Indonesia’s top diplomat warned Tuesday of the threat posed by nuclear weapons, saying that Southeast Asia is “one miscalculation away from apocalypse” and pressing for world powers to sign a treaty to keep the region free from such arms.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi raised the alarm ahead of a two-day summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which started later Tuesday in Jakarta. The agenda would spotlight Myanmar’s deadly civil strife, continuing tensions in the South China Sea, and efforts to fortify regional economies amid the global headwinds set off by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Later in the week, the 10-nation bloc will meet Asian and Western counterparts, including U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and Chinese foreign policy overseer Wang Yi.
The U.S.-China rivalry is not formally on ASEAN’s agenda but looms large over the meetings of the bloc, an often-unwieldy collective of democracies, autocracies, and monarchies, with some members split over allegiances either to Washington or Beijing.
“We cannot be truly safe with nuclear weapons in our region,” Marsudi told fellow ASEAN ministers. “With nuclear weapons, we are only one miscalculation away from apocalypse and global catastrophe.”
In 1995, ASEAN states signed a treaty that declared Southeast Asia’s commitment to be a nuclear weapon-free zone, one of five in the world. However, Marsudi lamented that none of the world’s leading nuclear powers have signed on to the pact and called for renewed efforts to convince those states to sign up. “The threat is imminent, so we can no longer play a waiting game,” she said.
A draft communique expected on Wednesday mentions the possibility of a first nuclear weapons state finally signing the treaty but says that there would have to be written assurances that the treaty was being ratified “without reservations.” A copy of the draft was obtained by The Associated Press.
The communique did not identify the prospective state. However, two Southeast Asian diplomats attending the Jakarta meetings told the AP it was China. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue publicly.
Meanwhile, Myanmar’s generals have again been banned from attending the ASEAN summit for refusing to ease a deadly civil strife sparked by the military’s seizure of power more than two years ago.
ASEAN has been under international pressure to address the crisis in Myanmar since the army seized power from the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi in February 2021 and plunged the country into deadly chaos.
More than 3,750 civilians, including pro-democracy activists, have been killed by security forces and nearly 24,000 arrested since the military takeover, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a rights group that keeps tallies of arrests and casualties.
Myanmar’s military government has largely ignored a plan by ASEAN heads of state that includes an immediate end to the violence, prompting the bloc to take an unprecedented step and bar Myanmar’s military leaders from its top-level gatherings, including the foreign ministerial meetings.
The generals responded by accusing the ASEAN of violating the bloc’s bedrock principles of non-intervention in each other’s domestic affairs.
“The situation in Myanmar is worrying,” Philippine Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo told reporters Tuesday.
With the Myanmar crisis dragging on, ASEAN members appear divided over how to proceed. Thailand recommends easing punitive actions aimed at isolating Myanmar’s generals and inviting its military-appointed top diplomat and officials back to high-profile meetings, the two Southeast Asian diplomats said.
Also Tuesday, Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai told reporters that his government wanted to see “all ASEAN members” back in the group, without elaborating.
Since assuming ASEAN’s rotating chairmanship this year, Indonesia has initiated some 110 meetings with groups in Myanmar and provided humanitarian aid to build trust, Marsudi said.
At the summit, ASEAN foreign ministers are expected to renew a call for self-restraint in “activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability,” according to the draft communique, repeating language used in previous statements that do not name China.
ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have been embroiled in long-simmering territorial conflicts with China and Taiwan for decades. ASEAN and China have been negotiating a non-aggression pact that aims to prevent an escalation of the disputes, but the talks have faced years of delay.
The disputed waters have emerged as a delicate front in the rivalry between China and the United States.
Washington has challenged Beijing’s expansive territorial claims and regularly deploys warships and fighter jets in what it calls freedom of navigation and overflight patrols that have infuriated China.