A Nuclear Weapon-Free Southeast Asia and Its Continuing Strategic Significance

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It has been a decade since the ten countries of Southeast Asia declared the region a nuclear weapon-free zone and almost three and a half decades since the adoption of its broader policy framework, the declaration of a zone of peace, freedom and neutrality. Many strategic developments have taken place since these two junctures. Southeast Asia has been transformed from an area of conflict into a dynamic economic region. A new pattern of relations among the major powers has emerged. At the same time, new sources of threats have surfaced. It is, perhaps, time to revisit this policy direction and ascertain its strategic relevance. In the new and fast evolving strategic environment, is the original purpose of establishing the zone still valid? What is now the strategic value of the zone?

Southeast Asia is a nuclear weapon-free zone encompassing the territories and exclusive economic zones of ten countries, namely Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam, herein referred to as the States Parties. The Treaty on the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone (SEANWFZ) was signed on 15 December 1995 and entered into force on 24 March 1997. (1) To date, SEANWFZ, also known as the Bangkok Treaty of 1995, is one of the seven treaty-based nuclear free zones in the world, namely the Outer Space Treaty of 1967; the Seabed Treaty of 1971; the Antarctic Treaty of 1959; Africa's Pelindaba Treaty of 1996; South America's Tlatelolco Treaty of 1967; and South Pacific's Rarotonga Treaty of 1985. The last four geographic zones almost cover the globe's southern hemisphere minus the South Asian region. These zones are alternative regimes to the nuclear deterrence posture of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, which are all Nuclear Weapon States (NWS), namely China, France, the Russian Federation, United Kingdom and the United States.

When a nuclear-free Southeast Asia was conceived in the mid-1970s, it was primarily meant to add to geographic areas where the activities of the NWS were to be constrained. The Treaty provides for a Protocol of accession by declared NWS to respect the Treaty and hot to contribute any act that would constitute a violation of the Treaty and its Protocol. The aim was for the States Parties to abstain from developing and acquiring nuclear weapons and for the NWS to spare the region from the risks of nuclear accidents or nuclear war among them.

While nuclear deterrence has worked so far among the declared NWS, a wider, faceless and unpredictable source of threat has emerged. The intensity of and groundwork for the terrorist attack on the United States on 11 September 2001 altered the nuclear equation considerably (Ramberg 2003, p. 8). United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, writing then as National Security Adviser, described the possible nexus between outlaw regimes, weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and terrorism, as "the gravest threat of our time" (Rice 2003, p. A11). The ushering in of an "Age of Terror" is said to have left the international system in greater flux than at any time since immediately after World War II (Sheridan 2003, p. A11). This is one clear and present danger where SEANWFZ bas continued relevance, beyond the area denial sense for NWS, in contributing to the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons or fissile material from which nuclear weapons could be developed. SEANWFZ's strategic value is bolstered by its challenging of the legitimacy of nuclear weapons, in particular, and its contribution to a greater sense of security in the region in general.

The Making of SEANWFZ

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was born at the height of the Cold War. A few months after its establishment, the Vietnam War reached its peak when, in the early hours of 31 January 1968, the Soviet-backed Vietcong launched the Tet Offensive and entered Saigon through Cambodia. …