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– Suzanne DiMaggio
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
SE Asian Nuclear Protocol Falters

Kelsey Davenport

The parties to the treaty establishing a nuclear-weapon-free zone in Southeast Asia decided on July 8 to delay the signing of the treaty’s protocol by China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States because of reservations submitted by at least three of those countries, according to the Cambodian Foreign Ministry.

The five countries, which are recognized as nuclear-weapon states by the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, had been expected to sign the protocol to the Treaty of Bangkok on July 12 during a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Phnom Penh. When ratified, the treaty’s protocol would prohibit the five states from using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against treaty parties and from transporting nuclear weapons through the zone.

The treaty, which was signed in 1995 and entered into force in 1997, bans the acquisition, possession, testing, transport, and stationing of nuclear weapons within the territories of the 10 parties—Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. Those countries also are the members of ASEAN.

After the July 8 meeting of the treaty’s commission, which oversees ratification of the treaty and compliance with its terms, Cambodian Secretary of State Kao Kim Hourn announced that it had decided to delay the protocol signing because it wanted more time to review the reservations that France, Russia, and the United Kingdom had submitted to Cambodia, the ASEAN chair, and had indicated they would attach to the protocol when they ratified it.

The three countries’ reservations, in slightly different ways, center on the treaty’s negative security assurances and the inclusion of the parties’ continental shelves and exclusive economic zones in its coverage. Other nuclear-weapon-free-zone treaties define the covered area more narrowly.

The United States reportedly did not submit a letter outlining its reservations, but voiced support for those outlined by the other three countries. China’s concerns were addressed in a memorandum of understanding negotiated between Beijing and the ASEAN states, according to the chairman’s statement from the April 3-4 ASEAN summit, although the statement did not indicate what issues were covered.

Negotiations to resolve the nuclear-weapon states’ concerns resumed in August 2011 after a decade-long impasse. At the conclusion of the April ASEAN summit, the chairman’s statement said the treaty parties “welcomed the conclusion of negotiations” with the nuclear-weapon states and that the signing of the protocol would take place in July.

Kao said he hoped the signing would occur during ASEAN’s November summit in Phnom Penh.