Rethinking East Asia: Security Tasks Are Wider Than Reaching for a Nuclear-Weapon Free Zone

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Alexander Nikitin, a MGIMO Professor; the Center for Euro-Atlantic security Director

The Security agenda in Northeast Asia is different from other regions

The international security agenda in Northeast Asia (and in Asia in general) is slightly different from security agendas in Europe or on the American continent. It has different priorities, specific threats and challenges, and lacks collective security mechanisms. The issues of enlargement of NATO, proportional cuts in American and Russian nuclear arsenals, partition of empires and emergence of new independent states are non-issues in this region, or at least they are out of focus. Instead, the security agenda is filled with issues of migration, drug trafficking, the fight against piracy on seas and in straits, the status of various islands, the delimitation of maritime borders, and the split between nations (China-Taiwan, two reunited Vietnams, two separated Koreas).

Northeast Asia demonstrates that the new security agenda has already been shaped, while old traditional security dilemmas are not yet resolved. Those “old” dilemmas include presence of foreign military bases, danger of nuclear war, safety of peaceful nuclear technologies, issues of accumulation of fissile materials, and absence of structuralized arms control and disarmament.

Asia in general, and Northeast Asia in particular, lacks mechanisms not only of nuclear arms control, but also of transparency, data exchange and verified cuts in conventional weapons. Asia lacks a universal international security organization (of the OSCE type), and the role of the United Nations there is visibly weaker than required. While some international organizations and formats like ASEAN, ARF, and APEC are developing, they don’t assign to themselves functions of international security regulators. As a result, the geopolitical role and projection of interests of global powers, including the USA, China, and Russia, is higher in Northeast Asia than in many other regions.

The Russian approach stresses exactly the multi-dimensional, multi-layer character of the potential security architecture for NEA. Denuclearization of the region cannot be interpreted as focused only and mainly on the DPRK’s current nuclear capabilities. The path towards denuclearization and towards the establishment of an “all-weather” peace and security mechanism includes other important “layers”:

  • The issue of presence of components of nuclear arsenals of China, Russia, and the USA on the geographical territory of the NEA region, including military bases and maritime passage of ships and submarines with nuclear weapons onboard;
  • Political and economic guaranties towards North Korea assuring the end of its international isolation and its involvement (under certain conditions) in the international family of nations (in other words, political and economic compensational stimuli for giving up nuclear capabilities);
  • The assurance in any foreseeable future of the non-nuclear status of other countries of the NEA region, namely of the Republic of Korea and of Japan;
  • The creation of a stable and long-term mechanism (or combination of mechanisms) for negotiations, transparency, data exchange, verification between the countries of the region (involving global powers present in the region) to assure continuity and further non-violation of the potential denuclearized status of the NEA region.

Reaching A Comprehensive Agreement on Peace and Security in Northeast Asia Is A Multi-Stage Process

The experience of Europe (with numerous overlapping security-related institutions and formats) and of Russian–American arms control negotiations throughout decades proves that concrete technical tasks on the one hand, and overall political goals on the other, could hardly be reached within the same unified security mechanism. In the last decade, Russia put forward the initiative of concluding the comprehensive European Security Treaty (EST), and elaborated a draft text of such a binding international document[1]. But the very idea of a binding international treaty of such a broad character and of continental scope didn’t get enough support among many (mostly Western) nations. Argumentation elaborated and presented by Western diplomats and political leaders in the process of debates over the EST can be readdressed to the proposal (advocated by American scholar M.H. Halperin[2] and some other supporters) aimed towards the elaboration and conclusion of one combined “Comprehensive Agreement on Peace and Security in NEA”. Such an agreement, as he advocates, might be elaborated mostly on a bilateral basis between the USA and the DPRK, and then supported by other powers of the region and participants of the Six-party talks, with involvement of out-of-region powers like Mongolia and Canada.

The general intention to broaden conditions discussed between DPRK and its Six-party Talks partners from pure denuclearization of the DPRK towards general political assurances of ‘no hostile intent’ and cooperative mechanisms of mega-regional scale is by itself right and ought to be supported. But the ability to pack several lines of negotiations on general security guaranties, establishing a regional nuclear-weapons-free zone, technicalities of nuclear weapon dismantlement, further verification and transparency into one agreement is doubtful.

Moscow considers that the move towards overall denuclearization of Northeast Asia (with the reestablishment of the non-nuclear status of the DPRK as one element of this broader process) involves many step-by-step processes and layers of negotiations, such as:

  • Preservation and stabilization of the overall Non-Proliferation regime on the global scale, including a coordinated policy of P5 powers (and that is a non-guaranteed task in current conditions of a new wave of Western-Russian geopolitical contradictions and reciprocal sanctions);
  • Definitive progress in world-scale denuclearization (first of all deep cuts under START-III in the nuclear arsenals of the USA and Russia, that together still possess about 95% of the world’s nuclear weapons);
  • Timely preparation of the next nuclear arms cuts treaty following NEW-START (which expires in 2021);
  • Non-violation of already reached and/or implemented agreements in nuclear disarmament, such as the INF Treaty;
  • Expansion of Russian-American limitations on intermediate and shorter range nuclear missiles onto other nuclear states (universalization of the INF);
  • Promotion of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) finally entering into force (among countries belonging to or represented in the NEA region. The USA, PRC and DPRK belong to the group of 44 designated states whose signing and ratification of the CTBT is mandatory for its entering into force);
  • Progress towards the conclusion of the Fissile Materials Cut-off Treaty (FMCT)
  • Application to Asia (and specifically to Northeast Asia) an arsenal of transparency, trust, and verification measures that have been elaborated and applied in other continents, for example, involving countries of the NEA region (China, first of all) in the Open Sky Treaty with its transparency and inspections procedures.

Only when all or at least a significant part of the above mentioned steps have been implemented in Northeast Asia, then a combination of two interconnected processes may take place:

  • Provision of a wide range of political and economic guaranties for the survival and normal development for the DPRK in the case of their giving up nuclear capabilities, as well as reassuring political security guaranties for all countries of the region that refrained from obtaining nuclear weapons;
  • Negotiations on establishing a nuclear-weapon-free zone in Northeast Asia with a respective binding Treaty and Protocol of Guaranties on the side of the P5 nuclear powers.

[1] Text of Draft for the «European Security Treaty» has been distributed by Russian MFA to all UN-member states and is available at the Internet-site of the Russian President (

[2] «A Comprehensive Agreement on Peace and Security in Northeast asia: An Approach to Break the Gridlock». Papers by Morton H.Halperin presented at RECNA Workshops in Nagasaki, December 2012 and Tokyo, September 2014.

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