While the world is under the threat of nuclear war and an arms race. China confirmed its strong stance as a responsible great power to protect the region from nuclear danger. The move to join the SEANWFZ Treaty shows as responsible behavior of China. SEANWFZ treaty also known as the Bangkok Treaty, was signed by all ASEAN members in December 1995, as a pledge to safeguard the Southeast Asian region as a region free of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. The SEANWFZ Treaty is open to signature by the five recognized nuclear-weapon states – China, Russia, the US, the UK, and France. Once China signs the treaty, it will be the first of the five permanent members of the United Nations (UN) Security Council to do so.
The Asia Pacific region again facing nuclear threats as a decision made by the Australian government to acquire a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines as part of a new defense pact with the United States and the United Kingdom.
The deal was announced in September 2021 and has generated significant controversy and debate. Under the deal, Australia will acquire nuclear-powered submarines using technology provided by the United States and the United Kingdom. The move is seen as a major strategic shift for Australia, which has traditionally relied on conventional submarines. Australia will buy as many as five US nuclear-powered submarines and later build a new model with US and British technology.
The AUKUS scheme announced on February 2023 represents the first time a loophole in the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has been used to transfer fissile material and nuclear technology from a nuclear weapons state to a non-weapons state.
China accused UK and US to violate the objectives of NPT. The IAEA must ensure that no proliferation risks will stem from this project, AUKUS violating the principles of nuclear non-proliferation and increasing the concern in the region for countries like Malaysia and Indonesia. AUKUS claims to adhere to the highest standard on nuclear non-proliferation which is just aimed to deceive the public.
Malaysian scholar John Pang wrote that “AUKUS is the spear tip for the militarization and polarization of Southeast Asia. It is a raw application of the with-us-or-against-us logic of the rules-based order.”
Chinese military expert Song Zhongping believes that to deal with AUKUS, it will be in the interest of China to sign the SEANWFZ treaty. AUKUS possible actions may provoke nuclear proliferation in the region, turning Southeast Asia into a training ground for nuclear weapons and an arena for the dangerous arms race,” Song said.
China’s support for ASEAN’s efforts to build a nuclear-weapon-free zone and willingness to sign the SEANWFZ Treaty is a clear signal against countries that want to exploit certain issues with nuclear technology in the Asia-Pacific, especially in Southeast Asia.
For China, it is crucial to ensure that Southeast Asia maintains a peaceful region free of nuclear proliferation for its security.
But most importantly, China’s willingness to sign the treaty proves the country takes its due responsibility as a major power that seeks peaceful development. It is in contrast to the immature behaviors of the AUKUS countries, especially the UK and the US, both of which are nuclear-weapon states and permanent members of the UN Security Council as China is.
Xu Liping, director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Twenty years ago, China was the first among ASEAN’s dialogue partners to join the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia. Presently, if China signs the treaty, it will set up a good example and encourage other countries, especially other nuclear-weapon states, to follow its steps.
China’s moves will be just the beginning. Only when more countries, particularly those with nuclear weapons, decide to do the same can maintain regional peace and stability.
There are also concerns about the environmental and safety implications of nuclear-powered submarines. The AUKUS deals also have implications for global arms control and non-proliferation efforts. The use of nuclear power in submarines raises concerns about the potential for nuclear accidents and it has been criticized by some as a step away from efforts to reduce the world’s reliance on nuclear weapons.
It will be hoped that not only ASEAN countries but also more countries in the Asia-Pacific region will see the danger that AUKUS poses. Countries especially major powers should work together to make the region a source of peace and stability, rather than living in constant fear of nuclear proliferation and threats.
The Author is a Research Officer at the Centre for International Strategic Studies (CISS), AJK. Her research area is nuclear governance, regulation, safety, and security. She can be reached at Nsheikh536@gmail.com . She tweets @Naziasheikh536