Tag: NPT

Nuclear Myanmar

A recent credible report by the Democratic Voice of Burma that North Korea may have assisted Myanmar’s junta to acquire nuclear weapons technology has raised concerns at the international and regional levels.

Myanmar is a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), but it is technically exempt from IAEA inspections. If it is in fact pursuing a nuclear weapons program aided by North Korea, it would represent one more nail in the coffin of the non-proliferation regime.

The US response has been limited so far, most likely due to the fact there are potentially more pressing violations of the NPT in the Persian Gulf. However, Senator Jim Webb, the chair of the Foreign Relations panel on East Asia, cancelled his scheduled trip to Myanmar last week. The US approach to this development will most likely continue the establishment pattern of seeking to isolate and impose sanctions rather than engaging in a dialog with this repressive regime.

From a regional strategic perspective, a nuclear armed Myanmar would be a serious concern for India. The prospect that India would be surrounded by an axis of three nuclear powers is a major challenge to India’s ambition of transcending its regional shackles.

If Myanmar is pursuing a nuclear weapons program, it is most likely intended to deter America rather than India.  (The project may also be intended to ensure the domestic longevity of the regime.) India and Myanmar are not enemies. While Indian influence in Burma pales relative to China, India has been engaging with the regime for years and it has achieved a measure of cooperation in building a “land bridge” from Imphal to Mandalay which is designed to facilitate trade and help India police its troubled Northeast region (currently the road only extends to Kalewa, which is still 482km from Mandalay).  Nevertheless, India will have to look at capabilities rather than just intentions.

Similarly, Myanmar’s neighbors in Southeast Asia, several of which are closely tied to the US, might also feel threatened by a nuclear armed Myanmar. The issue has already created a stir in ASEAN circles.  At the Shangri-la Dialog last week, Myanmar denied to the Singaporeans that it was pursuing a nuclear weapons program.

In any case, if the allegations are true, Myanmar is clearly in the very early stages of its program and it does not have sufficient delivery mechanisms even if they were to develop a nuclear weapon in the future. Experts also doubt that Burma has the economic resources and scientific resources to sustain this program.

Of course, one is reminded of similar arguments about Pakistan’s technical and economic ability to acquire a nuclear weapon, but as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s prophetically quipped, “… we will eat grass or leaves, or go hungry, but we will get one [nuclear bomb] of our own.” Where there’s a will, there’s a way…

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The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)

The collapse of the most recent NPT conference is already gone from the headlines. The general tenor of the reporting has gone, more or less, like this:

When the conference began on May 2, countries had hoped to agree on a plan to plug loopholes in the treaty that enable countries to acquire sensitive atomic technology and to hear from Washington and the four other NPT members with nuclear weapons that they remained committed to disarming.

But it quickly descended into procedural bickering, led by the United States, Iran and Egypt, and ended after approving only a document that listed the agenda and participants.

In a clear swipe at Washington, which angered developing countries by refusing to reaffirm previous pledges to scrap its own nuclear arsenal, Canada’s chief delegate blasted countries that tossed aside earlier commitments.

“If governments simply ignore or discard commitments whenever they prove inconvenient, we will never be able to build an edifice of international cooperation and confidence in the security realm,” Ambassador Paul Meyer, the head of Canada’s delegation, said in a speech to the conference.

The United States has denied undermining the conference. Privately, U.S. officials blamed Iran and Egypt, who they said hijacked the block of non-aligned nations in an attempt to focus criticism on the United States and Israel.

NPR carried a particularly good report on the broader issues at stake in the conference, including the question of why states “go nuclear” in the first place. Among those interviewed was Scott Sagan, one of the foremost scholars of nuclear proliferation. Scott argued, as he has in print, that signals from the current nuclear powers play an important role in nuclear proliferation and nuclear strategy. From this vantage point, recent high-profile changes in US (and Russian) nuclear doctrine – away from policies of “no first use” against non-nuclear powers – undermine the normative and institutional components of the non-proliferation regime.

The big question, of course, is how much blame for these developments can be laid at the feet of the US. Are we witnessing the mounting costs of anti-Americanism engendered by the Bush administration, or the more or less inevitable consequences of unipolarity, the spread of weapons technology, and other factors? The answer is probably both. At the very least, the growing antipathy towards US foreign policy, combined with the fact that the nuclear powers – including the US – aren’t exactly taking their NPT obligations seriously, provides rhetorical cover for states like Iran.1

All of this assumes, of course, that the spread of nuclear weapons is dangerous. Not all scholars agree. Kenneth Waltz, in particular, argues that more nuclear powers will be a net positive for peace and stability.2 Another line of thinking is that a focus on counter-proliferation undermines US interests. It may be, for example, that the US ought to drop the nuclear issue and try to reestablish a strategic relationship with Iran.

1See Articles IV-VI.
2The best guide to the debate over the desirability of nuclear proliferation is The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate Renewed, by Sagan and Waltz.

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