April 10, 2023
JAKARTA – While China’s expressed intent to sign the protocol for ASEAN’s nuclear weapon free zone treaty should be supported, convincing other nuclear weapon states to follow suit may be a challenge, experts have said.
In 1995, 10 ASEAN member states signed the Southeast Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty (SEANWFZ) or the Bangkok Treaty, designating the region as one free of nuclear weapons.
The treaty also has a protocol open to signature by recognized nuclear weapon states China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, but none have signed the protocol, objecting to the inclusion of continental shelves and exclusive economic zones in the nuclear weapon free zone.
Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi said the unity and centrality of ASEAN was important in making sure it continued to be the locomotive for regional peace and stability.
“Under the [pillar] of ASEAN Matters, we continue to discuss some of the issues that are still our priorities, [including] the signing of the SEANWFZ Protocol by the Nuclear Weapon States, the process of which was stalled in 2012,” Retno told the press in a briefing on Wednesday.
So far, only China has asserted its willingness to sign the SEANWFZ Protocol, expressed during a recent meeting of the Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang with the ASEAN Secretary-General Kao Kim Hourn.
“China is ready to be the first to sign the Protocol to the Treaty on the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone, and work with ASEAN to advocate solidarity and win-win results and jointly safeguard regional security and stability,” Qin Gang said on March 27, according to a readout on China’s Foreign Ministry website.
China’s signal of willingness to sign the protocol came as the Australia, UK and US alliance (AUKUS) announced last month steps to procure nuclear submarines for Australia.
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Analysts say the nuclear subs might also complicate the issue of whether the US and the UK, both nuclear weapon states recognized in the SEANWFZ Protocol, would be willing to sign the protocol.
“It would be in China’s interest if there was a protocol [that banned nuclear weapons in the region],” Centre for Strategic and International Studies international relations researcher Andrew Mantong said on Thursday.
However, convincing other nuclear weapon states would not be an easy task; as Andrew pointed out, the US had expressed concern about the SEANWFZ Protocol limiting freedom of navigation.
If there were any nuclear weapon states to sign the SEANWFZ Protocol, it would actually provide a capable regional process that would enact a nuclear weapon free zone based in ASEAN, he added.
“There must be an intensive consultation and diplomacy, especially to align the freedom of navigation principle, which is a heavily American perspective, with the rules on navigation and transportation in the SEANWFZ,” Andrew said.
Gadjah Mada University international relations expert Muhadi Sugiono also considers China’s signal of willingness to sign the SEANWFZ Protocol as a likely a response to the latest geopolitical developments and to gain sympathy from Southeast Asian states.
“China faces a major challenge from AUKUS, as the alliance itself has no nuclear weapons but will use nuclear power for war technology,” Muhadi said on Thursday.
Read also: Indonesia calls on Australia to honor nonproliferation duties after AUKUS details emerge
However, he said China’s signal should still be responded to positively, Muhadi said, as it might disrupt the current position of nuclear weapon states of not supporting the ASEAN’s nuclear weapon free zone.
He said if China were to sign the SEANWFZ Protocol it could become a bargaining chip to encourage other nuclear weapon states to sign and also to question AUKUS’ rationale in providing Australia with nuclear submarines.
“But we cannot rely only on the SEANWFZ, as it is very specifically for regulating only nuclear weapons,” Muhadi said.
He suggested Indonesia should also continue its diplomacy regarding the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), especially to clear up the status of nuclear submarines, and whether they should be subject to the nuclear non-proliferation regime or not.
In August, Indonesia submitted a working paper for the 10th Review Conference of the NPT calling for tight supervision of any country looking to develop nuclear-powered submarines.