Can ASEAN Sell Its Nuclear Free Zone to the Nuclear Club?
On November 13-14, Myanmar’s President Thein Sein will host the East Asia Summit, the apex of his country’s debut as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Myanmar has inherited a daunting agenda, notably the need to move ASEAN toward completion of an economic community and to maintain dialogue with China on a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, however slowly. At the beginning of the year, Myanmar had set as one goal for its chairmanship persuading the five permanent members (P-5) of the U.N. Security Council to sign the protocol to the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (SEANWFZ) Treaty, in which they would promise to uphold the treaty’s principles. This has been a continuing but elusive goal for ASEAN since SEANWFZ went into force in 1997.
At this juncture, there is scant evidence that Myanmar will be able to meet its self-imposed goal this year – none of the P-5 has signed the protocol – but the prospects in the future are by no means dim.
The core of the SEANWFZ Treaty, also known as the Bangkok Treaty, is each member’s agreement that it will not “develop, manufacture or otherwise acquire, possess or have control over nuclear weapons, station or transport nuclear weapons by any means; or test or use nuclear weapons.” Dumping radioactive waste anywhere in the zone is also prohibited. Geographically, the Zone makes up the territories of the states and their continental shelves and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). It includes land territory, internal waters, territorial sea, archipelagic waters, seabeds, and the airspace above these features.
Signatories also pledge to maintain International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards over their nuclear facilities, an increasingly important provision as Southeast Asian countries debate the use of nuclear power in their energy portfolios. SEANWFZ was the fifth geographic area to form a nuclear weapon free zone.
Each SEANWFZ member state can decide individually if it will allow foreign ships or aircraft, including those that are nuclear-powered or nuclear-armed, to visit or transit through their airspace or their territorial waters. This provision is critical if ASEAN is to draw the P-5 powers into the SEANWFZ protocol.
By Catharin Dalpino, Contract Course Chair in Southeast Asian Studies, the Foreign Service Institute, and Adjunct Professor at Seton Hall University’s Washington program.