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The Nikkei View

A golden opportunity to turn the tide on nuclear arms

Delay of UN nonproliferation conference grants time to work out differences

Overview of the 2nd Preparatory session of the 2020 NPT Review Conference at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland on April 23, 2018.   © Reuters

The monthlong conference to review the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was set to open Monday at United Nations headquarters in New York, but the parties have decided to postpone the gathering owing to the coronavirus pandemic.

Plans call for reconvening "as soon as the circumstances permit," with participants having until next April to hold the conference. The delay is unfortunate, if inevitable. Considering that the talks were expected to be difficult, the additional time should be seen in a positive light.

The nonproliferation treaty, or NPT, recognizes only the U.S., Russia, China, the U.K. and France as nuclear weapons states. The accord also calls for the five parties to make a clear pledge toward disarmament and put concrete measures in place to reduce their arsenals.

The NPT is the sole surviving multilateral agreement concerning nuclear arms reduction. Roughly 190 countries are parties to the treaty, although North Korea is not one of them.

The treaty is reviewed every five years to assess how well the parties are enforcing their commitments. At the last conference, in 2015, nuclear and non-nuclear states could not bridge differences, and no final written agreement was adopted.

This year marks half a century since the NPT came into force. Should discussions break down once again, the treaty risks turning into a dead letter.

Several current developments run against the spirit of the NPT. Iran, straining under sanctions, has hinted that it will abandon the accord. Talks to denuclearize North Korea have all but stalled.

Above all else, nuclear states have not approached arms reduction in good faith.

The U.S. and Russia allowed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF Treaty, which banned ground-based cruise and ballistic missiles in certain ranges, to expire last year. This caused observers to speculate that reaching a fundamental agreement at this year's NPT conference will be a difficult task.

Further complicating matters is China. Washington cited the need to counter the Asian superpower as the main reason why it let the INF Treaty lapse. The Chinese, who were never a party to the bilateral treaty, have built up their nuclear capabilities. The U.S. is wary of Chinese moves to accelerate the development of medium-range missiles capable of striking the U.S. territory of Guam.

Beijing is also a key factor that stalled the negotiation between the U.S. and Russia to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, past the February 2021 expiration date.

U.S. President Donald Trump's administration has persistently called on China to join the New START, now the only framework limiting the nuclear stockpile of U.S. and Russia. But China has pushed back, arguing that it has far fewer warheads than the two major powers.

However, China is already an economic and military superpower. Having signed on to the NPT, China should live up to the responsibilities and at least approach the negotiating table.

Postponing the NPT conference means more time to resolve these thorny issues. The delay should be seen as a golden opportunity to reach a meaningful agreement.

As circumstances have it, the U.S. will wrap up its presidential election this fall. The mood for disarmament will hopefully be heightened in the U.S., as well as in China and Russia.

Tokyo also has an important role to play. With this year marking the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, Japan will attract international interest as the only country ever struck by atomic weapons.

Having experienced such an attack, Japan should use its unique voice to persistently call on all nuclear weapons states, including non-NPT signatories India and Pakistan, to embrace disarmament.

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