Dec 2022


Nuclear brinkmanship

As Putin’s nuclear threats cause global anxiety, Nik Luqman highlights ASEAN’s moves to make Southeast Asia a nuclear-free zone – though also warns against regional complacency

When Russian President Vladimir Putin first made a nuclear threat at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in September, it triggered a heated global discussion on the possibility of Putin finally pushing the nucleabutton. 

During a televised address before the assembly, the Russian leader insisted that,‘if the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will, without doubt, use all available means to protect Russia and our people – this is not a bluff’. 

Those who are trying to blackmail us with nuclear weapons,’ he added ominously,‘should know that the wind can also turn in their direction.’ 

One must put this into context. Russian forces have suffered one setback after another on the battlefield recently. For instance, the explosion of Kerch Strait Bridge, from a purported strike by the Ukrainians, was a major blow for Putin, as the bridge, which links the Russian-occupied Crimean peninsula to the Russian mainland, serves as a primary supply route for Russian troops fighting in the southern part of Ukraine. 

In retaliation, Moscow called over 300,000 reservists for conscription and launched attacks in Ukrainian cities.

But whatever the situation, this persistent rattling of nuclear sabres contributes nothing towards global stability. Nuclear strikes, whether on a small or large scale, have no positive outcomes and can only incur a raft of counterproductive downsides.  

This persistent rattling of nuclear sabres contributes nothing towards global stability

For one, the impact of the radioactive fallout would be enormous.Think of the destruction of Nagasaki in 1945, which saw hundreds of thousands of casualties, many suffering unimagined complications for decades afterwards.

This is coupled with the inflationary wave that has been unleashedon the global economy, as nations throughout the world are struggling to withstand economic turbulence. In recent weeks and months, there is growing evidence of stress on the world economy. The threat of nuclear strikes would only invite further pressures.

The current and future course of the war, therefore, has been troubling many nations, both near and further afield from the war zone. 

Kerch Strait Bridge in Crimea
SETBACK: The explosion of Kerch Strait Bridge was a major blow for Putin

Neighbouring nuclear-weapons states are also required to endorse and honour the treaty

Southeast Asian and nuclear confrontation

From a far, the Southeast Asia region, in particular, is watching developments nervously, especially as the current trajectory involves the threat of imminent nuclear war. 

Yet the nuclear spectre in the region itself had largely been exorcised by the existence of an ASEAN-led mechanism, namely the Treaty of Southeast Asia Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (SEANWFZ), also known as the Bangkok Treaty.

The treaty, which was signed in December 1995, reaffirms member states’ resolution towards preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region, thus contributing towards international peace and security.

Moreover, the principles aligned with the Bangkok Treaty stipulate that the states in the declared geographical zone can deny foreign powers armed with nuclear weapons permission to enter the zone.

At the same time, neighbouring nuclear-weapons states are also required to endorse and honour the treaty, and to refrain from threatening to employ nuclear weapons against the treaty parties, in this case, the ten ASEAN member states.

Effectively, this has brought about a measure of peace and stability in the region from the nuclear war threat. 

ASEAN’s autarky in security matters is an indication that ASEAN’s founders were fully aware of the possibility of external threats making their way into the Southeast Asia region.

Since the bloc’s establishment in 1967, the danger of nuclear confrontation in the region has been practically zero. None of its member states possesses nuclear-weapons capability, and all subscribed to the Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968, which pledged the cooperation of both nuclear and non-nuclear powers in stemming the expansion of nuclear technology.

ASEAN leaders began exploring ways and means to prevent nuclear confrontation and proliferation in the region in a move conceived at the height of the Cold War in Southeast Asia – an entrenched great power rivalry in which major powers actively undertook nuclear activities to gain the upper hand in any potential confrontation.

Then, the United States, the Soviet Union, and China sought enhanced presence in the region to widen their reach and influence, which led to a protracted period of external interference and security competition.

Map showing the Southeast Asia NWFZ
Map showing the Southeast Asia NWFZ

Indirectly, this showed that ASEAN’s forefathers were far-sighted.

The idea of a nuclear-weapons-free zone was on the bloc’s agenda alongside a package to realize a Zone of Peace, Freedom, and Neutrality (ZOPFAN), which anchor the efforts of peace and stability in Southeast Asia.

Today, as the possibility of nuclear war looms, the SEANWFZ Treaty provides some assurance that the Southeast Asia region is unlikely to become a nuclear target. 

Nevertheless, Southeast Asian countries should be wary of the interplay of strategic imperatives that could possibly override any previous assurances.

History tells us, for example, that there were various cases of non-compliance with similar treaty obligations during periods of escalating tensions. 

For instance, during the conflict over the Falklands in 1982, Britain may have violated the Tlatelolco Treaty (which prohibited nuclear weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean) by transporting nuclear weapons within the treaty’s zone. 

In addition, North Korea repeatedly violated the Non-Proliferation Treaty to which it had acceded in 1985. Realising it was unable to comply with the obligations therein, the hermit kingdom finally decided to withdraw in 2003.

Moreover, ASEAN countries should still remain cautious of a potential nuclear war, and the devastation it would cause.

For one, nuclear war could cause famine at a global level, halting agricultural activities and culminating in a decline in crops, which would disrupt the global supply chain and impact major exporting countries. This would severely affect import-dependent countries in Africa, the Middle Eastand, by extension, Southeast Asia. The knock-on effects would be catastrophic.

At a time when the international community is struggling to address climate change, a nuclear war would exacerbate environmental problems, potentially destroying the earth’s ozone layer and thus further raising global temperature. 

While peace and stability may appear to be luxuries these days, they are, in reality, imperatives if we are to move forward after the ravages of Covid. It is in the best interests of the global community, therefore, if the potential for nuclear catastrophe could be eliminated once and for all.  

Nik Luqman is an analyst and writer focused on Southeast Asia. Previously, he was a research fellow at the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies (IKMAS), National University of Malaysia-Nippon Foundation. He tweets @Nluqman


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