A view from Southeast Asia

By Raymund Jose G. Quilop, January 4, 2013

Nuclear technology has always been a contentious issue. The countries that originally took the lead in developing and acquiring nuclear technology understood very clearly the dangers that the technology posed, and have often sought to prevent nuclear know-how from spreading further. Other nations, conscious of the ways in which nuclear technology could benefit them, are often eager to acquire that know-how.

This fraught situation is further complicated by misperceptions and mistrust. Countries that possess nuclear technology can be perceived as wanting to keep technology for themselves so that they can enjoy unfair advantages over everyone else. Countries that attempt to develop nuclear technology, meanwhile, can be suspected of harboring non-peaceful motives.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty assures all states' inherent right to the peaceful use of nuclear technology; at the same time, proliferation of technology and material for weapons production is to be prevented, and nations that already possess nuclear weapons are to disarm. These are the treaty's three pillars, and together they represent the single idea around which the nonproliferation regime has been structured. But some would argue that this idea has remained just that: only an idea, and that none of the three pillars has been fully transformed into reality. The regime's incomplete success explains the "proliferation" of global, multilateral, regional, and subregional efforts to prevent weapons proliferation, promote the peaceful use of nuclear technology, and encourage disarmament. The progress that the treaty has achieved, though very limited in the eyes of some observers, must be acknowledged. The value of various multilateral, regional, and subregional efforts should be acknowledged as well.

Even though the issues that surround state acquisition of nuclear technology have not been settled yet, the threat of non-state actors' gaining access to nuclear technology and material has increasingly come to the fore. This has prompted the world community, which already focused considerable attention on nuclear safety and safeguards, to devote greater attention to nuclear security. Complicating this issue is the risk that nations might provide non-state actors with technology or material — whether directly or indirectly, deliberately or accidentally. But international mechanisms to address the possibility of non-state actors' gaining nuclear technology or material are still in their nascent stages. And if the mechanisms that have long been in place to address illicit state acquisition of nuclear technology and material have not fully succeeded, why should embryonic mechanisms to deal with non-state actors prove more effective?

Supply and demand. Given all this, if the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) is to formulate a more effective set of policies for addressing nuclear proliferation, it must contend with several fundamental issues. First, states that embark on nuclear programs for legitimate purposes must not be made to feel that the policies, programs, and efforts of the NSG are meant to constrain and constrict them. Admittedly, this is not an easy task: Export controls are a realm in which differences in perception can be serious stumbling blocks. Proponents of export controls, such as the United States, often emphasize that export controls are not meant to restrict trade of dual-use items (though the NSG itself requires that facilities or activities for which dual-use items are intended must be placed under safeguards administered by the International Atomic Energy Agency). But among customer nations, the perception that export controls restrict trade unnecessarily is nonetheless strong. This perception makes it difficult, especially in countries with democratically elected legislatures, to pass export-control laws intended to prevent the re-export or transshipment of dual-use items.

These issues come into play in my own region of Southeast Asia, which is sometimes said to be undergoing a "nuclear renaissance." That is, the number of nations exploring nuclear power as an additional energy source to sustain their economic development is expected to increase over the coming years. Vietnam may bring a nuclear power plant online by 2020, and Indonesia and Malaysia are also seriously considering the adoption of nuclear energy. Amid this activity, it is important that the NSG not be perceived as unduly restricting Southeast Asian nations' energy ambitions.

A second fundamental issue for the NSG is that it must devise better mechanisms for ensuring that the technology and material provided to states for legitimate peaceful purposes are not diverted to states with nuclear ambitions that are not entirely peaceful. (In East Asia, North Korea is often considered a state with sinister nuclear ambitions; it has engaged in illicit deals as a purchaser and perhaps as a provider as well.) The governments with which the NSG deals may not be likely to transfer technology and material directly to states with less benign nuclear motives. But diversion could nonetheless occur.

Third, and relatedly, the NSG must factor in the possibility that states judged to be developing a legitimate nuclear capacity could provide technology and material to non-state actors. In Southeast Asia, this represents a difficult issue. No Southeast Asian state is known to tolerate terrorist groups that have attempted to acquire nuclear materials, but the porousness of borders in the region, along with minimal capacity in nuclear security, makes it difficult to ensure that no illicit shipment or transshipment of nuclear material can take place.

Greater or lesser. The dilemma therefore for the NSG is whether to conduct business with an increasing or decreasing number of states. Dealing with a greater number of states would ensure that the group's stringent nonproliferation standards are enforced in more places, but would also increase the number of avenues through which proliferating states and malicious non-state actors could gain access to technology. Transacting business with fewer states would decrease the number of access points but would also mean that NSG standards were applied in fewer countries. (In any event, states with which the NSG chooses not to conduct business could always turn into states that seek nuclear technology through illicit means.)

The spread of nuclear technology involves complicated dynamics and the interplay of competing forces. But since nuclear technology has already been developed and cannot be undeveloped, the global community — including the Nuclear Suppliers Group — must continue to grapple with how best to control the technology's spread.

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