Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang has pledged that Beijing is willing to become the first nuclear-armed state to sign a treaty that makes Southeast Asia a nuclear weapons-free zone, The South China Morning Post reported on Tuesday.
The ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are signatories to a 1997 treaty that bans nukes in the region. Under the Treaty of Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone (SEANWFZ Treaty), the ASEAN states pledged “not to 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.”
Qin made the pledge on Monday during a meeting with Kao Kim Hourn, the secretary-general of the ASEAN. “China is willing to take the lead in signing the protocol to the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon Free Zone treaty and advocate with ASEAN for solidarity and win-win cooperation to safeguard regional security and stability,” he said.
Chinese President Xi Jinping said back in 2021 that he would sign the treaty a few months after the US, Britain, and Australia signed the AUKUS military pact that will provide Canberra with nuclear-powered submarines. Qin’s pledge comes about two weeks after the US, Britain, and Australia unveiled their plans for AUKUS.
According to the Post, China’s offer to sign the treaty is an effort to counter AUKUS and other US efforts to build blocs against China in the region. Also on Monday, Kao had a separate meeting with Wang Yi, who is senior to Qin and considered China’s top diplomat.
Wang criticized the US efforts to build up against China in the region. “We must maintain the peaceful development environment that we have jointly created over the past decades, resolutely resist the cold war mentality, and oppose attempts to create confrontation between major powers and camps,” Wang said.
China and four ASEAN members have overlapping claims to the South China Sea, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, and Malaysia. Beijing wants to establish a code of conduct with the ASEAN states to handle issues in the disputed waters without interference from the US.