Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Treaty: What Is Holding It Up? – Analysis


By Shubhra Chaturvedi

The meeting of ASEAN members with the P5 held in Cambodia in July 2012 that aimed at the early accession of the SEANWFZ Protocol met its expected fate. As a result of the P5 reservations, the discussion has been postponed till November 2012 like all the previous times. Is the ASEAN decision to go ahead with denuclearisation unjustified? If the international responsibility is towards global disarmament, why does the initiative need approval from the P5?

Prolonged discussions

Southeast Asia
Southeast Asia

The SEANWFZ Treaty was signed by the ASEAN leaders in Bangkok, Thailand on 15 December 1995 and it took effect two years later. However, negotiations on the protocol between the ASEAN and the five recognized nuclear-weapons states have been on since May 2001. The July 2012 negotiations have resulted in the treaty being on hold again since four countries out of the P5 (all except China) have asked for time to reconcile and reconsider the clauses of the treaty. While the general claim towards global disarmament would see the treaty as a step forward, the inertia is difficult to comprehend despite the reasons put forward.

The SEANWFZ Treaty in its definition and scope has two elements that have irked the P5. The treaty is applicable not only to the territorial and geographic proximity of the ASEAN members but also includes the continental shelves and the exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of the parties. The P5 have objections to such an extension. Under the treaty, nuclear weapons cannot be used within the zone identified or from within the zone against targets outside the zone. This supposedly questions the self-defence mechanism of the states. Xinhua reported that France has highlighted the right of self-defence that would be threatened by a complete ban on the use of nuclear weapons in the zone in case such a scenario came up. The UK too is uneasy with the possibility of the development of any new threat in the future that might require the use of nuclear weapons.

The other major aspect that is problematic is that a negative security assurance implies a commitment by the nuclear weapons states not to use nuclear weapons against any contracting state or protocol party within the zone of application and also puts a restriction on the passage of nuclear-powered ships through the zone. Russia is propagating the rights of foreign ships and aircraft to pass into the nuclear free zone. The US has claimed that it would not introduce the text of reservations before the rectification process.

The NTI brought out the concerns of the US ranging from the nature of the legally binding negative security assurances to the alleged ambiguity of the treaty’s language concerning the permissibility of port calls by ships, which may carry nuclear weapons. While all these issues are raised by the P5, it is worth noting why these states see the possibility of use of nuclear weapons in the future and hence are hesitant to implement a complete ban on use in the area inspite of claims of seeing complete nuclear disarmament being achieved in the future.

Stagnancy within the P5

This instance is a clear indication of how not just the end but the entire process is flawed and superficial in the realm of nuclear disarmament. Article VII of the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) states that all countries have the right to establish specified zones free of nuclear weapons. The fundamental problem with such a nuclear weapons free zone would be a hindrance in the freedom of movement of ships carrying nuclear weapons across international waters. Other treaties implementing NWFZs in other areas like Africa and Latin America have sub-clauses that ensure that the final right of decision-making rests with the NWSs or have an exemption in the transportation of the nuclear weapons. This treaty however is a victim of an over cautious protection from nuclear weapons and hence has failed to get the P5 on board.

If nuclear disarmament is the ultimate goal then why is the consent of the P5 necessary for the attainment of that goal, at least regionally? The invisible rationality that the P5 seem to possess enables them with the power of taking the right decisions which may be contradictory to their claims. The discretion lies with the P5 regarding which zones need immediate de-nuclearisation. It is surprising how one hopes to attain a ‘global’ goal when the regional initiatives need legitimisation through the P5 and that too in their own due course.

Shubhra Chaturvedi
Research Intern, IPCS
email: [email protected]


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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