Project Assistant, SCRAP Weapons
This essay was originally submitted to the Korea Times-APLN Essay Contest 2021, being awarded the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Award. This essay was also published by Korea Times and the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament on 26 November 2021.
How a Re-engagement with the Cold War’s First Confidence Building Measure Can Pave the Way for a Denuclearised Asia-Pacific
In June 1963 a teleprinter known as the red hotline was set up to enable direct communication between the leaders of the US and USSR. After the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, during which official diplomatic messages took around six hours to be delivered, it was believed that having better means for direct communication was key to averting nuclear catastrophe. It was from this hotline that the concept of confidence-building measures (CBMs) originated. CBMs are actions aimed at decreasing misunderstanding, tension, fear, anxiety, and conflict escalation between parties by emphasizing trust, goodwill towards the other and a willingness to exchange information with an adversary. Prominently connected with the development and management of nuclear weapons, CBMs fall roughly into four main types: communication, transparency, verification and constraint. From 1963 to the early 2000’s the effectiveness of CBMs was internationally acknowledged through a series of treaties and agreements applied to nuclear weapons and delivery systems, for example the CFE, INF, STARTI and Open Skies. Meanwhile outside of Western and Eastern bloc relations, CBMs paved the way for nuclear weapon free zones in Latin America, the Caribbean, South Pacific, Southeast Asia, Africa and Central Asia. Today with many CBMs having been forgotten or discarded from the diplomatic toolbox we need a renewed effort at identifying non-proliferation practices and rebuilding trust. But before principles of transparency, verification and constraint can be synergised into a denuclearisation policy, states must first identify ways by which to communicate their willingness for such cooperation.
Sixty years after the establishment of that hotline the face of nuclear relations has changed significantly, and international focus has turned to events unfolding in the Asia-Pacific. Yet in a world of publicised animosity, the preventative capacity inherent of constructive communication between leaders is more attractive than ever. Joe Biden and America’s core allies in the area have articulated one foreign policy goal above others — working together to restrain China. Characterised by heated public exchanges and threats, this form of diplomatic communication can only succeed in antagonising whilst also setting an unhelpful norm for achieving international cooperation. The symptoms of this blustering approach are the undermining of trust building policies. Recent examples include the termination of ROK-US missile guidelines in May, and retaliatory ballistic launches on the Korean peninsula in September. Despite their persistent failure to achieve progress, sanctions are still used to negotiate with North Korea. But displays of intimidation, like they did sixty years ago, only beget hostility.
If the Asia-Pacific nations are to effectively pursue denuclearisation they must create the conditions for an international relations based on mutual respect, trust and cooperation. This calls for a shift in the way states communicate with each other, but a hotline will not go far enough. What is now needed to break cycles of tension are powerful displays of goodwill and solidarity. Fortunately there exist models in the region for achieving this.
The first step to stabilising the rising tensions in the Asia-Pacific must be to rebuild trust with China. Smoothing relations with Beijing can pave the way for nuclear security assurances to Japan and the ROK that can mitigate their dependence on a US nuclear umbrella. Working with China will also be Biden’s best hope for legitimising any assurances made to North Korea. As such the US should build upon the success of the 2005 Indian-US civil nuclear agreement which enabled better transparency and cooperation in nuclear safety. Instead of demands for strict assurances the Bush administration chose to focus on recognizing India’s strong commitment to and record of non-proliferation. By highlighting its work with China on the conversion of nuclear reactors from using weapons-grade uranium to low-enriched fuel, and communicating support for China’s commitment to no-first use, the US would send a clear signal that it seeks a bilateral relationship based not on coercion but partnership. A strategy focused on communicating recognition, goodwill and declarations of support can also be expanded to the other QUAD states, India, Japan, and Australia, subsequently diffusing their image in Beijing as a US-led encirclement of hostile voices.
Meanwhile Japan and the ROK can follow Mongolia’s lead for signalling their goodwill and commitment to building trusting relations with their neighbours. Through a treaty which came into force February 2000, Mongolia committed the entirety of its territory as a dedicated nuclear weapon free zone (NWFZ) and pledged compliance with national and international verification activity. Despite pledges made in August 2020 by Shinzo Abe on the 75th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing that reinforced Japan’s adherence to the Three Non-Nuclear Principles, the country’s refusal to sign the TPNW significantly undermines its commitment to disarmament. Following Mongolia’s model of a single-state NWFZ would allow Japan to demonstrate its willingness to abide by its promises of not possessing, producing, nor permitting the introduction of nuclear weapons on its territories. Likewise, instead of calling for the redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons in the ROK, a similar affirmation of the country’s commitment to disarmament will dramatically improve relations with North Korea. This could be pivotal at a time when Kim Yo-jong has recently welcomed a proposal to end the Korean war.
Finally the governments of South Korea, Japan and Australia should endorse participation in observing the TPNW. Even within the NATO umbrella, the SPD party who topped the polls in Germany’s recent general election have pledged observer status of the treaty as a minimum policy. It presents Asia-Pacific non-signatories with an easy and appealing means for communicating to both North Korea and China their willingness for pursuing peaceful relations. In the process it will signal their capacity to distance themselves from Washington’s influence, an accusation which has often thwarted trust building.
Historically CBMs have succeeded in replacing misunderstanding and tension with trust and goodwill. Today the climate crisis has demonstrated states are keen to establish cooperation within the international community, often praising each other’s pledges to cut emissions and reach net zero. Why shouldn’t this same approach be used to cut weapon stockpiles and reach the military equivalent of carbon neutrality – General and Complete Disarmament.
Project Assistant, SCRAP Weapons