US must lead as nuclear risk grows, says Shanmugam

SINGAPORE - The world needs the United States to lead the way in reducing the dangers of nuclear proliferation, says Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam.

At a time when a growing number of political players with little or no experience in handling nuclear technology and weapons poses a growing threat to global and regional security, creative and focused leadership from the United States will be paramount in keeping the risks in check, he said.

Mr Shanmugam was speaking at the opening of the Nuclear Security Project Conference at the Mandarin Oriental on Tuesday.

In particular, Washington needs to assure countries dependent on its nuclear umbrella - those that rely on US protection instead of acquiring nuclear weaponry themselves - that its commitment to regional security is unwavering.

"If states begin to question the willingness of the United States to back up the nuclear umbrella, then it would not take very long for them to start acquiring their own weaponry, then we would have the same action and reaction issues," he said.

Mr Shanmugam noted that the issue is particularly acute in East Asia, where some countries already have the technology and thus could achieve credible nuclear forces quickly.

"That power is not going to be good for the region," he warned.

Mr Shanmugam observed that the global environment is riskier today, even though nuclear stockpiles have been reduced. During the Cold War, "mutual assured destruction ensured some measure of safety, because of the way nuclear weapons were in the hands of the superpowers, the Soviet Union and the US", he noted.

Today, there are risks posed by aspiring nuclear powers, nuclear power states which are not in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and those defined as non-state actors. "Non-state actors pose a greater risk due to their unpredictability and their anonymity," said Mr Shanmugam.

He said that Singapore, with an area of 720 sq km, is a small country in a vast region where countries are increasingly talking about nuclear issues and nuclear power.

"I think we really...need to act before it's too late," he said. "Once countries begin to move in this direction, it's going to be difficult to bring them back. It's going to be very difficult to stop; the scenario will be completely out of control."

To prevent this happening, Mr Shanmugam suggested that the US continue to show its commitment to regional security.

"It requires a global leadership by the United States," Mr Shanmugam said.

Such leadership should be intense and focused on bringing creative solutions to the various regions of the world.

He said that leadership would require skill, intensity and consistency, and has to go hand-in-hand with the support of other major nuclear powers.

"It's a tough ask, but it's what's needed, I think, to make our planet much safer," he added.

Earlier, former US Senator Sam Nunn, a director of Nuclear Threat Initiative, recounted that the movement started with a series of op-eds in the Wall Street Journal in January 2007, calling for a world without nuclear weapons. The calls received wide support, forging networks across the globe.

"These regional networks, working together, can bring needed urgency and focus to nuclear issues in their regions and globally," said Mr Nunn.

"They also can play a key role in developing and proposing to governments new approaches to regional conflicts that fuel threats in Asia and around the world."

The two-day conference, held behind closed doors, has brought together more than 30 global leaders and experts from 20 countries to address urgent global nuclear threats and outline key steps to reduce dangers around the world.

Those attending include former US secretary of state George P. Shultz, former US defence secretary William Perry, former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans and former British defence secretary Des Browne.

salim@sph.com.sg


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