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Issues & Insights Vol. 16 – No. 12 – Dialogue on Nonproliferation and Nuclear Security Cooperation in Southeast Asia

The Pacific Forum CSIS, with support from the US Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (DOE/NNSA), held a nonproliferation and nuclear security dialogue in Singapore on May 31-June 1, 2016. Approximately 40 senior scholars and officials as well as Pacific Forum CSIS Young Leaders attended, all in their private capacity. The off-the-record discussions covered US, Chinese, and Southeast Asian perspectives and priorities on nonproliferation and nuclear security, the Nuclear Security Summit process, nuclear security culture, nuclear energy developments in Southeast Asia, strategic trade controls, and UN sanctions implementation. Key findings from this meeting are outlined below.
Nuclear security is one of the most fertile areas for cooperation between the United States, China, and Southeast Asian states. All recognize the urgency to increase investments in this area given growing terrorism concerns. There is also general agreement to cooperate on nonproliferation to address the North Korean nuclear issue. Digital and cyber threats related to nonproliferation were identified as a key area of cooperation; some proposed the establishment of a dedicated track 1.5 working group to address this emerging problem.
The future of nuclear security governance is uncertain following the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) and the conclusion of the summit process. It is unclear if progress will continue in the absence of high-level political leadership. This is problematic because despite notable achievements such as the entry into force of the Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials, there remain important gaps and limitations. Civil plutonium and military materials, for instance, have remained outside the scope of the NSS process and few improvements have been made to radioactive source management.
Nuclear security governance remains as area of concern in Southeast Asia. Remedies offered included the development of region-wide management standards for radioactive source management and strengthening information-sharing and nuclear forensic cooperation. One suggestion offered in this context was to make ASEAN a highly enriched uranium-free zone.
Building capacity for nuclear security governance in Southeast Asia is paramount. Guidelines provided in the IAEA’s Nuclear Security Series remain an important source for states interested in enhancing nuclear security. The United States and China, independently or jointly, as well as other governments and organizations can help build such capacity. The Chinese nuclear security center of excellence, in particular, provides a good platform for these efforts. Given growing interest in nuclear power development in Southeast Asia, focusing efforts on nuclear safety is also essential.

Southeast Asian governments have not been inactive in strengthening nuclear security and safety standards. So far, the focus has been norm-building via the Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (SEANWFZ) and, more recently, the ASEAN Network of Regulatory Bodies on Atomic Energy, or ASEANTOM. While progress has been modest (and regional governments have focused mostly on getting nuclear-weapon states to endorse the SEANWFZ protocols), it has not been insignificant. These efforts have been complemented by the work of the new Indonesian nuclear security center of excellence, which, like similar centers, seeks to enhance nuclear security and safety culture in the region through human resource development. Work is needed to explore ways to support these mechanisms and better synergize their activities.
Improving nuclear disaster response in Southeast Asia is essential. Regional initiatives such as ASEAN Coordinating Center for Humanitarian Assistance that have so far focused on natural disaster response should broaden their mandate to incorporate human-made/nuclear disasters, especially since responding to such disasters would require similar efforts. Alternatively, participants suggested that a separate nuclear crisis center should be created. In an effort to strengthen coordination in the event of a nuclear accident or incident, another recommendation was to map the key agencies likely to be called upon in each of the ten Southeast Asian states.
Combating proliferation in Southeast Asia, like anywhere else, begins with the adoption and thorough implementation of strong strategic trade controls (STC) by regional governments. Although it has been a requirement of United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1540 (2004), many Southeast Asian states still lag behind in this area; so far, only Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines have adopted strong STC legislation. Research shows that the primary reason for this lag is the lack of capacity.
The United States, China, and others can help build STC capacity in Southeast Asia. To avoid duplication of efforts or conflicting messages, assistance providers should coordinate their activities. They should also tailor their efforts to the needs of each state, which often differ, especially in a region as diverse as Southeast Asia. From the perspective of Southeast Asian states, this points to the importance of outlining their specific needs in advance and, insofar as possible, of drawing up national action plans and listing intentions on STC development.
While there is no strong rationale to establish a common, region-wide STC system in Southeast Asia given the disparate levels of economic development, greater coordination and/or harmonization is possible under the auspices of the ASEAN Economic Community and Single Window initiative. More information-sharing and better cooperation among governments or the creation of a regional database could serve as a reference tool for governments and industries.
Disagreements persist over the role and effectiveness of UN sanctions. There is general agreement, however, that they should serve a purpose and, in the case of North Korea, that they should act as a lever to bring Pyongyang back to the negotiating table.
Implementation of UN sanctions imposed on North Korea lags behind in Southeast Asia, mostly because of a lack of capacity. The United States, China, and others can help regional governments by mapping sanctions requirements, developing checklists, improving monitoring of the North Korean diaspora in the region, building capacity on cargo inspection, erecting financial barriers, and promoting better open-source exchange and analysis on suspicious trade.