Nuclear weapons pose an existential threat to humanity and indeed to all forms of life on planet Earth. Serious threats persist from the use or misuse of weapons – whether by design, accident or system malfunction – by nuclear-armed states and terrorist actors, and from the misuse of the civil fuel cycle.
The Asia–Pacific region impacts every dimension of the global nuclear agenda, with acute tensions and risks remaining in Northeast Asia and South Asia in particular, accompanied by the steady growth in the size and sophistication of regional nuclear arsenals and the means of their delivery. With the world’s economic, political and security centres of gravity shifting inexorably to this region, its stake in a secure world order – and its responsibility to contribute with ideas, policy proposals and vision to that end – have grown commensurately.
The APLN Mission
The Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (APLN) is a 90-strong advocacy group with members from 15 countries across Asia and the Pacific, including nuclear-armed states China, India and Pakistan. They comprise former political, official and military leaders in senior executive positions as well as opinion leaders and shapers from other sectors of society. Following the successful launch of the European Leadership Network (ELN), the APLN was begun in 2011 with Gareth Evans as the founding Convenor and myself as head of the secretariat then located at the Australian National University. Two years ago Evans stepped down and Professor Chung-in Moon of Yonsei University and I took over as Co-Convenors, with the secretariat moving to the East Asia Foundation in Seoul. (Moon has recently been appointed a Special Adviser to the South Korean president on unification, diplomacy and security.)
As an advocacy group, the APLN aims to inform and energise public opinion, especially high-level policymakers, to take seriously the very real threats posed by nuclear weapons, and to do everything possible to achieve a world in which they are contained, diminished and eventually eliminated. In a region lacking an overarching security architecture, the APLN is the only pan-continental grouping dedicated to promoting strategic nuclear policy dialogue. It vests ownership of the discussion, analyses and recommendations very firmly in the hands of people from and residing in the region.
At the same time, it offers an authoritative alternative to government views. Last year, for example, the Obama administration was actively considering adopting a no first use (NFU) of nuclear weapons policy but was reported to be constrained by the resistance of allies fearful of letting go of the nuclear umbrella, including Asia–Pacific allies Australia, Japan and South Korea. The APLN issued a statement, signed by 47 members, offering strong support for a NFU policy. The signatories included nationals from all Asian nuclear-armed states bar North Korea, plus all three umbrella states.
Today, following a series of provocative nuclear and missile tests, North Korea poses the most urgent policy challenge to regional peace and security and to the global nuclear order. Meanwhile a two-thirds majority of NPT parties held the first part of a conference to negotiate a prohibition treaty to fill a legal gap in the NPT’s disarmament commitment and the draft text was issued on 22 May.
Not surprisingly, the two issues dominated this year’s annual APLN meeting held on 30 May in Jeju immediately preceding the Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity (where also the APLN ran a stream of sessions on nuclear policy issues).
On the first, given the range and diversity of the APLN membership, the discussion was wide-ranging and expansive but only a banal statement would have attracted unanimous signature. Instead the two Co-Convenors issued a press release in their own name which encapsulated the sense of the discussion while leaving individual members free to dissociate themselves from the text either because it was too strong or too weak from their point of view.
We made four points on North Korea:
- First, we urged Pyongyang to desist from further provocative nuclear and missile tests to allow a reopening of regional dialogue.
- Second, we held that negotiations are the only way to resolve the nuclear crisis on the peninsula: preventive military strikes are not an answer and while sanctions have their utility, in themselves they will not be enough.
- Third, we called on China, Russia and the US to renew efforts to engage with the North Korea, South Korea and Japan to map a path for resolving security issues on the peninsula.
- And fourth, we welcomed the promise of newly-elected President Moon Jae-in to take “bold” and “fundamental” measures to achieve denuclearisation.
The UN nuclear ban convention
By contrast, we did issue an APLN statement on the ban convention that was signed by fifty members, 31 of whom are from countries possessing nuclear weapons or sheltering under the US nuclear umbrella; that is, from countries that have boycotted the ban talks at the United Nations in New York, the second session of which resumes on the 15th and will conclude on 7 July. The statement welcomed the draft text as an important milestone in the long campaign to ban the most indiscriminately inhumane weapons ever invented. Rooted in humanitarian principles, we noted, the draft text provides a good basis to complete negotiation of a treaty to prohibit unequivocally the acquisition, development, production, manufacture, possession, testing, transfer, extra-territorial stationing and use of nuclear weapons as major steps towards their eventual elimination.
We noted further, with regret, that several countries in the Asia–Pacific are boycotting the ban negotiations. The APLN believes that participation in the negotiations would provide an opportunity for these countries to explain their position, set out their intentions for meeting their disarmament obligations and the practical considerations to be taken into account, and to influence the treaty text. They would still be free to sign or reject the treaty once a final text is approved by the United Nations General Assembly as the world’s one and only normative centre of gravity.
Professor Ramesh Thakur of the Australian National University, a former UN Assistant Secretary-General, is Co-Convenor of the APLN.