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Moderator: Good day from the U.S. Department of State’s Asia Pacific Media Hub in Manila. I’m the Hub Director, Zia Syed, and I want to thank you all for joining this briefing. Today, we are pleased to be joined by Thomas Countryman, U.S. State Department International Security and Nonproliferation Bureau Senior Advisor.
We’ll begin today’s call with opening remarks from Mr. Countryman. We will try to get to as many questions as we can during the time that we have, which is approximately 30 minutes.
Finally, as a reminder, today’s call is on the record. And with that, I will turn it over to Mr. Countryman. Please go ahead.
Mr. Countryman: Thank you very much, Zia, and good morning, good evening, good afternoon wherever you are. I appreciate this opportunity to talk about the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference. The conference is normally held every five years. Due to the pandemic, it was postponed from 2020, and it will be held from January 4th to the 28th of 2022, in New York.
So, I’ll say a couple words about why it is important, and a couple words about the United States approach, and what we hope will be the outcome of the review conference. And then I look forward to your questions.
The United States considers the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to be one of the most important, and perhaps the most successful, multilateral security treaty in history. Thanks to the treaty, instead of having dozens of nuclear weapon states around the world, there have been only a few added since the treaty went into force in 1970. The treaty does several things. First, it provides the framework and the momentum for the nuclear weapon states to work hard on the reduction and the ultimate elimination of nuclear weapons. Secondly, it provides for nonproliferation; that is, it gives the International Atomic Energy Agency the tools it needs to ensure that countries are not pursuing nuclear weapons contrary to their obligations under the treaty. And third, it sets the framework that enables all countries of the world to share in the benefits of nuclear science and technology, and that means not just nuclear reactors and electricity generation, but also very meaningful applications in agriculture, health, and environment for the benefit of developing countries around the world. These are referred to as the three pillars of the treaty: disarmament, nonproliferation, and peaceful uses of nuclear science.
The U.S., at the conference beginning less than three weeks from now, seeks a positive outcome – that is, a consensus of all the parties that meaningfully advances the goals of all three pillars: disarmament, nonproliferation, and peaceful uses. To accomplish that, we intend to set a positive tone – that is, to avoid having disagreements about approach turn into arguments that spoil the atmosphere. We will constructively engage on all the proposals that are put forward, and we hope that if all states have the right balance of ambition and realism, that at the end of four weeks we will have a consensus document that outlines the way ahead to keep this treaty vital and relevant and effective in the goals that it sets for itself.
So, that is the pursuit that we are committed to. Let me note before I take your questions that success in the treaty will – excuse me, success and a consensus at the conference will give some momentum to arms control negotiations between the U.S. and the Russian Federation. It will help in the nonproliferation challenges that the world faces. And it should advance the expansion of sharing of peaceful uses technology for the developing world. But the treaty itself does not determine the success of all those efforts. I think all of you know how complex each of these issues are. The treaty is an important factor and consensus in January will contribute to progress in all of those areas, but it doesn’t immediately solve any of the big issues that we have. It’s an important factor, but not decisive.
I mention this because I think you may have a lot of questions about everything happening in the world, and my mandate, my one job for the last several months, is to prepare for this conference. So that’s what I’ll be primarily talking about, but I’m happy to listen to all your questions.
Moderator: Thank you very much. We will now begin the question-and-answer portion of today’s call.
Our first question will go to Ryohei Takagi, who is from Kyodo News.
Question: Hi, thank you for taking my question. I’m just wondering, if the Biden administration is willing to reaffirm its commitments to the final documents of the previous NPT Review Conferences, including an historical undertaking by the nuclear weapon states to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals? Thank you.
Mr. Countryman: That’s a good question. First, let me say that the U.S. has never had a president who has such a long history and such a deep interest in nuclear weapons policy as Joe Biden, and he has affirmed his determination to reduce the risk that the world faces from nuclear weapons and to work towards the security of a world without nuclear weapons. It’s a hard job, but we recognize it’s not only important to the United States, it is our legal obligation. Under Article 6 of the treaty, all states have promised to work together on good-faith efforts to reduce and eventually eliminate their nuclear arsenals. The previous administration did not like to reaffirm that legal obligation, but the Biden administration is very clear: This is not just a policy choice to reduce risk, to reduce the role of nuclear weapons, but it is an obligation upon us in the terms of the treaty. And as a result of our efforts over the last 50 years, the United States has eliminated 88 percent of the nuclear warheads it once possessed, and the Russian Federation has done almost the same.
The question you ask is about the promises or commitments contained in previous review conference documents. I would note simply that the treaty creates legally binding obligations. The statements adopted by consensus at previous review conferences are political commitments. They are important. They are relevant. They are not the same as a legally binding obligation. But we look forward to discussing not just the past commitments, but to having a forward-looking agenda: What are the main issues that the world needs to address under the treaty in the next four or five years? Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Next if we could go to Jeong Eun Lee from Radio Free Asia in Seoul, South Korea.
Question: Thank you for taking my question. I want to ask whether issues related to North Korea’s nuclear development will be discussed during the conference, and if you could share your assessment of North Korea’s recent activities, such as refraining from nuclear tests, though there are signs that their main nuclear reactor has been reactivated, while conducting a series of missile tests aimed at diversifying its nuclear arsenal. Thank you.
Mr. Countryman: Well, my area of expertise is on the first part of your question. And the answer is yes, the DPRK’s nuclear arsenal and nuclear activities must be discussed at the review conference. It’s called a review conference because we discuss the successes and the setbacks in the treaty over the last five years. North Korea represents perhaps the greatest failure of the treaty architecture. The NPT has prevented a greater number of countries from developing nuclear weapons, but in the case of North Korea, what was once a nonproliferation challenge is now a disarmament challenge. And so, we have to speak about that frankly at the review conference.
Now, again, as I said in my opening remarks, whatever we say about the North Korean situation at the review conference will not immediately change the realities on the ground. It won’t immediately bring the DPRK, finally, to accept the U.S. offer of unconditional negotiations. But it will be an important opportunity for the world to make clear its concern about the nuclear arsenal of North Korea and the direction that it’s taking.
I think you need to talk to better experts than me to analyze the very latest developments on the ground within North Korea. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Next, if we could go to Catherine Wong from the South China Morning Post in Beijing, China.
Question: Thank you. My name is Catherine Wong with the South China Morning Post. My question is: Do you have a timeline for [inaudible] talks with China, and how do you see China’s attitude on that so far? Thank you.
Mr. Countryman: The short answer is no. We have long believed that it is important that the U.S. and the People’s Republic have discussions about strategic stability, about the reduction of risk of incidents, about confidence-building measures. These are the kind of discussions that great powers need to have with each other. I know that President Xi and President Biden touched on this in their recent conversation, but I have no news for you about the time or the format or the subject. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Next if we could go to William Gallo from Voice of America.
Question: Yes, William Gallo from the Voice of America bureau in Seoul, South Korea. First of all, thanks for doing this. I really appreciate it. As I’m sure you know, some in South Korea here have expressed an interest in building nuclear submarines. I think it’s pretty fair to say those voices have gotten a bit louder after the Australia-U.S. submarine deal. I’m just curious, what are your thoughts about that as it relates to global nonproliferation efforts? And if you would be able to comment on whether the U.S. would be willing to partner with South Korea on this development in any way.
Mr. Countryman: Well, let me answer about one-third of your question. And that is only to comment on the U.S.-UK-Australia agreement. At this very early point of the implementation of the agreement, all three states are firmly committed to meeting the very highest nonproliferation standards, making sure that Australia – which has an exemplary record of nonproliferation – meets all the commitments of the International Atomic Energy Agency. That’s the task in front of us and the one that we are focused on, and I am confident that we – that the three countries will demonstrate to the world that there is not a need for a concern about proliferation of nuclear weapons. The idea that Australia would seek nuclear weapons is absurd. Thank you.
Moderator: I would actually like to ask you a question that we received in advance, or perhaps actually if you’d indulge two questions here. We received a question in advance from Masakatsu Ota from Kyodo News in Tokyo, Japan: What was the most important lesson for NPT member states, including the United States, from the – as he calls it – “failed experience” of the last NPT Rev Con in 2015? And also, he was wondering if you could talk about how to overcome past obstacles, like the Middle East WMD-free conference.
Mr. Countryman: Okay. Those are very good questions from my friend, Masa. I hope he’s on the call. So, a couple of comments. First, what he called the “failed experience” of the review conference in 2015, for those of you who don’t know, we did not reach consensus on a text at the 2015 review conference, primarily because of a disagreement between the United States and Egypt over literally a few words in one sentence in a long document. And that was related to a goal that we share, which is creation of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. But the lesson that I took from it is that on the most difficult topics, you can’t wait for the last 24 hours to look for compromises.
Certainly, Egypt and the United States have a different memory and a different story about exactly what happened in those last 24 hours in 2015, and I won’t go into that here. But one of the reasons that I’m cautiously optimistic about success in 2022 is that neither Egypt nor the United States want to repeat that experience, and I think that we are both committed to finding at an early point, the appropriate wording to address that difficult issue on the Middle East. And so the lesson that I want to draw is that other issues that we know there will be a wide range of an opinion – and a sharp difference of opinion on some issues – that we will work on those earlier in the month, instead of saving all of them for the midnight hour on the final day. Thank you.
Moderator: Excellent, thank you very much. Next, then, if we could go to Anna Henderson, who is from SBS News in, I believe, Canberra, Australia. Anna, if you’re there, please go ahead.
Question: Thank you. Yes, Anna Henderson here from SBS News in Australia. There was mention earlier in this discussion about the AUKUS deal, and I just wanted to hopefully, briefly, take you back there. We still hear these concerns coming out of Beijing about nuclear proliferation risk. We’ve heard from China the suggestion that this deal is extremely irresponsible. What steps can be taken through this process to reassure other countries that do have a concern here? And in fact, there are other political parties in Australia that also have a concern about this deal. Do there need to be clearer international guidelines, or other work done around this to really restrict how nuclear power and technology can be used?
Mr. Countryman: Okay, thank you for the question. Two comments – the first is that I don’t believe that China will ever be reassured. They have a reason to oppose other countries building any kind of submarines or military capability, even at a time when China is leading the arms race in the Pacific and building its own nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed submarines. So, they have a political or, if you like, a military reason to forever be opposed to Australia obtaining this advanced technology.
I think China also does not want the conference to spend very much time talking about China’s expansion of its own nuclear arsenal and its lack of transparency on its nuclear arsenal. So that’s one point.
The second point is that there already exists a framework within the treaty for addressing this issue, and it goes through the Additional Protocol of the International Atomic Energy Agency – the safeguards agreement that Australia has signed with the IAEA, and it requires the close cooperation as the plans proceed between the three countries and the International Atomic Energy Agency. I am confident that any objective observer will see at the end of the process that this program has lived up to and, in fact, set the best possible standard of nonproliferation guarantees so that everyone except China at that point should be reassured.
Moderator: Thank you. Next if we could go to Evelyn Cheng from CNBC in Beijing. Evelyn, please go ahead.
Question: I was wondering if the meeting between Putin and Xi and their increased discussions of [inaudible] including more collaboration look like [inaudible] elevated level concern of other things that [inaudible].
Mr. Countryman: Well, obviously there’s a level of concern not only for the United States, but for all of the neighbors of both China and Russia about enhanced cooperation between the two countries. It is not exactly an issue for the Non-Proliferation Treaty. I should note that not as a requirement of the treaty, but as an outgrowth of the review process, we do have a regular dialogue among the five nuclear weapon states: Russia, China, France, Britain, and the United States. That’s called, for short, the P5 process. And two weeks ago, we had a very good meeting of these five states in Paris and produced a communiqué that shows the range of topics we agree on and that I think should underline to the rest of the world that all five of us know and accept our obligations to talk to each other, to negotiate with each other, to reduce risk, and to work towards the goal of the elimination of nuclear weapons.
We disagreed on a number of things, but I think that we have tried – the five of us together – to set a positive tone for the conference and to demonstrate that we are working to make the world more secure and to meet our obligations under the treaty.
So, the broader question of what China-Russia cooperation means for their neighbors is extremely important, but within the NPT process and the specific tasks ahead of us, there is better cooperation among the five than there has been in the last several years, and that’s a positive factor for our conference next month.
Moderator: Thank you very much. We probably have time for just one last question. If we could go to – from TASS News, we have Ivan – actually, Ivan, if you can please say your full name when you come on the line. I’m afraid it’s not clear here.
Question: Hello, can you hear me?
Moderator: Yes. Do you mind introducing yourself before you ask your question?
Question: Of course. Thank you so much for taking my question. My name is Ivan Pilshchikov, I’m with TASS News Agency of Russian Federation. And Mr. Countryman, you mentioned that the success and the consensus at the conference will give some momentum to arms control negotiations between the U.S. and Russian Federation. So, may I ask you to elaborate on that a little. I mean in which exact way will it give momentum and maybe could you point out some specific tracks on which you might anticipate some momentum? Thank you so much.
Mr. Countryman: Well, I would have to say not in an exact way. The important thing about an agreement among all the countries of the world, all the parties to the treaty next month, is that it reminds Moscow and Washington that the world is watching. It reminds both countries that a nuclear war would have effects that are not limited to Russia and the United States, but would have severe consequences for the entire world. And so, to give a signal of support from 185 countries to remind them of their obligations and to ask them to work harder and faster – all of that gives some momentum. I don’t want to exaggerate it. It doesn’t change dramatically the difficulty of those discussions. But a positive result in New York next month I hope would have, as I said, some undefined momentum for the bilateral negotiation.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Would you like to make any closing remarks before we wrap up the call?
Mr. Countryman: First, I’m sorry that I’m not the right person to answer some of the really excellent and specific questions that were there. I do want to simply emphasize that the United States, under the Biden administration, is committed to the pursuit of arms control, and that our approach to arms control will be persistent and proactive and pragmatic and progressive. And while it is a difficult endeavor, and results can be slow – and so slow as to be very unsatisfying to the rest of the world – we will persist. We know our obligations – not only our obligations under the treaty, but our obligations to the rest of the world and to future generations. And we’re committed to that pursuit.
Let me thank you all for listening and for the excellent questions.
Moderator: Excellent, thank you very much. That concludes today’s call. I want to thank Thomas Countryman, U.S. State Department International Security and Nonproliferation Bureau Senior Advisor, and I also would like to thank all of you for participating in this briefing. Please stay on the line for information regarding access to an audio recording of the call. Also, please be aware that a transcript of the call will be posted to our social media platforms and sent out to all of you within a day. If you have any questions about today’s call, you may contact the Asia Pacific Media Hub at AsiaPacMedia@state.gov. Thank you.