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China’s Inconsequential Bid to Sign Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone Treaty

  • Category
    International Relations
  • Published
    21st Dec, 2021

Context

At the ASEAN–China Special Summit held recently, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of ASEAN–China dialogue relations, Chinese President Xi Jinping said that China is ready to sign the protocol to the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone (SEANWFZ) Treaty as early as possible.

Background

  • In 1971, 5 original members of the ASEAN i.e. Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand, met in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and signed the declaration on ASEAN's Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN).
  • In 1995, SEANWFZ treaty was finally signed by the heads of government from 10 ASEAN member states in Bangkok on December 15, 1995.
    • It became fully effective on 21 June 2001, after all ASEAN members have ratified it, effectively banning all nuclear weapons in the region.
  • China did not sign it initially, but in the recent ASEAN-China Special Summit, it showed its intention to sign the protocol.

This comes in the light of AUKUS   security pact and USA interventions in the ASEAN region.

Analysis

What is Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone (SEANWFZ) Treaty or Bangkok treaty?

  • SEANWFZ is one of the nine Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (NWFZ) that cover the territories, continental shelves, and EEZ of the States Parties within the zone.
  • The SEANWFZ Treaty includes two elements that go beyond other existing Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (NWFZ) agreements:
    • The zone of application also includes the continental shelves and EEZ of the contracting parties
    • The negative security assurance implies a commitment by the NWS not to use nuclear weapons against any contracting State or protocol Party within the zone of application. However, the protocol to the treaty explicitly restricts the use of “nuclear weapons within the SEANWFZ” and not outside it
  • The treaty includes a protocol under which the five nuclear-weapon states recognized by the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), namely China, the United States, France, Russia and the United Kingdom undertake to respect the Treaty and do not contribute to a violation of it by State parties.
  • Till now, none of the nuclear-weapon states have signed this protocol.

What is Non Proliferation treaty (NPT)?

  • The NPT aims to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, to foster the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and to further the goal of disarmament.
  • The Treaty establishes a safeguards system under the responsibility of the IAEA, which also plays a central role under the Treaty in areas of technology transfer for peaceful purposes.
  • It was adopted in 1968 and it came into force in 1970
  • India is not a signatory to the treaty.

Why China wants to sign the treaty?

Though the treaty was opened for signature two decades ago, China was not interested in signing the treaty earlier. But considering the recent geopolitical scenario, and impact of China, it has taken a decision to sign the protocol. The reasons are-

  • First, the treaty does not bar the rights of any State with regard to the freedom of the high seas, right of innocent passage, archipelagic sea lanes passage or transit passage of ships and aircraft, and consistent with the Charter of the United Nations. Thus, the treaty also allows passage of nuclear-armed vessels or aircraft in accordance with UNCLOS without any hindrance and it won’t impact the Chinese nuclear movement in the region.
  • Secondly, strengthening of a nuclear weapon-free zone in Southeast Asia will reduce Chinese concerns about the recent AUKUS security pact between Australia, UK and USA which will help Canberra to secure a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines.
  • Thirdly, China’s consent to adopt the treaty in 1999 was incumbent upon written assurance from the ASEAN that the accession to the treaty wouldn’t affect the territorial boundaries of the states. China has thus enough scope to put conditions while acceding to the treaty.
  • It does not put major conditions on Chinese domestic policy. China is the only NPT recognized Nuclear Weapon State (NWS), which has a policy of ‘No First Use’ of nuclear weapons or not using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states unconditionally. Thus, it fulfills the negative security assurance enshrined in SEANWFZ.

Global impact of the treaty-

This agreement by China has large implications beyond China due to the strategic importance of ASEAN and Indo pacific region. The major implications are-

  • Impact on India-
  • India supports ‘Conference on Disarmament’ and so, it is a step forward in the direction of India’s goal of nuclear free world.
  • It will also allay India’s fears over AUKUS security pact; about which India was already was apprehensive due to potential of rising nuclear weapons in Indo pacific region.
  • Impact on ASEAN-
  • A growing sense of security and a step forward in the direction of making South East Asia, a completely nuclear free zone.
  • This agreement by China can also promote other nuclear power states to sign the treaty and prevent nuclear proliferation in the region.
  • Impact on others-
  • It may create concerns over the recent AUKUS security pact, as Australia may be considered a trouble state now instead of China.
  • USA plans of increasing nuclear weapons in the region to prevent Chinese aggression may face a setback.

Challenges Chinese concerns over the treaty-

There are certain issues faced by the ASEAN and China due to this treaty. Some of them are-

  • The inclusion of EEZ in the definition has become a major hindrance for China to accept the treaty. The treaty will then cover a far wider region as compared to other nuclear free weapon zone treaties.
  • Chinese record over implementation of international law is not encouraging. It has discredited the 2016 verdict by the Permanent Court of Arbitration over SCS maritime claims in favour of imaginary nine-dash line which has no legal sanctity.

Conclusion

This statement by China is a positive step towards reduction of nuclear weapons across the world. In short term, it may create apprehension about the intentions of China, but a larger acceptance of the treaty will lead to a nuclear free area in the long run.

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