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Why Should Asia-Pacific States Implement the Stepping Stones Approach?

In 2021, actors in the Asia-Pacific face the most challenging and complex security environment of perhaps the last fifty years. Strategic competition between the US and China, and their local and global proxies and allies, is at its peak. Chinese nuclear modernisation and force expansion, an increasing US naval presence, regional economic entanglement and growing geostrategic tensions over the South China Sea and Taiwan are contributing to a dangerous environment of mistrust and hyperpolarisation. The threat of DPRK nuclear use has yet to subside, nor has the potential for subregional conflict in South Asia that could escalate quickly and dangerously. The potential for nuclear and conventional near-misses throughout the region is also increasing, while pressures from emerging and destabilising technologies and crises like the Covid-19 pandemic are adding to the maelstrom of uncertainty that regional decision-makers are navigating.

One implication of the trend towards complexity and contestation is increased engagement of ‘outside’ interests, particularly European and North Atlantic players, in shaping the Asia-Pacific security environment. The sustained US ‘pivot to Asia’, a distinct Asian focus in the UK’s ‘Global Britain’ posture, the AUKUS defence pact, and the increasing prominence of transregional institutions like the ASEAN Regional Forum and the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP), evidence the conviction amongst extra-regional players that everybody has a stake in Asian security. While this sentiment is both valid and valuable, what is sometimes overlooked is regional states’ agency in shaping their own strategic context. Though everybody might have a stake in the security and stability of the Asia-Pacific, Asian states must be empowered to create and maintain a security environment that is supportive of their needs and interests.

In terms of reducing nuclear risks, and advancing disarmament, the Stepping Stones Approach (the SSA) is a valuable tool for this work. Developed in 2019 through the efforts of the Stockholm Initiative for Nuclear Disarmament, the Stepping Stones for advancing nuclear disarmament joint working paper outlines a set of pragmatic, incremental steps towards disarmament that emphasise tangible outputs, meaningful dialogue and collaboration on common security challenges. The SSA is inclusive and adaptive; it seeks to engage all members of the international community in a process that advances disarmament carefully and steadily, without compromising security. Its steps are predicated on dynamism and trust- and confidence-building, and centre four core principles: reducing the salience of nuclear weapons, rebuilding habits of cooperation, reducing nuclear risks and enhancing transparency. Essentially, the SSA asks how we can get from where we are now, to where we need to be, on the path towards disarmament. It sets modest initial goals that can be met without significant changes to states’ nuclear postures, and which build capacity and set the scene for further steps. 

Importantly, the stepping stones themselves will be acutely and uniquely valuable for the Asia-Pacific. SSA implementation by nuclear possessors will have direct benefits for regional stability, addressing many of the areas of complexity and security challenges currently facing the region. At the same time, implementation by non-nuclear weapons states across the region will facilitate a critical re-exertion of their agency over the local strategic context, empowering Asian states to shape the regional security landscape in line with their own needs, values and responsibilities.


The benefits of SSA implementation

The SSA’s twenty-two stepping stones were laid out in the annex to the February 2020 Ministerial Declaration adopted by ministers from the sixteen parties to the Stockholm Initiative. Ultimately, implementation of the SSA’s steps will yield gains for global security: complete and verifiable nuclear disarmament is the shared goal of the SSA proponent states, and the Approach has been designed specifically to enable safe, secure disarmament in an environment characterised by trust and collaboration. There are several key stepping stones that will prove especially valuable for Asia-Pacific security in the near-term, however, and which will support Asian states to address the complex security challenges specific to their region.

In a region of heightened risk over geopolitical and strategic pressure points like Taiwan, rapidly increasing technological complexity and ongoing nuclear force modernisation, strengthened crisis stability is desperately needed; the fourth and fifth stepping stones can and should be implemented for this purpose. The fourth stepping stone calls on NPT Nuclear-Weapons States (NWS) to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in their doctrines and policies, while the fifth calls for greater transparency on nuclear declaratory policies. The benefits for Asia-Pacific states of implementation on these points are significant: mutual reduction in reliance on nuclear weapons as tools for deterrence and defense will lessen the likelihood of their use in the region, and will facilitate de-alerting and improved crisis communication, and eventually multilateral force reductions. Increased transparency amongst the NWS and Non-Nuclear Weapons States (NNWS) will ensure nuclear possessors are kept accountable for the fulfilment of their legal and normative obligations, and will enhance understanding and strategic communication, reducing opportunities for dangerous escalation and misperception. The SSA, and these stepping stones in particular, offer important measures for strengthened crisis stability, supporting reduced nuclear risk through extending timelines for crisis decision-making, improving ‘nuclear IQ’ and mutual understanding, and disincentivising arms racing.

The seventh and eighth stepping stones are also acutely relevant for the Asia-Pacific. The seventh calls for NWS to “tighten Negative Security Assurances” (NSAs), which constitute an undertaking not to use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear-armed state, while the eighth requires all states to support the establishment and maintenance of Nuclear Weapons-Free Zones. For states in the region that are closely aligned with various NWS, particularly the US or China, the strengthening of NSAs would certainly help them to navigate regional geopolitics safely; NSAs represent NWS’ commitment to prevent nuclear use, to respect both the laws of war and NNWS’ sovereignty, wellbeing and security, and to protect, not risk, innocent lives. Implementation of the eighth stepping stone, meanwhile, could facilitate signature and ratification by the NWS of the Protocol to the Treaty of Bangkok, a key priority for its states parties. Implementation could also provide impetus for institutional progress under the auspices of the Treaty of Bangkok’s 2018-2022 Plan of Action and on priorities for the Treaty of Rarotonga as outlined in the August 2019 Pacific Islands Forum Communiqué.

In effect, implementing these stepping stones will contribute to a reduced risk of nuclear use, providing greater security not merely for nuclear-armed states but for all actors across the Asia-Pacific – a region where the threat of nuclear use is worryingly high. Furthermore, the assurance and confidence-building effects of these stepping stones will be deeply beneficial to the Asia-Pacific as a region of competing and interdependent interests, relationships and alignments. US allies in particular have much to gain from greater transparency and from reduced NWS reliance on nuclear weapons in their defence policies and postures.


The power of SSA implementation

At the same time that implementation of the Stepping Stones Approach will provide numerous security benefits to Asia-Pacific states and extra-regional actors, it will also create opportunities for those states to shape their strategic and security environment in a way that is supportive of their needs and interests. The ninth stepping stone is relevant here. It calls on both NWS and NNWS to develop and engage in discrete risk reduction efforts to prevent crises, minimise vulnerabilities produced by disruptive technologies, and increase decision-making time. Risk reduction is an area within nuclear weapons policy where Asian states have a great deal to contribute, in innovating to develop new and improve existing risk reduction tools, supporting and critiquing NWS’ risk reduction strategies, and managing potential escalation pathways that could be sparked by regional conventional conflict. 

As noted above, the Asia-Pacific is currently a particularly risky region. Numerous geopolitical tensions evidence the region’s strategic complexities, and border disputes between nuclear-armed states provide an ever-present risk of escalation towards nuclear use. The Asia-Pacific is home to some of the world’s most rapid advances in technological knowledge and tools, which can threaten strategic stability and even deterrence amongst NWS and extended deterrence partners. Extra-regional engagement is high and increasing, adding pressure to Asian decision-makers and expanding the stakes in any conflict. Cultivating and promoting a distinct regional approach to risk reduction is one way for Asia-Pacific states to address these challenges and shape their strategic environment according to their own preferences. Ensuring that the risk reduction agenda is prioritised appropriately, that new tools reflect Asian strategic thought, and that risk reduction efforts are led and implemented by experts from the region, rather than Western thinkers, will allow Asia-Pacific states to lead from the front.

Stepping stones twelve to fifteen equally represent areas where Asia-Pacific states can instrumentalise the SSA to further their interests, specifically in shaping and promoting key international institutions. In particular, these stepping stones call on all states to support the moratoria on testing nuclear devices and on producing fissile materials, to support the the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and a treaty to prohibit fissile material production, and to support multilateral disarmament verification efforts and associated institutions. This represents several key opportunities for NNWS to exert their agency in promoting and sculpting disarmament-supporting institutions and frameworks, to innovate and develop best-practice models for nuclear-armed states to implement, and to spotlight and prioritise the most important normative approaches for the region and the world. 

Importantly, a multilateral or even unified approach from a collection of Asia-Pacific states would add resonance to efforts to shape disarmament institutions. Collaboration through fora such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, CSCAP and the Pacific Islands Forum to develop tools and frameworks for driving forwards progress on CTBT implementation, for example, will amplify the power and urgency of Asia-Pacific voices on these vital security challenges. Moreover, successful cooperative efforts through Asian institutions could spotlight Asia-Pacific states’ priorities within the wider disarmament agenda, drawing public attention and adding impetus to calls for NWS ratification of the Bangkok Treaty Protocol, for example. This work offers an avenue to evidence the supreme value of Asia-Pacific NNWS’ engagement on nuclear weapons issues, as well as to develop a shared sense of purpose and interest amongst security experts throughout the region, for whom nuclear weapons issues may be perceived as outside of their immediate concern. 


Where to next?

The first key challenge for the Stepping Stones Approach will be the Tenth NPT Review Conference, where the joint working paper has been submitted and will be discussed. Asia-Pacific states interested in implementation, both for the direct benefits the SSA will have for regional security, and for the opportunities it presents to reinforce the agency of non-nuclear-armed regional nations, must work together to promote, develop and refine the SSA moving forward. Collaboration and a plurality of voices shaping and building the Approach will ensure that it is effective, implementable, equitable and ambitious, and will contribute to advancing its aim to support and facilitate nuclear disarmament.

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