Inspections and assurances will allow Asean to take a more united stand on its stated aim of keeping the region free of nuclear weapons
Beyond the banner headlines about the normalisation of US-Myanmar relations, the nuclear weapons issue is still one of the most important that the two countries will have to deal with as their renewed friendship evolves. For years, Washington has tracked the development of Myanmar’s nuclear ambition and its alleged willingness to satisfy North Korea’s eagerness to find foreign clients and patrons.
Myanmar’s President Thein Sein has promised the US that his country will end its controversial interest in Pyongyang’s missile technology and nuclear-related programmes. However, despite repeated assurances from Nay Pyi Taw, some scholars and experts believe that cooperation on missile technology still continues unabated between the two Asian countries. The interception of components for weapons of mass destruction and missile-related technology in Japan in August was very disturbing.
Over the past two months there have been extraordinary developments in US-Myanmar relations. The six-hour visit by US President Barack Obama to Myanmar earlier this month was an epoch-making event for the former pariah country. Obama’s visit hinged on the promise that Myanmar has, or will, cut all controversial ties with North Korea.
After the North’s bombing of a South Korean airliner in 1983, Myanmar and North Korea strengthened their relationship based on their regimes’ mutual disgust at foreign interventions. North Korea was able to convince Myanmar’s military leaders to buy in to its military technology, including some construction of physical facilities.
However, all of these programmes are said to have stopped, due to the positive outlook that Washington has adopted as a result of tangible reforms in Myanmar. It is hoped the new relationship will be a lasting one that will prevent further dangerous liaisons between Myanmar and North Korea.
Myanmar’s nuclear ambition was an issue of concern to Asean in recent years. During the Hanoi summits in 2010, Asean leaders asked repeatedly for Myanmar to clarify its stance. The generals in Nay Pyi Taw often dismissed these questions without any explanation.
Now that the country has been recognised and accepted in the international community, it is imperative that Myanmar puts the record straight by allowing on-site inspections and detailed reports. Otherwise, its reputation could remain suspect. Myanmar thus needs to give a final assurance to its Asean friends that its military connections to North Korea have been severed.
Asean is working hard to ensure the region is free from nuclear weapons. The regional grouping has asked the world’s nuclear powers to honour its non-nuclear agreement, signed in 1995. At the moment, although all the nuclear powers have expressed interest in signing the treaty, they still have the right not to inform their hosts whether they have nuclear weapons on board their vessels during port visits to Asean member countries.
Asean is moving forward to engage all the major powers under the framework of the East Asia Summit (EAS). The EAS has become one of the most dynamic region-wide, leaders-only forums. It discusses strategic and security issues as well as Asean’s connectivity with other powers. This is a good sign. With the world’s most powerful countries engaging with Asean on such issues, the group can still have a say on issues pertaining to nuclear non-proliferation. But first of all, Asean has to show unity in its nuclear-free ambition. Without such a firm footing, the group’s bargaining power could be weakened.