NPT Review Conference failed to reach agreement: Implications for our region
The Korea Times Column

NPT Review Conference failed to reach agreement: Implications for our region

With the dawn of the nuclear age, states realized the serious need to manage the power of the atom, by working toward the elimination of nuclear weapons, preventing its spread and harnessing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

It took decades, but states finally agreed to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which entered into force in 1970 and has 191 states as parties. Though a child of the Cold War and rife with compromises, they put their faith in the NPT and have been rewarded with some degree of success.

From the beginning, the state parties anticipated serious gaps in the implementation of the NPT, particularly in disarmament. To address them, they agreed to gather every five years to review its implementation, and in between, meet on a regular basis to prepare for the upcoming review.

The most recent review conference, the 10th since 1975, was held in August at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. After four weeks of deliberations and negotiations, the state parties failed to reach a consensus on an outcome document.

This 10th review came at a most difficult time. Delayed for two years because of the pandemic, it also fell victim to the serious divisions caused by the conflict in Ukraine, including the dangers associated with the security of nuclear reactors located in the middle of a war zone.

NPT review conferences are traditionally characterized by seemingly irreconcilable stands between the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), the largest grouping of non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS), and the nuclear weapons states (NWS), which also happen to include the five permanent members of the Security Council (P5): China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The NAM has always viewed the NPT as largely discriminatory, validating the nuclear strategic objectives of the P5. The NAM is in the position that the P5 and the rest of the NWS must immediately rid themselves of nuclear weapons within a fixed time frame and in a transparent and verifiable manner ― something the NWS will not accept, although they have on occasion, either individually or as a group, issued pronouncements or taken initiatives that gave some glimmer of hope.

It was during review conferences that we would find the rare moments when the P5 was united. But not this time. The conflict in Ukraine made sure of that. This division within the P5 and their allies proved to be the final nail for the 10th Review Conference.

To be sure, the other issues that were traditional causes of division were also present, particularly the issue of proliferation by certain states and the proposed Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone.

The global implications of the failure of this review conference are dire. For East Asia, there are some very specific concerns.

China’s nuclear weapons development will continue to proceed, aggravated by the fact that it does so with an absolute lack of transparency. This lack of transparency includes potential deployments to the South China Sea, flying in the face of the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone. Tensions in the region will remain high, with its increasing militarization and intensification of the rivalry between China and the United States.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, official name of North Korea) will be even more emboldened to place its nuclear deterrence at the heart of its foreign policy, continuing to develop, improve and test its weapons and delivery systems ― pushing back any hopes for peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.

In the Republic of Korea, this failure could further embolden emerging voices for the adoption of a nuclear deterrence policy and the development of ROK’s own nuclear weapons.

In Japan, this situation could add fuel to calls for Japan and the United States to engage in a nuclear sharing agreement that could have American nuclear weapons based in Japan, or even the development of their own nuclear weapons.

The stakes are high for our region. Three flashpoints with nuclear dimensions are in East Asia: the Korean Peninsula, the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea/East China Sea. Whereas, three others are in the rest of Asia: India-Pakistan, Iran and the Middle East.

For the next review to have any chance of success, certain actions must be taken.

It is crucial that between now and the 11th NPT Review Conference, serious and broad consultations be made by its president. For these consultations to happen, the president of the 11th NPT Review Conference must be selected as early as possible.

Efforts must be made to end the war in Ukraine in a peaceful, meaningful and lasting manner, otherwise it will continue to cause deep divisions.

Some progress must be made on the issue of the Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone. There were some positive developments in the dynamics on this issue at the 10th review conference, but much work remains to be done. Progress must also be made in the Iran and DPRK proliferation issue.

Worthy initiatives must be supported, including Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s Hiroshima Action plan, the Stockholm Initiative and the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative.

The nuclear age ushered in the specter of global destruction and the elimination of the human race. The NPT remains the one document that legally binds its states parties to rid themselves of nuclear weapons and refrain from acquiring them. There are other agreements that exist that relate to nuclear weapons, but none as comprehensive and with 191 state parties. We must not only keep the faith in the NPT but continue to work for its success.

About the author 

Carlos D. Sorreta, a member of the APLN, was the head of the Philippine delegation to the 10th NPT Review Conference and is currently the undersecretary for Multilateral Affairs and International Economic Relations. He was the former Philippine ambassador to the Russian Federation and Ukraine. This article contains his personal views and does not necessarily reflect those of the Philippine Government. 

This article was published in The Korea Times on 31 August 2022 as part of a dedicated, regular Korea Times column with analysis by APLN members on global issues. You can find the original post here.

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