The first leg of an arms agreement

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 February, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 February, 1997, 12:00am

Military veteran and academic John Endicott had his hands full when he first laid out his plans for an East Asian nuclear-free zone to the Chinese.

The professor at Georgia Institute of Technology had just finished explaining to officials his initiative for banning all nuclear weapons within a 1,200-mile (1,930-kilometre) radius of the Korean peninsula.

When it occurred to an official from China's National People's Congress that the proposal would rob Beijing of 75 per cent of its nuclear arsenal, he gave a suitably terse response in Putonghua. That reply, according to Professor Endicott's interpreter, was unprintable.

That was 1992. Five years later, during which time some not dissimilar attitudes have been struck by Russian and American officials along the way, the professor has won himself the ear of the establishment. Having just held two major conferences with senior people from most of the nations involved, and with a follow-up meeting planned for Moscow this year, the howls of derision are giving way to a fair bit of respect.

The initiative has become one of those ugly acronyms which amass diplomatic weight in proportion to the amount of letters involved. In this case LNWFZ - the Limited Nuclear Weapons Free Zone, which is being promoted by an equally weighty acronym, the CISTP, or rather the Centre for International Strategy, Technology and Policy, of which the professor is director.

Although the idea is growing into a rather large acorn, Professor Endicott admits that its goal is a gigantic, monolithic oak which only dreamers like he can imagine seeing in his lifetime. But the concept of removing all or some of the region's nukes is, at the very least, a symbol of the shifting security sands in east Asia, and the need for leadership to form the kind of international co-operation which could prevent its burgeoning arms race from spinning out of control.

The scheme, as it currently stands, would trace a zone to include both Koreas, northeast China, Taiwan, Japan, Russia's maritime region and bits of Alaska. Its development since it was first floated is testament to the problems of balancing the national concerns and paranoias of the parties involved.

Originally, Professor Endicott's aim was for a total ban on nuclear weapons. But Beijing's understandable concern at seeing its nuclear arsenal disappear overnight scuppered that notion. Now, the zone is a 'limited' one, meaning that only tactical, short-range nukes would go. Then there is North Korea - another key member-state. Pyongyang was involved in original talks until, in 1993, it suddenly withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and sparked the global crisis concerning its nuclearisation programme. It has not taken part since, although the CISTP briefs its UN mission officials, and is begging Pyongyang to send representatives to this year's Moscow conference.

Another issue was the fact that some Asian officials, the Chinese in particular, tended to view Professor Endicott - who was a nuclear munitions expert in the US military for much of his career - as a partisan agent of Washington, and the plan as a sneaky back-door way of getting China to throw away its nuclear weapons for nothing in return. Those fears may have been enhanced by the fact the original radius of the zone included no American territory - a problem solved by giving it an elliptical shape which takes in some of Alaska.

Even so, there are, officially at least, no American tactical weapons in the zone as it stands today. Of course, cynics will say, the presence of long and medium-range ballistic missiles means that the limited nuclear-free zone would not make one person in East Asia safer - a point its proponents agree. But the very fact that the zone would tinker so pointedly with the status quo, and infringe on the military establishment's territory, means that Mr Endicott draws just as much suspicion from the Pentagon as he does the People's Liberation Army or the Kremlin. He draws courage from the fact that several high officials in the US government like his idea. But even they have made it perfectly clear he is on his own.

So why bother? For nothing more or less than the symbolism of trying, says the professor.

'Basically, it would be a start, and you have to start somewhere,' he explains.

APEC countries have agreed to set up a permanent secretariat to speed momentum, and there is the distinct possibility that the US government will give it a grudging nod in the shape of some funding from the Department of Energy.

While the arms race slowly makes Asia a more uncertain place to be, it is comforting to know that some people who know the horrors of war have an interest in reversing the trend.