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International relations

Xi says China ready to sign ASEAN's nuclear arms-free zone treaty

Apparent response to AUKUS pact is likely to turn up heat on Australia

Chinese submarines, including a nuclear-powered Type 094A Jin-class ballistic missile vessel, are seen during a military display in the South China Sea in 2018.   © Reuters

JAKARTA -- Chinese leader Xi Jinping said Monday that Beijing was ready to sign a Southeast Asia nuclear weapon-free treaty, in an apparent response to the new AUKUS defense pact between Australia, the U.K. and the U.S.

The Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone, otherwise known as the Bangkok Treaty, was signed in 1995 by the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The treaty stipulates that its signatories cannot "develop, manufacture or otherwise acquire, possess or have control over nuclear weapons," "station or transport nuclear weapons by any means," or "test or use nuclear weapons."

A protocol for the treaty was issued for five nations that had nuclear weapons at the time -- China, Russia, France, the U.K. and the U.S., according to the United Nations. China would be the first of the five parties to sign if it follows through on Xi's words.

"China supports ASEAN's efforts to build a nuclear weapon-free zone, and is prepared to sign the Protocol to the Treaty on the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone as early as possible," Xi said in a rare appearance in a special online summit with ASEAN leaders.

Even so, a Pentagon report earlier this month said that China is on track to quintuple its nuclear arsenal by 2030 to at least 1,000 warheads.

Retno Marsudi, Indonesia's foreign minister, confirmed Xi's comments in a media briefing. The Chinese leader emphasized the need to "create a peaceful home, by strengthening dialogue, multilateralism, rejecting power politics," she said, adding that "China declared its readiness to sign the Protocol to the SEANWFZ Treaty."

Beijing's decision was likely made with AUKUS in mind, as the trilateral agreement allows Australia to receive nuclear propulsion technology to power a new fleet of submarines. Xi's comments will ratchet up the pressure on Australia, a nation with which China has an increasing antagonistic relationship.

Nuclear submarines do not fall under the definition of a nuclear weapon as set out in the Bangkok Treaty -- "nuclear weapon" means any explosive device capable of releasing nuclear energy in an uncontrolled manner, according to the treaty.

China has previously mentioned the Bangkok Treaty in the same context as AUKUS. In September, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Malaysian and Bruneian counterparts that the pact "may sabotage the building of a nuclear-free zone in Southeast Asia."

Highlighting that both the U.S. and the U.K. have not signed the protocol, Wang added that they have "transferred military nuclear technology to the region under various pretexts" which ran "counter to the efforts made by ASEAN countries to build a nuclear-free zone," according to a press statement from Beijing.

ASEAN, meanwhile, remains divided on AUKUS.

Malaysia and Indonesia have been particularly outspoken about the deal, arguing it could stoke a regional arms race.

Malaysia's Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob said after the ASEAN summit in October that it was "regrettable that there was a lack of unity on issues that could impact regional peace, stability and security, namely AUKUS and [the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone] treaty."

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