SEANWFZ and Nuclear Proliferation & Disarmament: A Philippine Perspective

Posted: June 28, 2011 in Southeast Asia

(Author’s note: This is the text of a presentation made at a conference on the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone  and nuclear disarmament in Jakarta in early June 2011.)

I would like to thank the organizers of this meeting for arm-twisting me not only to attend but to be a presenter in this final session. Apart from meeting new and touching base with old friends, it gives me a chance to see Jakarta again after my first visit 29 years in 1982. It also forced me to study and learn something new, that is, on the nuclear nonproliferation treaty (NPT) and other related matters as they impact on Southeast Asia and the Philippines.  I express great pride that a senior Filipino diplomat, Ambassador Libran Cabactulan, served as President of the NPT Review Process last year.

I have to introduce myself properly so I will be assured of your undivided attention. Amado means beloved.  I am warning the ladies not to call me by that name because they will be obliged to love me even if I don’t love them. But usually, I love them so they could love me back.  But I am not original since I am just a Junior and I just follow my dad.  Mendoza means cold mountain so I am the beloved old bold balding man from the cold mountain. Mallonga is Esperanto for ‘brief and short’.  I leave it to your judgement if I am indeed brief and short.   But for the record, my love and hate affairs are not brief and short.  They are rather intense and long-lasting.

I am more of a generalist rather than a specialist.  Before the end of the Cold War, I was engaged in political and strategic analysis while employed in private financial institutions and active in the underground anti-dictatorship movement in the Philippines.  In the post-Cold War period, I shifted gears and went deep into international political economy (IPE) theory and issues.  However, the inter-actions and inter-relationships between ‘war/security’ (traditional and non-traditional) and ‘gold’ issues became more apparent and salient since the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s.  

A number of significant ‘conflicts’ over the past years such as the US-Iran, the second Iraqi war (that resulted in regime change) and the continuing crisis in the Korean peninsula have exercised and hexed political leaders, diplomats, generals, journalists, academics, pundits and ordinary laypersons.

The normative legal framework at stake in these conflicts is the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. A product of détente-era American–Soviet diplomacy, famously privileging the rights of the established nuclear powers over all newcomers, the NPT has been given a new lease of life since the end of the Cold War; its abrogation of national sovereignties chiming well with current superpower needs. Yet with scant exception, states facing UN-sanctioned  coercion for breaching their obligations under the Treaty—Iran, for instance—still  cling to it, rather than exercise their right to withdraw; while the previous Bush Administration has regularly been accused of flouting its provisions. For mainstream and much liberal-left opinion, the NPT signals a moral pledge to a future world without weapons, as much as a shield against the calamity of nuclear war. Yet the Treaty itself has received little attention since its unconditional extension in 1995.

While de-facto, the NPT privileged the nuclear-haves (NWS) over the nuclear-have-nots (NNWS), the de jure norm that got accepted by many (except India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea) was that a world with fewer states with nuclear weaponry is safer than one with many armed with nuclear-weapons.  In a Westphalian world of sovereign nation-states, the balance of terror in the nuclear age reproduced, albeit in a frightening fashion, the pre-nuclear balance of power between states.

But there’s apparently a great difference.  In the pre-nuclear arena, technologies for the production of so-called non-nuclear, conventional weaponry is comparatively transparent and easily replicable.  Notwithstanding all this talk about ‘dirty’ bombs or IEDs that can be built in house garages or workshops, no self-respecting state will be content with such ersatz bombs.  Ultimately, the resources of a state must be brought to bear on the task of building and deploying a nuclear weapons system (including delivery, C3, fail-safe mechanisms, etc.).

In a world of rational states (or state leaders), what trade-offs were involved between the nuclear haves and the have-nots?  What did the have-nots gain in return for not developing their own nuclear weapons?  Or was it a matter that they did not have enough resources to do so?  Did the nuclear haves commit to a clear-cut schedule of disarmament or decommissioning of nuclear weapons?  They may have had a need for such weapons during the Cold War.

But the Cold War is over!  What is the need for nuclear weapons in a post-Cold War period?  I understand the economic costs involved in dismantling/decommissioning of weapons.  That should not stop the nuclear haves to negotiate and agree on definite decommissioning schedules.

Or was the treaty simply a triumph of real politik rather than of fair trade?  That the nuclear haves simply want to have nuclear weapons so they can set themselves apart from us, so they can continue to enjoy a super-ordinate status in the world community.

Be that as it may, the Philippines (or I so, I think) supports the idea of nonproliferation of nuclear weapons and the three pillars of the NPT Review process—nonproliferation, disarmament, and right of nations to peaceful use of nuclear energy.  The Republic is a also party to the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone Treaty (or the Bangkok Treaty of 1995), the ultimate component (in the words of Director General Djauhari Oratmangun) of ASEAN’s 1971 Declaration on a Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN).

At this point, I would like to acknowledge our debts to Sukarno and Nehru, the Asian champions of non-alignment and key authors of the Bandung Declaration.  Still, I want to interrogate the utility of a regional NWFZ.  At first glance, such a regional regime does not seem to have much utility if the objective is to shield the region from the direct and indirect effects of the use and deployment of nuclear weapons.  For instance, will the existence of such a regime help the region if the US and China engage in nuclear war?  While it may prevent the existence of nuclear weapons in the SEA, while it may oppose the use of nuclear weapons—will the regime really figure heavily in the decision-making of the NWS in times of crisis and war? How about India and Pakistan, especially since both South Asian states are outside the NPT discipline? Will the distance of the Korean peninsula shield the region from nuclear war?

There are obviously concerns other than physical harm in the event of nuclear war including economic.  For instance, trade will be disrupted, incomes will be lost, costs would increase, and so on.  

Simply put, I believe that the non-use of nuclear weapons is really based on MAD–of the nuclear dyad and the world– and not really on the existence of regional NWFZ regimes.

What then is the utility of the regional NWFZ regime?  It looks like it is a useful platform for talks with the P5, or the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

How robust is the regional regime?  Is it a comprehensive one?  Mr. Oratmangun suggested yesterday that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has yet to develop a common position in the negotiations with the P5 even as there is general agreement on such issues:

  1. Zone of application
  2. Transit rights
  3. Port visits
  4. Negative security assurance
  5. Sovereignty

I ask questions regarding the robustness of the regional NWFZ especially in the light of the Philippine experience.  When the country signed on with the ZOPFAN concept in 1971, it was still host to the American bases.  It was also a treaty ally with the US; in fact in a more formal manner compared to the Thais and US bases in the Philippines were major platforms for the prosecution of the American war effort in the Indochina peninsula.

In that sense, the Philippines and Thailand were not neutral at the time.  They were aligned (de jure and de facto) with the US and this alignment was tolerated by other ASEAN members since all shared an anti-communist stance.

The Philippines are still aligned with the US even with the withdrawal of the huge US military bases in the country.  The 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty still stands even as the Military Bases Agreement was abrogated in 1991.  The USS Carl Vinson just made a port visit in Manila about a month ago.  Are we sure the warship does not have nuclear weapons?  Can we make sure that it does not have such weapons?  Or are there secret protocols between both governments? Or should we simply look the other way especially given assurances of support by the US in the Philippines’ row with China over the Spratly islands?

An under-studied period in US-PH relations with respect to nuclear weaponry is the 1987-1991 period—the adoption of the 1987 Constitution with its nuclear-weapons and foreign-troops-free/ban provisions.  These basic law provisions strengthened the moral basis of the anti-US bases movement which started during the Marcos dictatorship.  How did the US skirt the ban before they left in 1992?  Through a very convenient policy of neither confirming nor denying the presence of nuclear weapons of whatever kind in the bases.

In November 1992, following a rejection of the Military Bases Agreement by the Philippine Senate and the explosion of a long-dormant volcano that spewed very fine dust that wrought havoc on jet engines, the Americans closed their bases and left.  Now the Americans seem to want to return and re-establish a more permanent military presence in the Philippine archipelago.

How about peaceful uses of nuclear power?  I have shared yesterday some comments on the work and experience of the Philippine Nuclear Research Institute.  The Philippines, in my opinion, does not have substantial experience in the handling of and physical protection of nuclear materials even as we have a nuclear reactor quite near my own university in Quezon City.  We may have had very limited experience since our Philippine Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC), now the Philippine Nuclear Research Institute (PNRI), was established in the 1958 but the (peaceful) use of nuclear power was given a bad name amidst the anomalous/corruption-ridden contract to build the country’s first nuclear power plant in Bataan province, the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP),  in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Bataan Nuclear Power Plant

Post-Marcos governments had to face the ghosts of the BNPP and the recent past.  In the mid-1990s following a resurgence of the country’s economic growth, President Fidel Ramos has once again renewed the government’s interest in using nuclear energy in the country. It has created the Nuclear Power Steering Committee to examine the prospects and viability of using nuclear energy in the Philippines.  This committee identified 10 possible sites for nuclear power plants.

In the Congress of the Philippines, Rep. Mark Cojuangco repeatedly proposed the re-commissioning (not the conversion) of the BNPP supposedly since talk about its being dangerous to operate is without scientific basis.  Before Cojuangco, plans to convert it to a coal-fired plants were considered.  However, he shelved his proposals in the aftermath of the Fukushima incident.  Just recently, the Department of Tourism announced plans to convert BNPP to a tourist attraction.  It makes sense since the BNPP is located in a general area with fantastic beach resorts, World War II battle sites, and mango orchards.  Philippine mangos are the best and the most exquisite tropical fruits in the whole wide world.

However, while the country may indeed need nuclear energy to support its industrialization and that technically, it may be possible to have nuclear power plants that can be safely operated in the country, their eventual operation and the Philippines’ use of nuclear energy will still depend on the public’s acceptance and approval of the construction, operation and use of nuclear power plants.

In sum, the Philippines supports the notion of a nuclear-weapons free Southeast Asia.  However, it has to deal with a strong domestic sentiment before it could embark on the construction and use of nuclear power plants.

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