Understanding ASEAN’s commitment to a nuclear weapons-free region

Photo: byteboy, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

ASEAN has pushed to keep Southeast Asia out of the nuclear weapons race. However, with growing military interference from international actors, Southeast Asian countries may reconsider the choice in order to ensure their security.

By Umair Jamal

Last month, ASEAN reiterated its support for all international efforts towards non-proliferation and disarmament of weapons of mass destruction. Speaking on behalf of ASEAN, the Vietnamese ambassador to the United Nations told the UN General Assembly’s Disarmament and International Security Committee that Southeast Asia remains steadfast in its efforts to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons.

Over the years, Southeast Asia has shown leadership in establishing a new order on the disarmament of nuclear weapons. The arms buildup in Southeast Asia remains focused on acquiring conventional weapons and the proliferation of nuclear weapons is not part of the region’s security landscape.

However, the looming fears of extra-regional military interventions and rivalries risk forcing Southeast Asia towards the path of embracing nuclear weapons in an effort to achieve security.

Has the Southeast Asia Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (SEANWFZ) Treaty been effective?

The Southeast Asia Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (SEANWFZ) was signed in 1971 by the five original members of ASEAN in Kuala Lumpur. However, the treaty didn’t lead to any serious steps towards establishing such a zone until the mid-1980s due to the adverse political environment in Southeast Asia.

After a decade of negotiating and drafting efforts by ASEAN, the SEANWFZ Treaty was signed by all 10 ASEAN member states in 1995.

Under the treaty, all signatories of SEANWFZ 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.” Furthermore, the treaty includes protocols that aim to ensure compliance from all member states. For instance, “the treaty gives each State Party the right to ask another State Party for clarification or a fact-finding mission to resolve an ambiguous situation or one which may give rise to doubts about compliance.”

ASEAN members continue to reaffirm the importance the treaty and its protocols. For instance, during the 2018 Preparatory Committee for the 2020 review of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), Vietnam stressed the importance of SEANWFZ and called on nuclear weapons states to consider joining the treaty. Recently, Thailand ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). With Thailand’s ratification, all 10 ASEAN countries have now ratified the treaty.

On the whole, the SEANWFZ treaty has served well when it comes to developing a consensus to keep the region free from nuclear weapons. However, a lot needs to be done to make the treaty more effective and binding.

For instance, Southeast Asia doesn’t have a legally-binding document that frames the regional security architecture. In a way, SEANWFZ has yet to be effectively established as it doesn’t have a working group of its own or a proper secretariat to support enforcement. The treaty remains relevant because individual states are careful not to move beyond the realm of conventional security.

Is there a possibility of a nuclear arms race due to inter-state conflicts in Southeast Asia?

Currently, Southeast Asia doesn’t have a rivalry similar to that of Pakistan and India in South Asia. Since the settlement of the Cambodia conflict in the early 1990s, Southeast Asia’s ideological and security rivalries have evolved into economic linkages and political cooperation.

Moreover, while some Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines are interested in nuclear power generation, this is highly unlikely to lead to nuclear weapons proliferation—all ASEAN member states are signatories to the NPT. 

Map showing weapons of mass destructon by county as of 2016. Credit: RanilAbeyasinghe at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Furthermore, arms buildup in Southeast Asia is limited to conventional weapons and ASEAN doesn’t have a major conflict that could present an existential threat for any country in the region. Moreover, all countries in the region understand what a push to acquire nuclear weapons would mean for the region’s economy and security. Any such push would require massive resources and will only lead to a weapons race—something that Southeast Asia is neither ready to accept nor capable of sustaining.   

Can a US-China-Russia arms race force ASEAN into considering nuclear weapons?

However, a threat from outside the region may force ASEAN states to look into nuclear weapons. In 2001, the United States withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, clearing all restrictions on developing strategic defense systems. In 2019, the US withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The decision was reportedly motivated by the desire to implement military programs in the Asia-Pacific. Arguably, any such military programs could only be focused on China and Russia.

With ASEAN in the middle of the China-US rivalry, member states may face serious security threats from outside the region.

It is possible that ASEAN could lose its neutrality if tensions between China, Russia and the US continue to play out in the region. The growing rivalry of these major powers will lead to a significant decline in the overall security of the ASEAN member states. In an environment where ASEAN member states fear a military attack from countries like China, the possibility of resorting to nuclear weapons technology cannot be ruled out.

About the Author

Umair Jamal
Umair Jamal is a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at umair.jamal@outlook.com and on Twitter @UmairJamal15