Asia's Nonproliferation Laggards: China, India, Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia


Feb 9, 2009

This commentary originally appeared in Wall Street Journal Asia on February 9, 2009.

The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction ranks as one of the biggest challenges facing the Obama administration. Luckily, Mr. Obama has a tool to combat this threat, in the form of the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), a nontreaty, multilateral initiative that over 90 countries have joined. The trick now will be to convince key Asian countries — namely, China, India, Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia — to participate.

PSI was one of the great successes of the Bush administration. Formed in 2003, it was explicitly conceived as an activity — rather than a formal organization — to signify its focus on collective action. PSI has none of the bureaucratic baggage of multilateral institutions. Its major activities thus far include more than 35 maritime, air and ground interdiction exercises conducted under its auspices and involving 70 PSI-affiliated countries. The broad aim of these exercises is to enhance national capabilities for sharing and acting upon intelligence information; streamlining and coordinating customs procedures; and identifying and interdicting traffic involving weapons of mass destruction, their delivery systems and their components.

PSI has grown rapidly and counts 91 countries among its members today. That figure reflects the appeal of this focus and provides tangible evidence of America's propensity to favor multilateral rather than unilateral action, contrary to conventional wisdom. It has also scored some big wins: For instance, PSI contributed notably to bringing down Pakistan's A.Q. Khan nuclear proliferation network in 2004.

However, the need to expand PSI is still pressing. The demand for weapons of mass destruction remains strong, and the consequences of such weapons getting into the wrong hands are becoming more hazardous daily. If Iran's Shiites obtain nuclear weapons, that may spark an arms races with Sunni Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Stateless entities such as Hamas and Hezbollah, perhaps with financial resources from Iran, may also seek weapons. Weapons of mass destruction in the wrong hands could make eruptions such as Lebanon in 2006, or Gaza in 2008, catastrophic.

On the supply side, PSI's concern centers on "states of proliferation concern" — a euphemism for North Korea and Iran. North Korea already possesses nuclear technology and weapons, probably between six and eight bombs. Although Pyongyang previously indicated willingness to discontinue its program for plutonium-fueled weapons in return for tangible compensation from its negotiating partners in the six-party talks, that offer no longer appears to be on the table. Iran's capabilities lag those of North Korea with respect to plutonium technology, but probably lead with respect to enrichment of uranium as a potential weapon fuel. Both states are in dire economic straits and may proliferate WMD technology to ease their financial predicament.

Pakistan is another country that might be drawn into the supply side of the WMD market by a combination of desperate economic circumstances and internal political instability. While such an adverse development seems remote, the history of the A.Q. Khan network, along with Pakistan's parlous current political situation, are not reassuring.

Given this outcome, the fact that five key Asian countries remain outside the PSI framework is both puzzling and worrisome. A recent RAND study, which I led, attempts to fathom the reasons underlying their concerns — a mixture of possible misunderstanding of the permissive nature of PSI activities, and uncertainty about the ensuing political fallout from PSI affiliation — and to suggest possible remedies.

Reasons for not yet endorsing PSI differ among the five Asian countries. Their most salient concerns include worries about breaching the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, adversely affecting political or financial relations with Iran or North Korea, and implicit subservience to what at its inception appeared to be a U.S.-dominated initiative. For the littoral countries among the five — namely, Indonesia and Malaysia — reluctance to affiliate with PSI is abetted by sensitivities regarding sovereignty over their territorial waters, which they don't want compromised. The Obama administration, through delicate diplomacy, can alleviate these misplaced concerns by clarifying the limited and flexible character of PSI and explaining the collective and collegial character of PSI decision-making.

Strengthening PSI, along with diplomacy, the threat of sanctions and the incentive of economic cooperation, should be high on the priorities of the Obama administration in Washington, as well as in other governments that have large stakes in a less minatory international environment.

Mr. Wolf holds the distinguished corporate chair in international economics at the RAND Corporation and is a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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