The Duck of Minerva

Nuclear Myanmar

12 June 2010

A recent credible report by the Democratic Voice of Burma that North Korea may have assisted Myanmar’s junta to acquire nuclear weapons technology has raised concerns at the international and regional levels.

Myanmar is a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), but it is technically exempt from IAEA inspections. If it is in fact pursuing a nuclear weapons program aided by North Korea, it would represent one more nail in the coffin of the non-proliferation regime.

The US response has been limited so far, most likely due to the fact there are potentially more pressing violations of the NPT in the Persian Gulf. However, Senator Jim Webb, the chair of the Foreign Relations panel on East Asia, cancelled his scheduled trip to Myanmar last week. The US approach to this development will most likely continue the establishment pattern of seeking to isolate and impose sanctions rather than engaging in a dialog with this repressive regime.

From a regional strategic perspective, a nuclear armed Myanmar would be a serious concern for India. The prospect that India would be surrounded by an axis of three nuclear powers is a major challenge to India’s ambition of transcending its regional shackles.

If Myanmar is pursuing a nuclear weapons program, it is most likely intended to deter America rather than India.  (The project may also be intended to ensure the domestic longevity of the regime.) India and Myanmar are not enemies. While Indian influence in Burma pales relative to China, India has been engaging with the regime for years and it has achieved a measure of cooperation in building a “land bridge” from Imphal to Mandalay which is designed to facilitate trade and help India police its troubled Northeast region (currently the road only extends to Kalewa, which is still 482km from Mandalay).  Nevertheless, India will have to look at capabilities rather than just intentions.

Similarly, Myanmar’s neighbors in Southeast Asia, several of which are closely tied to the US, might also feel threatened by a nuclear armed Myanmar. The issue has already created a stir in ASEAN circles.  At the Shangri-la Dialog last week, Myanmar denied to the Singaporeans that it was pursuing a nuclear weapons program.

In any case, if the allegations are true, Myanmar is clearly in the very early stages of its program and it does not have sufficient delivery mechanisms even if they were to develop a nuclear weapon in the future. Experts also doubt that Burma has the economic resources and scientific resources to sustain this program.

Of course, one is reminded of similar arguments about Pakistan’s technical and economic ability to acquire a nuclear weapon, but as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s prophetically quipped, “… we will eat grass or leaves, or go hungry, but we will get one [nuclear bomb] of our own.” Where there’s a will, there’s a way…