Position Vacant: Non-proliferation and Disarmament Leader, Asia

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During the past few weeks there have been some striking discussions in the international media about the future strategic order. One of the most interesting is an article by Ralph Cossa and David Santoro, which was originally published by the CSIS think tank and was then picked up by the Japan Times. Two short sentences half way through the piece particularly caught my eye: ‘The United States has limited power and influence to shape the major power agenda in the Asia–Pacific. The future of this agenda will be determined by decisions made in Beijing, New Delhi and Islamabad—not in Washington.’

This is probably true over the longer-term, and the implications are very significant for world order. It brings to mind William Walker’s new book, A Perpetual Menace, which raises concerns about the weakly-defined Asia-centric system of military engagement that is likely to replace the Eurocentric one. The big questions are: how will peace and stability be achieved as US preeminence wanes, and what values will underpin the new Asia-centric system?

This discussion is becoming more urgent, including in the nuclear context. A potential problem is that the existing non-proliferation regime has been largely shaped by the Eurocentric system that is currently in decline. At the heart of this regime, the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) has expanded and deepened its original role, achieved almost universal membership and withstood serious challenges, primarily because its strategic and political value has been recognised by the states that have dominated the Eurocentric system (the Western powers and the Soviet Union/Russia). Of these, the US has had the most significant impact on the Treaty’s success: when it has offered pro-active support, great strides have been possible; when it has dropped the ball, as it did most dramatically during the George W. Bush years, the consequences have been serious.

As power continues to shift eastwards, it’s likely that the non-proliferation regime will eventually slip out of America’s grip. Critics of the US might welcome this development, but the danger is that the leadership role will either pass to a more ambivalent successor or be left vacant altogether. In a world in which states still dominate, and in which international governmental organisations, legal frameworks and norms are dependent upon the support of the most powerful states, this would have huge implications, and would threaten to unravel a critical security regime that has taken nearly fifty years to build.

At the moment, it isn’t clear whether the nuclear non-proliferation regime can be embedded into an Asia-dominated strategic order. It’s not even clear that Asia’s potential superpowers want this to occur, or whether they would consider a future of further nuclear weapons proliferation (both to more countries and expansion of existing arsenals) as fairer, more equitable and possibly even more stable than the current uneasy compromise between the nuclear haves and have-nots. It’s a worrying situation which, in the worst case scenario, could trigger the same kind of short-sighted and dangerous nuclear brinkmanship that characterised the early years of the Cold War. Only this time there would be some appalling additions: more powerful weapons, new delivery platforms, nuclear-armed fragile states, and non-state actors that seek nuclear materials for use in terrorist acts.

Asia needs leaders who possess the right combination of influence, vision, and courage to champion non-nuclear norms and create and sustain non-proliferation and disarmament momentum. What Asia actually has is rather different. China has often shown a blatant disregard for non-proliferation instruments and norms, and is expanding and modernising its nuclear arsenal. India, which has steadfastly refused to join the NPT on the basis that it is discriminatory and does not serve its strategic interests, is linked into a nuclear triangle with China and Pakistan, from which it is unable and unwilling to detach itself. The only states in the region that currently show leadership potential lack the necessary strategic clout to back it up, and must rely on others.

ASEAN is an important international actor in this respect, although it has not always been consistent where nonproliferation advocacy is concerned, and the organization’s future is increasingly vulnerable to divisive great power ambitions. Diplomatic coalitions that operate within the NPT review process are another important source of leadership, but—as Japan and Australia might discover in spearheading the Nonproliferation and Disarmament Initiative—they are notoriously difficult to manage and even harder to sustain over the longer-term.

Where does this leave us? First, it leaves us more acutely aware of the need for the US to make the most of its remaining years at the helm and for other states, coalitions and organisations to do what they can to support its leadership efforts. Second, it alerts us to the need to bring China more firmly into the non-proliferation and disarmament fold, and to make it understood in Beijing that with power comes greater international responsibility. The same holds true for India. Third, it leaves us more conscious of the importance of non-proliferation and disarmament education, especially in China and India, where tomorrow’s global leaders are being born.

Tanya Ogilvie-White is senior analyst in international strategy at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user kandyjaxx.

As power continues to shift eastwards, it’s likely that the non-proliferation regime will eventually slip out of America’s grip. Critics of the US might welcome this development, but the danger is that the leadership role will either pass to a more ambivalent successor or be left vacant altogether. In a world in which states still dominate, and in which international governmental organisations, legal frameworks and norms are dependent upon the support of the most powerful states, this would have huge implications, and would threaten to unravel a critical security regime that has taken nearly fifty years to build.

At the moment, it isn’t clear whether the nuclear non-proliferation regime can be embedded into an Asia-dominated strategic order. It’s not even clear that Asia’s potential superpowers want this to occur, or whether they would consider a future of further nuclear weapons proliferation (both to more countries and expansion of existing arsenals) as fairer, more equitable and possibly even more stable than the current uneasy compromise between the nuclear haves and have-nots. It’s a worrying situation which, in the worst case scenario, could trigger the same kind of short-sighted and dangerous nuclear brinkmanship that characterised the early years of the Cold War. Only this time there would be some appalling additions: more powerful weapons, new delivery platforms, nuclear-armed fragile states, and non-state actors that seek nuclear materials for use in terrorist acts.

Asia needs leaders who possess the right combination of influence, vision, and courage to champion non-nuclear norms and create and sustain non-proliferation and disarmament momentum. What Asia actually has is rather different. China has often shown a blatant disregard for non-proliferation instruments and norms, and is expanding and modernising its nuclear arsenal. India, which has steadfastly refused to join the NPT on the basis that it is discriminatory and does not serve its strategic interests, is linked into a nuclear triangle with China and Pakistan, from which it is unable and unwilling to detach itself. The only states in the region that currently show leadership potential lack the necessary strategic clout to back it up, and must rely on others.

ASEAN is an important international actor in this respect, although it has not always been consistent where nonproliferation advocacy is concerned, and the organization’s future is increasingly vulnerable to divisive great power ambitions. Diplomatic coalitions that operate within the NPT review process are another important source of leadership, but—as Japan and Australia might discover in spearheading the Nonproliferation and Disarmament Initiative—they are notoriously difficult to manage and even harder to sustain over the longer-term.

Where does this leave us? First, it leaves us more acutely aware of the need for the US to make the most of its remaining years at the helm and for other states, coalitions and organisations to do what they can to support its leadership efforts. Second, it alerts us to the need to bring China more firmly into the non-proliferation and disarmament fold, and to make it understood in Beijing that with power comes greater international responsibility. The same holds true for India. Third, it leaves us more conscious of the importance of non-proliferation and disarmament education, especially in China and India, where tomorrow’s global leaders are being born.

Tanya Ogilvie-White is senior analyst in international strategy at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user kandyjaxx.

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