoring the facts, confusing right and wrong and taking sides in disputes that don’t directly concern it,” Dingli writes.
He urges the new Obama administration to recognize that “the power shift in the Asia-Pacific region is unstoppable, and the US can only go with the flow, respect the legitimate and reasonable demands of the emerging powers, and help seek a fair and proper settlement of major disputes in the region”. [IDN-InDepthNews – January 29, 2013]
Picture: Pyongyang Metro | Credit: Wikimedia Commons