At first glance, the proposal seemed harmless but impressive.
Ten Southeast Asian nations signed a treaty last month prohibiting the use, manufacture, and sale of nuclear weapons in the region. Their nuclear-free zone became the largest ever.
But to the nuclear powers, especially the United States and China, it was a slap in the face.
"It's the equivalent of a family of nonsmokers deciding to ban smoking in their own home," said one Western defense analyst.
The idea has been promoted for two decades by Indonesia, partly as a bargaining tool for Southeast Asia's largest and most populous nation. But the treaty was put on a fast track for approval due to India being suspected of wanting to test nuclear weapons again, while Pakistan may already have operational nuclear weapons. In addition, China and North Korea have embarked on extensive nuclear programs while France has resumed testing weapons virtually in ASEAN's backyard.
The Nuclear Weapons Free Zone treaty (SEANWFZ), which became a reality at the recent ASEAN summit in Bangkok, now faces an uncertain future. ASEAN, once a loose cold-war political alliance now more dedicated to forming an economic grouping, originally included Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. Vietnam was added this year, and Cambodia, Laos, and Burma are slated for membership.
While many in the region view the nuclear-free treaty as a landmark, the US and China refused to back it at the meeting, citing very specific and technical objections. France was also reported unhappy with it, while Russia and Britain made no comments. "I don't think we realized that ASEAN was fast-tracking the treaty," said a Western diplomat.
A nuclear-free zone is designed to provide a legal barrier to ensure peace and stability in a particular region. The ASEAN treaty also guarantees that nuclear power projects in the region be placed under an international monitoring agency, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, to prevent them falling into terrorists' hands.
But ASEAN leaders also see the treaty as a way to exert pressure on world nuclear powers to sign a comprehensive nuclear weapons ban treaty in 1996.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas claimed that the treaty framers conferred with the US all along. "Before reaching this point," said Mr. Alatas, "we accommodated the views [of the five nuclear powers] because they were reasonable. There now seems to be a few issues left in their minds, especially the US and China."
The "few issues" Alatas refers to, however, form the crux of how the American military can respond to defense agreements with other nations in the region. "Our concerns were noted and taken into account in the final draft," said a Western diplomatic source, "but there were ... remaining concerns, the most important of which is the definition of the Exclusive Economic Zone [stretching 200 miles offshore]."
The definitions affecting the economic zone and extensive areas of the continental shelf are apparently inconsistent with all other existing treaties including the Law of the Sea treaty, a Western official said. They assert sovereignty over a region that under individual agreements it has no right to assert.
Referring to all the criticism, Robert Karniol, a military expert for Jane's Defense Weekly, said, "Welcome [ASEAN] to the real world ...Countries don't sign important treaties haphazardly. The effectiveness of a legal document is in its very precise phrasing and specific applications. Sea lanes and air routes are vitally important. And nuclear powers will not agree to having their movements restricted."
The treaty is also being portrayed as yet another indication of the ASEAN's growing maturity and self assertiveness. "During the anticommunist cold war era, superpowers would normally back a side to support and fight proxy wars," said Mr. Karniol. "Now ASEAN wants to decide things for themselves."
Critics say, however, the treaty will remain largely symbolic without the support of the world's five nuclear powers, who refused to sign the document.
"We look forward to further consultations with the US to see if we can adjust the protocols," said Arizal Effendi, chairman of the draft treaty committee.
China's objections center on how the treaty may affect its position in the South China Sea, an area over which it has claims, including the controversial Spratly Islands.