World ‘one miscalculation away’ from nuclear apocalypse, Indonesia’s top diplomat warns

Tria Dianti and Pizaro Gozali Idrus
World ‘one miscalculation away’ from nuclear apocalypse, Indonesia’s top diplomat warns Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi delivers her opening remarks during plenary session of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Foreign Ministers’ Meeting at Shangri-La Hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia, July 11, 2023.
Ajeng Dinar Ulfiana/Pool/Reuters

Updated at 2:45 p.m. ET on 2023-07-11

The risk of nuclear arms being used is higher now than at “any time in recent history” with the world only “one miscalculation away from apocalypse,” Indonesia’s top diplomat warned Tuesday, calling on foreign powers to keep Southeast Asia safe from such weapons.

At a meeting in Jakarta, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi urged nuclear-armed powers to sign a 30-year-old treaty that seeks to keep the region free of nukes. She issued her warning ahead of four days of ministerial-level meetings in Jakarta between member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The crisis in Myanmar meanwhile is expected to be among the main topics at the meetings, which will also include talks with China, Russia and the United States later this week.

“The risk of nuclear weapons use is higher today than at any time in recent history,” Retno said at Tuesday’s meeting of the Commission of the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone (SEANWFZ). 

“We keep hearing warnings about the possible use of nuclear weapons. We also see nuclear power remains part of some countries’ military doctrine, including in our region. We know fully well we cannot be truly safe with nuclear weapons in our region.”

She added: “No weapon is more powerful and destructive than nuclear weapons. And with nuclear weapons we are only one miscalculation away from apocalypse and global catastrophe.”

In 1995, all of ASEAN’s members signed the SEANWFZ Treaty, also known as the Bangkok Treaty, that committed to keeping the region free from nuclear weapons. The treaty prohibits its signatories from developing, manufacturing, possessing, testing or using them.

But none of the world’s nuclear powers have signed the protocol, citing various objections over the scope and verification of the treaty. Some of them have also argued it infringes on their rights to transit and navigate in international waters due to its inclusion of continental shelves and exclusive economic zones.

Combined, the nine nuclear-armed nations Russia, the U.S., Great Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea possess an estimated total of 13,000 nuclear weapons, according to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

Earlier this year, the United States, Britain and Australia unveiled AUKUS, a trilateral defense agreement to enable Indonesia’s next-door neighbor, Australia, to acquire nuclear-powered submarines, as part of a U.S. doctrine that aims to contain China’s military expansionism, particularly in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait.

The deal has stoked concerns among leaders in Southeast Asia about whether it could provoke a nuclear-arms race, but U.S. President Joe Biden has issued assurance that the submarines won’t be armed with nuclear missiles. 

However, despite the warnings raised by Foreign Minister Retno, AUKUS was not officially part of Tuesday’s talks in Jakarta. 

“There is no agenda on the submarines at the SEANWFZ meeting, and in the context of the latest developments in the region, the nuclear-powered submarines are not a nuclear weapon,” Sidharto Suryodipuro, director for ASEAN cooperation at Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, according to local media reports.

B-52s in Indonesian skies

Retno’s warning about nuclear weapons came weeks after U.S. Air Force B-52s took part with Indonesian fighter jets in joint exercises in Indonesia. The exercises were the first ever in Indonesian skies involving the strategic, eight-engine bombers that are capable of carrying nuclear weapons.   

Under another military pact with Australia, Canberra has allowed the U.S. to deploy some of these giant planes at the Tindal Base in northern Australia.

When asked this week whether Indonesia would consider a similar deal, a spokesman for the Indonesian military said Jakarta, because  of its traditional policy of non-alignment to any superpowers, would not permit the U.S. to station B-52s on its soil. 

“As long as we are nonaligned, it is impossible [this will] happen,” military spokesman Rear Adm. Julius Widjojono told BenarNews.

“They were only here for the exercise, unlike their permanent position in Australia,” he said, referring to recent joint exercises with the B-52 bombers that were staged from the U.S. military base in Darwin, northern Australia.

A U.S. Air Force B-52H Stratofortress assigned to the 23rd Bomb Squadron at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, takes off in support of a bilateral military training exercise at the Kualanamu International Airport in Medan, Indonesia, June 21, 2023. [U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Zade Vadnais]

Radityo Dharmaputra, a lecturer in international relations at Airlangga University in Surabaya, said nuclear powers do not want to give up their ability to deter or intimidate their rivals in a strategically important and contested part of the world.

“Nuclear weapons are a deterrence tool, which can make other countries refrain from doing something,” he told BenarNews.

He said that each nuclear power has its own interests and stakes in Southeast Asia, especially amid the current rivalry over issues such as trade, human rights and territorial disputes.

Human rights 

Speaking separately at a meeting of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, Retno said the bloc must not waver in addressing human rights issues in the region, despite complexities on the ground and differences among its members.

“ASEAN Human Rights Dialogue is a testament of ASEAN’s maturity to engage in frank and open dialogue without naming and shaming,” she said.

“It is therefore important for it to be conducted regularly. We are therefore aiming for a Leaders’ Declaration on the ASEAN Human Rights Dialogue,” she said.

ASEAN must unite in rejecting politicization of human rights and double standards while proving its ability to tackle issues within its own backyard, she said, without elaborating.

One of the region’s most pressing human rights issues is the crisis in Myanmar, where a military coup in February 2021 has plunged the country into chaos.

More than 3,000 civilians have been killed by Myanmar security forces and nearly 24,000 arrested since the coup, according to rights groups.

ASEAN has attempted to resolve the conflict with a five-point plan that includes an immediate end to violence and dialogue among all contending parties.

Delegates pose for a photo at a plenary session of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Foreign Ministers Meeting at Shangri-La Hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia, July 11, 2023. [Reuters]

But Myanmar’s military government has largely ignored the plan, prompting ASEAN to bar its military leaders from top-level gatherings.

The Myanmar crisis is expected to dominate discussions later this week when U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and other top diplomats join the ASEAN foreign ministers as dialogue partners.

The U.S. and its allies have imposed sanctions on Myanmar’s military and called for the restoration of democracy, while China and Russia have been more cautious and urged respect for Myanmar's sovereignty.

ASEAN has been trying to bridge the gap between the rival powers and persuade them to support its peace plan.

Indonesia, as this year’s ASEAN chair, has quietly engaged with various stakeholders in Myanmar, including the military, the opposition National Unity Government, ethnic armed groups and civil society groups.

Retno said last week that Indonesia had conducted 110 engagements “in the form of in-person meetings, virtual meetings, and phone calls” with representatives of Myanmar. She said Indonesia hoped to see progress in the implementation of the ASEAN plan before the end of the year.

This report has been updated to include information about the AUKUS agreement and joint operations in Indonesia involving B-52 bombers. 


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