In the nuclear order, what role for China?

By Hua Han, Rajesh Rajagopalan, Gregory Kulacki, December 22, 2016

If China's economic and military power continues growing as in the recent past, Beijing can be expected to play a more active part in addressing geopolitical challenges, including the challenge of nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation. Is the role that China plays today in the nuclear arena appropriate to its national circumstances—and how should Beijing address disarmament and nonproliferation as its power and confidence increase?

Round 1

China unwisely defers on disarmament

China’s growing economic and military capabilities may have increased expectations in the United States. But the Chinese Communist Party takes a more modest view of its ability to address geopolitical challenges, including the challenge of nuclear disarmament.

Limits to growth. The Chinese government is responsible for the welfare of nearly a fifth of humanity. According to the World Bank, China ranks 71st among all nations in gross domestic product per capita. Chinese leaders see the enormous size of their population as a significant constraint on the nation's economic capabilities. They wish their counterparts in the United States were more understanding.

Demographic constraints on China’s long-term economic prospects led the Chinese Communist Party to fix military expenditures at approximately 2 percent of GDP: a percentage it has maintained since 1988. Comparatively high rates of annual economic growth have allowed corresponding annual increases in military spending, but as the Chinese economy matures and its growth rate slows, military expenditures are likely to follow suit.

An obligation, not a luxury. China's leaders are aware that their participation in international nuclear arms control negotiations is not predicated on attaining a certain level of economic or military development. They understand that it is required under the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The most important obligation China incurred by acceding to the NPT in 1992—an obligation it shares with the other four nations (the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, and France) temporarily allowed to retain nuclear weapons—is to "pursue negotiations in good faith" on "a treaty on general and complete disarmament."

By any measure, China is not living up to that commitment. None of the nuclear weapon states are. The successful negotiation of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty—opened for signature in 1996—is the last substantial step toward disarmament undertaken by the nuclear weapon states. China still refuses to ratify the treaty. Chinese arms control experts say their government is waiting for the United States to ratify it first—the United States has signed it, but the Senate hasn't confirmed it—which suggests China's leaders have little interest in playing a more active role in addressing the challenge of nuclear disarmament.

That's unfortunate. China maintains a comparatively small nuclear arsenal that it keeps off alert. The leadership remains committed to the no-first-use policy China announced after its first nuclear test. These policies entitle China to claim a leadership role in international nuclear arms control.

Lead or lose. Chinese leaders may not be aware that their passive approach to nuclear disarmament is a growing diplomatic liability. Defense analysts and policy makers in Washington, Tokyo, and other national capitals suspect China is unwilling to play a more active role in multilateral nuclear disarmament talks because it is preparing to build up its nuclear arsenal, place its nuclear forces on high alert, or alter the nation's no-first-use policy. The Chinese government steadfastly refuses to discuss the size, composition, or operations of its nuclear forces, encouraging these suspicions. Chinese nuclear arms control analysts claim that Chinese silence is a constructive policy because the uncertainty that it creates allows Beijing to deter a nuclear attack without increasing the size or raising the alert level of its nuclear forces. That may be true. But whatever benefit China derives from encouraging doubt about its nuclear capabilities comes at the cost of growing international concern about Beijing's intentions.

Though China's obligation to participate in good-faith disarmament efforts isn't linked to its level of development, there is a connection between China’s increased economic and military capabilities and the growing international concern about the ambitions of China’s leaders. Long-simmering territorial disputes between China and its neighbors are heating up as Beijing applies greater economic leverage and military muscle when pressing sovereign claims. The non-nuclear weapon states on the receiving end of that pressure feel intimidated by China's nuclear capabilities.

More importantly, the anxieties of China's non-nuclear neighbors are a significant factor in Washington's deliberations about its own nuclear forces. US defense officials oppose proposals to declare a no-first-use policy, or de-alert or reduce US nuclear forces, in part because of concerns that these changes would undermine the credibility of Washington's assurances to its Asian allies. China's lack of transparency about the size, composition, and operations of its nuclear forces—however well-intended—makes it more difficult for US proponents of nuclear arms control to overcome official opposition.

Times have changed. Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and the other founders of the People's Republic decided to develop nuclear weapons at a time when they believed the world was in the throes of a revolutionary struggle that could ignite a global war. The Chinese Communist Party no longer views the international situation that way. The report of the 18th Party Congress in 2012 describes an increasingly multipolar, interdependent, and stable world in which China may no longer need nuclear weapons.

In such a world, China's nuclear weapons are in some ways a liability. While the leadership in Beijing says it seeks a more equitable distribution of national authority and influence in this new multipolar world, many US analysts and officials interpret Chinese efforts to achieve that balance as a malicious attempt to displace the United States as a global leader. They argue that China's defense of sovereign claims presages aggressive national ambitions. And they warn that China sees the possession of nuclear weapons as a sine qua non of global leadership.

A recommendation. If China really sees the world in the terms described by the Party Congress, Beijing could take several steps to consolidate the emergence of such a world. One step would be to play a more active role in international nuclear arms control negotiations. Another, more dramatic step would be a unilateral decision to disarm.

The willingness to disarm would undercut the arguments of skeptics who see China as an aggressor seeking regional or global hegemony. It would give China an enormous boost in international prestige, rebalance international relations, and recast international perceptions of China's sovereign claims. A non-nuclear China could more effectively press other nuclear weapon states to follow its example. And a China without nuclear weapons would finally receive from Washington the no-first-use assurance it has sought in bilateral talks on strategic stability.

China arguably has more to gain from getting rid of its nuclear weapons than it does from keeping them, modernizing them, or putting them on alert. As China's leaders seek to rebalance international relations in what they describe as a new and cooperative era of multipolar interdependence, eliminating China's nuclear weapons is a strategic option that deserves serious consideration.


How China can address the world’s nuclear disorder

As a natural consequence of China's growing wealth and power, Beijing is becoming increasingly important in the management of the global nuclear order. But this shift comes at a time when the nuclear order itself is facing serious challenges. For two decades, the Conference on Disarmament has conducted no serious multilateral negotiations on nuclear arms control. The threat of further nuclear proliferation is increasing. And the role of nuclear weapons is becoming more central to the national security strategies of some nuclear-armed powers.

China can play an important role in strengthening the nuclear order by coaxing other nations—particularly North Korea and Pakistan—toward greater cooperativeness. But this would require Beijing to pivot away from its current approach to multilateralism, which is defensive and narrowly nationalistic. Instead, Beijing should adopt a broader approach whose aim is to promote global common interests even as China's own national interests are secured.

A realization. The troubles currently besetting the nuclear order are not all China's fault. Still, Beijing does not appear to fully grasp the consequences to its own security of a weakened nonproliferation regime. All great powers benefit from ensuring that nuclear weapons do not spread—nonproliferation is in their self-interest. But nonproliferation also serves a common interest. It was this realization that led the Soviet Union to actively support the establishment of the global nonproliferation regime and to collaborate with the United States on strengthening that regime. So far, the same realization appears not to have dawned on the Chinese leadership.

It is a truism that all states seek to promote their self-interest. Multilateralism is one way to do it. Great powers have much more capacity than other nations to promote their self-interest, but they generally understand that they can accomplish their goals most effectively through multilateral efforts that align their self-interest with the common interest. Even when "the common interest" stacks the deck in favor of great powers, it can still gain wide support if other nations' concerns are given some play as well. This is why the United States took a multilateral route, through the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, toward preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. The treaty is blatantly discriminatory in its distribution of benefits. Nevertheless, Washington was able to convince others that the threat of indiscriminate nuclear proliferation was more important than the treaty's unjust nature. To be sure, the United States chose a long path toward achieving its goals, but embracing multilateralism was probably easiest in the long run.

This is the sort of logic that China will need to internalize. China's power has grown but, paradoxically, power hasn't yet been matched in Beijing by sufficient self-realization about the importance of normative leadership. China still approaches the global nuclear order with a narrow and defensive nationalism—that is, China uses power to defend its self-interest rather than to serve the interests of all members of the international community while also serving its own interests. As long as China's policies remain wedded to narrow self-interest, Beijing will be viewed with suspicion in the global nuclear order and China will find it difficult to enjoy the full measure of its power.

Concrete steps. China can avoid such an outcome by playing a much more active role in three arenas. First, it can work to strengthen the tottering nonproliferation order. Second, it can promote compromise at the Conference on Disarmament. Third, it can join fully in the search for approaches to new international security risks such as those involving space and cyber threats.

A good place for Beijing to begin is by withdrawing its protective shield from North Korea—a country whose recalcitrance threatens the nonproliferation regime as well as China's own long-term security. Once before, China made the mistake of helping a proliferator—Pakistan—acquire nuclear weapons. The result was that India restarted a nuclear weapons program that had been shuttered. The consequences for China were ultimately negative.

China is repeating this mistake when it enables North Korea to thumb its nose at international efforts to eliminate its nuclear weapons program. Though South Korea and Japan have been the focus of Pyongyang's ire, and much worse, they have not responded so far by building their own nuclear arsenals. But they have drawn closer to the United States, tightening an alliance that irritates Beijing. If the United States should grow too weak to honor its security commitments in the region, Seoul and Tokyo would see increased incentives in developing alternative means of ensuring their security, possibly including nuclear weapons.

It is probably too late to get North Korea back into the nonproliferation tent, but China could still assuage concerns in the region by putting greater weight behind international efforts to moderate Pyongyang's behavior. If China strengthened the international consensus on North Korea instead of protecting Pyongyang, it could bolster both the nonproliferation regime and China's own security.

China could also do more to promote compromise and consensus at the Conference on Disarmament. In particular, it could attempt to convince Pakistan to let negotiations proceed.  The deadlock in the conference is mainly due to disagreements about whether the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty should apply only to future production of fissile material or whether existing stocks should also be accounted for. China appears to favor the former option—but Beijing in any event is well positioned to find middle ground between the opposing parties, if it chooses to do so. This would not only move forward the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty but also unlock the broader potential of the moribund conference.

Finally, China could help move forward the stalled debate on emerging threats such as those involving space and cyber—especially the former. China, as a new space power, can understand the anxieties of developing states concerned about arms control agreements that might shut them out of using outer space and also about becoming collateral damage as space competition heats up. China's early moves have not been well considered—its 2007 antisatellite test was ill advised for many reasons. Still, space is an arena that cries out for international leadership. China can make an important contribution.

Today's disorder in the nuclear arena provides China an opportunity to demonstrate multilateral normative leadership even as it promotes its own security. But taking this opportunity will require Beijing to absorb a simple truth: China cannot become more secure by making other nations less so.


China, the increasingly responsible nuclear stakeholder

China's phenomenal economic growth over the last three decades, along with the country's rising international status, has generated high expectations regarding Beijing's contributions to the global and regional agendas for nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation. At times, these high expectations have led to dissatisfaction with China's current disarmament and nonproliferation portfolio. Indeed, China has come under a lot of criticism in the international press—over Beijing's nuclear cooperation with Pakistan (The Diplomat), Chinese individuals' secret sales of prohibited items to Iran (Newsweek), and Beijing's reluctance to punish North Korea's nuclear provocations (The New York Times). To its critics, China has been both a consistent proliferator and a free rider on (or even a block to) global nonproliferation efforts.

But these criticisms are misleading and simply not objective. The truth is that, since the late 1980s, China has undergone a dramatic transformation in nonproliferation policy and implementation. To be sure, China was skeptical decades ago about the benefits of nonproliferation. But today Beijing is a proactive player in nearly all the major nonproliferation treaties and regimes. Beijing may have failed so far to win membership in the Missile Technology Control Regime, but it has nonetheless observed the regime's guidelines and control lists. China demonstrated increasing interest in nonproliferation when, in 1997, it suspended transfers of nuclear reactors and missile technologies to Iran. Beijing has investigated Chinese entities and individuals suspected of assisting other countries' nuclear programs. Moreover, to close loopholes that have permitted Chinese individuals and privately owned companies to engage in illicit trade activities, Beijing has created new legal and administrative mechanisms that tighten export controls and sanction any exports of restricted goods.

China is also an active participant in multilateral efforts to cope with proliferation challenges. China has taken a leading role in the six-party talks over North Korea's nuclear program. Beijing played a uniquely constructive part in the marathon negotiations that led to the Iran nuclear deal. China has endorsed UN resolutions regarding both the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs. China was critical to the indefinite extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and in negotiations toward the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. China has been a key country in upholding the norms of both the treaty and the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

Despite all this, room for improvement exists in China's implementation of its expanding commitments. China remains in the midst of a great social and economic transformation. It faces enormous challenges in implementing government policy in general—not just where nonproliferation is concerned. Full implementation of national nonproliferation goals will require strengthened legal frameworks, institutional structures, and personnel procedures. Moreover, effective export controls require technical training and expertise at a huge number of state-owned and private companies. It takes time and work to put all this into place. China has taken steps to address these challenges by, for example, conducting joint training courses with other countries.

But additional opportunities exist for Beijing to strengthen its role in nonproliferation. For example, it could play a more proactive role regarding nuclear and missile proliferation challenges on the Korean Peninsula—an issue with profound implications for Northeast Asian stability and for China's own security.

Before the late 1990s, when China was the only nuclear weapon state in Asia, Beijing pursued nonproliferation goals in its own way: by issuing no nuclear threats, basing no nuclear weapons on other countries' soil, extending no nuclear umbrella to other countries, and relying on nuclear weapons only to deter nuclear attacks. Today, given the changed geopolitical landscape around China's periphery, and also given China's growing international influence, Beijing has come to appreciate nuclear nonproliferation more than in years past. Preventing states from going nuclear clearly serves China's current national interests, and nonproliferation should continue to occupy a high place in Beijing's policy agenda. In years to come, with strengthened capacity and greater clout, China will have a larger say in setting regional and global norms and is likely to be an active, responsible stakeholder in nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation.


Round 2

Chairman Xi abandons banning the Bomb

On October 27, China faced yet another test of its willingness to lead on nuclear disarmament: The First Committee of the UN General Assembly voted on a resolution calling for negotiations toward a treaty outlawing nuclear weapons. China abstained.

Just days after the vote, at an international arms control conference in the ancient city of Suzhou, Du Xiangwan—a former vice-director of the Chinese Academy of Engineering and a founding father of the Chinese arms control community—began his remarks with a personal expression of disappointment in China’s decision (link in Chinese). He argued that China should have joined the 123 nations that voted in favor of the UN resolution. He disagreed with the idea (incidentally expressed in this roundtable by my good friend Hua Han) that Beijing should defer to Moscow and Washington on the question of nuclear disarmament.

As Prof. Han rightly points out, the United States and Russia are not only failing to disarm—they are pursuing policies that threaten a dangerous and destabilizing resumption of the nuclear arms race. Still, if Beijing were to follow Han’s advice regarding deference to Moscow and Washington, the upcoming UN negotiations would proceed without the active support of a single nuclear weapon state (North Korea’s questionable vote in favor notwithstanding). If, however, China were to commit to supporting the negotiations, it would earn the appreciation of the non-nuclear weapon states that voted to advance the ban, and help reconstitute the Non-Aligned Movement that China crippled in October 1964 when it conducted its first nuclear weapon test.

While it is far too early to be certain, the election of Donald Trump is likely to hasten the emergence of a genuinely multipolar world order. The course of the presidential transition so far suggests that President-elect Trump lacks both the will and the capability to hold together the US-centric international system created by President Truman and sustained by his successors. Trump’s words and deeds during this post-election period suggest that he intends to honor his campaign promise to pursue an America-first agenda that dismisses international institutions and subordinates US allies. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s obsequious rush to Trump Tower on November 17 may have solidified the president-elect’s faith in the efficacy of this agenda.

Beijing’s position on the UN resolution to ban nuclear weapons could be seen as a bellwether for how China will behave in a post–US-centric world. Will the Middle Kingdom cast its lot with the vast majority of nations that see the merits of continuing to construct an equitable, just, and environmentally sustainable global order? Or will Xi Jinping’s regime see itself as just another national power asserting its own interests amid perceived international anarchy? If Beijing decides to remain on the sidelines of the growing global movement to ban the Bomb, even as it invests in the modernization of its nuclear weapons, the rest of the world cannot be faulted for concluding that Xi’s China is an obstacle to global peace and development.

Chairman Mao, the hero of the revolution that brought the Chinese Communist Party to power in 1949, famously said that the question of distinguishing friends from enemies is paramount. He also said that everyone’s thinking—including the thinking of the chairman of the Chinese Communist Party—is determined by class allegiances. Would Mao want his “people’s republic” to be seen as an emerging “great power” destined to replace the United States at the top of a global hierarchy, or as a developing nation struggling in solidarity with other such nations for a more equitable international order?

Chairman Xi has tied the political survival of China’s flagging communist regime to Mao’s pedigree. His impending decision to either join with or stand apart from the global movement to abolish nuclear weapons may finally settle the long-simmering debate in China over whether Mao should be remembered as a genuine if flawed revolutionary or as the tyrannical first emperor of a new Chinese dynasty.


China and nonproliferation: Divergence between policy and actions

Donald Trump's election as US president has thrown a monkey wrench into the complicated machinery of international politics. Trump's views on international relations and arms control appear unclear and ill-formed, but they definitely contain a strain of suspicion toward multilateralism. Trump has served notice of his intention to revisit the Iran nuclear deal and appears to be signaling a harder line on North Korea. In this new context it is necessary to be realistic, and an international focus on arms control seems preferable to wasting energy on pursuing a nuclear disarmament agenda that is unlikely to move forward.

Still suspect. My roundtable colleague Gregory Kulacki recommends that China consider unilateral nuclear disarmament. Before Trump's election, it seemed doubtful that China would follow such a path; now it seems even more so. Unilateral nuclear disarmament is a difficult item to sell to any nuclear-armed country, under any circumstances. Selling this idea to China will become even tougher if relations among great powers grow tenser, as is quite possible in a Trump presidency. In uncertain times, states are unlikely to embark on risky security policies. But China will nonetheless be important in carrying forward the modest nuclear agenda, focused on arms control, that makes sense to pursue during a Trump presidency.

Participants in this roundtable agree that China, because of its spectacular economic growth and its resulting importance in all aspects of international politics, is already an active and major player in global arms control. But Hua Han and I disagree on Beijing's view of multilateralism, and in particular whether China is ready to promote its self-interest while also, simultaneously, promoting the general interest. (No one expects China to sacrifice its self-interest any more than other states sacrifice their self-interest.)

Han is absolutely correct when she writes that "Preventing states from going nuclear clearly serves China's current national interests." She might even be correct that "Beijing has come to appreciate nuclear nonproliferation more than in years past." But China's nonproliferation policy may suffer from bigger problems than just the "implementation of … expanding commitments" that Han identifies. (All states face difficulties in implementing commitments in areas such as export controls and nuclear security. Occasional failures are to be expected. China is no exception.) The larger problem may be China's nonproliferation policy itself. In other words, the disconnect between China's stated policy and its actual actions are sufficiently divergent that one must ask whether the two are really the same. This disconnect explains why China's nonproliferation credentials are still suspect. Han acknowledges the questions sometimes raised regarding Beijing's nuclear cooperation with Pakistan and its reluctance to punish North Korea's proliferation. She also acknowledges "Chinese individuals' secret sales of prohibited items to Iran." It would have been useful if she had responded to these specific questions in her first essay.

On North Korea (to take up one of these issues myself), China has repeatedly sought to reduce the pressure that international sanctions exert on Pyongyang—pressure that might give North Korea's leaders some pause about pursuing their nuclear program. And though China has taken part in the negotiations over the North Korean nuclear issue, the talks have yielded little progress. North Korea has now conducted five nuclear tests, and several missile and rocket tests, in violation of UN Security Council resolutions. China, despite being North Korea's closest international partner and its economic lifeline, does not appear to have used its considerable clout with the Pyongyang regime to moderate North Korean behavior, let alone convince North Korea to roll back its nuclear weapons advances. In fact, entities within China apparently continue to facilitate North Korea's strategic programs. And regarding Pakistan, a recent report by Project Alpha at the Centre for Science and Security Studies, King's College, suggests that Chinese entities also continue to maintain links with Islamabad's strategic weapons program.

China's role in global arms control is important, especially considering Trump’s election, the challenge of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, the deadlock in the Conference on Disarmament, and the possible unravelling of the Iran nuclear deal. That is why China needs to be more transparent and categorical about living up to its commitments to the nonproliferation system.


Washington and Moscow hold the keys to the door of disarmament

The disarmament momentum created by Barack Obama's famous Prague speech was fading even before Donald Trump won the race to become Obama's successor. Now, prospects for disarmament seem murkier than ever. It is an interesting moment to take up my roundtable colleague Gregory Kulacki's argument that China, by displaying too much reluctance to implement its disarmament obligations, undermines its own image and squanders an opportunity to assume a leading role in global governance.

For decades China has taken seriously its disarmament obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). In fact, Beijing called for total abolition of nuclear weapons upon conducting its first nuclear test five decades ago. Disarmament serves China's long-term interests—but Beijing faces an increasingly complicated security environment and maintains a relatively small nuclear deterrent. So China will only be able to achieve disarmament by taking a cautious and pragmatic approach.

Disarmament stalemate. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States and Russia have significantly reduced their bloated nuclear arsenals through arms control agreements and unilateral cuts. Unfortunately, the cuts have only been designed to "optimize" the two sides' arsenals; Washington and Moscow haven't made the deep cuts that could induce other nuclear powers to join the process. As a result, the global nuclear inventory remains huge, amounting to about 15,000 warheads, with the United States and Russia accounting for 93 percent of them.

Worse, the United States has steadily developed missile defense and conventional prompt strike capabilities as part of its strategic forces. This puts at risk small nuclear deterrents such as China's, causing Beijing to rely more heavily on its nuclear deterrent and decreasing China's incentives to engage in disarmament. At the moment, the keys to the door of disarmament remain in American and Russian hands.

China's unique outlook. The commitment to disarm under the NPT is both normative and legally binding. But the commitment alone doesn't provide nuclear weapon states a sufficient incentive to disarm. Nations won't perceive a sufficient incentive until disarmament can accommodate their national views on the utility of nuclear weapons and on those weapons' role in national security.

Throughout the Cold War, nuclear weapons were at the core of US and Russian security strategies, and mutual assured destruction prevented each side from attacking the other. China's outlook was different. Even though China joined the nuclear club in 1964 amid severe security concerns, Mao Zedong viewed nuclear weapons as a "paper tiger." This view had a profound influence on China's nuclear weapons development and nuclear posture. Indeed, it took decades for Beijing to develop its small arsenal and to make its nuclear deterrent truly operational. China was the first state to announce an intention to disarm at the same time it successfully developed nuclear weapons—and to proclaim a nuclear no-first-use policy. Disarmament, no matter whether you consider it obligatory or optional, fits China's nuclear philosophy.

To be sure, the role of nuclear weapons is increasing in China's security calculations. But the "non-usefulness" of these weapons in actual warfighting prevents China from developing a large arsenal, let alone from seeking parity with larger nuclear powers. And with the emergence of nuclear-armed states along China's periphery, disarmament and nonproliferation are clearly in Beijing's long-term national interest.

China may not have taken substantial steps toward disarmament so far but—despite what Kulacki believes—this doesn't mean that China is reluctant to meet its obligations under the treaty. Rather, China is following its own path toward disarmament. What does this path entail? First, disarmament can't be pursued simply by reducing numbers of warheads and missiles; the superior quality of US and Russian weapons must be considered as well. Second, China sees ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and negotiation of a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty as important steps toward disarmament—but these treaties should be negotiated and ratified along with an instrument to outlaw the first use of nuclear weapons. Third, because missile defense and conventional military capabilities can provide nations an incentive to develop or expand a nuclear arsenal, they should be included on the disarmament agenda as well.

Yes, China has a responsibility to implement its disarmament commitments more proactively. But nuclear powers must seek disarmament through—to borrow a phrase usually associated with climate change negotiations—the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. With luck, China can work with the next US administration, as well as with other nuclear-armed nations, to make the next NPT review conference a substantive one.


Round 3

Needed from China (and others): Wisdom, not strength

Dusting off a concept from the 19th century, my roundtable colleague Rajesh Rajagopalan characterizes international affairs as a “great game.” But the destructive power of nuclear weapons has fundamentally changed the nature of international politics and the practice of statecraft. There are no winners in a nuclear war. The only winning move is not to play.

Mao Zedong apparently intuited this not long after the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In August 1946, he told a US journalist that the atom bomb was a “paper tiger.” Metaphors allow varied interpretations, but it is not unreasonable to assume that Mao anticipated a taboo against using nuclear weapons, one that would grow stronger as they proliferated. China’s nuclear thinking always presumed the existence of a strong nuclear taboo. The sole purpose of Beijing’s “small but effective” force was to relieve the fear that nuclear weapons would be used against China.

If every nation adapted to the nuclear age the way China did, the world would be awash in nuclear weapons. This realization was the essence of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—a collective recognition that unless nuclear weapons were abolished, every nation could justifiably claim the right to develop them. Either no one would have nuclear weapons or everyone would.

Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and the founders of the People’s Republic were not party to NPT negotiations—they weren’t even recognized as the legitimate Chinese government—but they seem to have understood the essential truth underlying the treaty. General Nie Rongzhen, who managed China’s nuclear weapons program, famously told the scientists and engineers working under him that China was building the Bomb to eliminate the Bomb. This was the core message of the only detailed statement on nuclear weapons that China has ever issued, released immediately after its first nuclear test in 1964.

In that statement China’s leaders proposed that “a summit conference of all the countries of the world be convened to discuss … the complete pro­hibition and thorough de­struction of nuclear weapons.” The NPT later aimed for the same result, but has now been transformed into a mechanism that preserves a world of nuclear haves and have-nots. Forty-six years after the treaty’s entry into force, the nuclear weapon states now prepare to spend lavishly on modernizing their arsenals. The non-nuclear weapon states—feeling betrayed, with ample justification—are moving to enact an international legal convention to ban the Bomb.

This effort is a critical test of China’s commitment to nuclear disarmament. So far, Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping is failing the test. His unsupportive responses to the treaty initiative risk legitimating the views of critics from other nations, especially the United States, who have always viewed China’s commitment to nuclear disarmament skeptically.

My roundtable colleague Hua Han’s third essay may explain the reasoning behind Xi’s apparent disregard for the principled position on nuclear disarmament articulated in the 1964 statement. She ties Chinese nuclear weapons policy to the imbalance in conventional forces between Beijing and Washington. Yet the United States in 1964 enjoyed much greater conventional superiority over China than it does today. Is Xi turning a cold shoulder on the 123 nations advancing the nuclear weapons convention because he believes China needs to threaten the use of nuclear weapons in a conventional conflict with the United States? If so, the 1964 statement is a dead letter and Xi is leading his nation, and the world, away from nuclear disarmament and toward a new nuclear arms race.

The broad-based international effort to use a nuclear weapons convention to compel nuclear weapon states to honor their NPT disarmament obligations is not utopian, as Rajagopalan characterizes it. It is a desperately necessary appeal for collective common sense at a time when the governments of the nuclear weapon states are slipping into the hands of “strong” leaders who rise to political power on vainglorious appeals to anachronistic tribal prejudices.

Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, and the scientists who signed their famous manifesto understood that with the dawn of the nuclear age the “great game” of international politics was over—because the next round would be “disastrous to all parties.” They urged us to consider ourselves “only as members of a biological species which has had a remarkable history, and whose disappearance none of us can desire.” To pretend a nuclear holocaust is unlikely—or to continue seeing war as a game—is to deny the perils of the present political reality.


China should seek nuclear stability, not disarmament utopia

To debate whether China can lead the world toward nuclear disarmament, as my colleagues have done in this roundtable, is to ask the wrong question at the wrong time. China is not in the habit of tilting at windmills, and trying to shame Beijing into taking the disarmament lead is either evidence of desperation or an exhibition of rootlessness from contemporary political realities.

Real progress toward global arms control and nuclear disarmament requires some consensus among the great powers. This is why the nuclear nonproliferation regime was so strong during the Cold War: Both the United States and the Soviet Union saw nonproliferation as in their own interest, and they cooperated to advance that interest. No such consensus exists today, especially among the great powers.

The world order appears set to spiral toward greater conflict and chaos. And this is not because Donald Trump was elected US president—though his election seems likely to increase the pace of existing trends. China, Russia, and sundry thuggish regimes around the world have been pushing the limits of tolerable behavior for the last eight years, as the United States under Barack Obama has found one excuse after another to look the other way. It was bad enough that the Obama administration refused to involve itself seriously in the terrible civil war in Syria. Worse is that Washington has failed to generate confidence that it will stand by its allies and has not even tried to counter rising challengers such as China. The result is an increasing sense among weaker regional players, from Europe to Asia, that they are on their own.

Trump’s election has only deepened the perception that the United States is washing its hands of its global commitments. The consequence is that even countries such as Japan and Germany, which not long ago were considered “civil powers” that emphasized economic integration over military strength, are now worried about how to ensure their security. If they and other US allies decide they are on their own, their responses could include reaching for nuclear weapons. This would signal the end of the nonproliferation regime.

Trump is fundamentally different from Obama. The current president has little interest in playing the great game at all. Trump seems intent on playing it haphazardly, by instinct rather than according to strategy, and on his own rather than with allies. Trump also appears intent on taking a hard-line stance against China—in line with his campaign rhetoric. If China reacts harshly, conflict could quickly result. Washington’s allies and its potential adversaries both have reasons to feel insecure, creating the potential for a much more tense and uncomfortable situation in international politics, with all powers seeking unilateral measures to secure themselves.

In this environment, nuclear disarmament shouldn’t be the primary focus. Rather, the focus should be on maintaining some measure of stability through confidence-building measures and arms control. China can do a great deal to build confidence, especially in Asia. A China that behaves with greater moderation can greatly reduce insecurity in its region and limit the aftershocks of Trump’s election. Beijing could also contribute to stability by demonstrating greater openness and transparency, lack of which is a major cause of regional concerns about China.

Beijing should also strive to strengthen the nonproliferation regime. North Korea would be one aspect of this effort, but equally important is shoring up loss of faith in the regime. A strong nuclear nonproliferation regime serves China’s purposes. Some of China’s neighbors, including Japan and South Korea, are capable of building nuclear weapons but have chosen not to do so. It’s in Beijing’s interest to ensure that they do not change their minds.

China can also lead in its region and beyond by attempting to limit new security competitions in outer space and the cyber realm. Beijing could invest in an Asian version of the Helsinki Process, a broad multilateral initiative that did much to ameliorate tensions between the Soviet and Western blocs in the 1970s. These are difficult projects, but compared to nuclear disarmament, they seem much more achievable and beneficial in the short term.

The current moment provides Beijing a great opportunity to establish and demonstrate normative leadership in its region and elsewhere. The key question is whether Beijing will recognize and seize this unexpected opportunity to reduce the region’s dependence on Washington as security provider.


China and disarmament: Three questions going forward

Amid today's possible transformation from a US-centric global order to a multilateral one—as my good friend Gregory Kulacki has characterized it in this roundtable—nuclear disarmament is once again featuring high among the topics discussed by strategists, scientists, and policy makers. Kulacki calls on China to take a more active role in global efforts to abolish nuclear weapons, and this is a reasonable expectation. China, with its growing power and influence, is obligated to take more responsibility over global governance in general and nuclear disarmament in particular. Indeed, under Xi Jinping, China has demonstrated aspirations greater than those of "just another national power asserting its own interests," to borrow Kulacki's phrase. China now seeks to become a great power that—through its own approach—offers public goods and seeks out common interests with other countries.

But any discussion of China's role in the emerging nuclear order must be based on an understanding of how the global nuclear order has evolved and what forces have shaped it. In this order, which was established in the 1950s, China—along with Britain, France, and others—occupies a middle ground. On one side of them are the two nuclear superpowers—the United States and Russia (or, in earlier days, the Soviet Union). On the other side are the non-nuclear states, which represent a great majority of nations. This configuration has not significantly changed even though the bipolar world collapsed 25 years ago and China emerged as the world's second-largest economy around 2009. China's clout in the nuclear order remains modest compared to the country's importance in the Asian financial system and the global economic order. China has no "revisionist" intentions and will not seek nuclear superpower status in the foreseeable future.

Security, uncertainty, capacity. How vigorously China pursues its existing disarmament commitments, and whether it takes a leadership role in disarmament, depend on how Beijing answers the following questions.

First, considering the huge gap between China and the United States in conventional defense capabilities, can China protect its security interests without maintaining its relatively small nuclear deterrent?

Washington's forward deployment of missile defense and precise strike capabilities along the Chinese maritime frontier leads Beijing to view any drastic disarmament initiative with caution. Though Beijing is well aware of the desire of many non-nuclear weapon states to eliminate nuclear weapons, and is supportive of their efforts, disarmament initiatives must take into consideration the overarching security environment. China's interests are best served by a pragmatic approach to disarmament, and this accounts for China's abstention in October's UN vote on a nuclear weapon ban treaty. (All other officially recognized nuclear weapon states voted against negotiating a ban treaty.)

The second question is whether China is ready for nuclear reductions amid the uncertainty in the existing nuclear order. After Barack Obama's eight years of largely unfruitful disarmament discourse, we are now entering new territory. People in the United States and around the globe are wondering about the nuclear posture that the United States will display under President Donald Trump—wondering if Trump might "press the button" and whether he can be trusted with thousands of nuclear warheads. By mentioning this uncertainty, I'm not looking for excuses for China to maintain its nuclear arsenal. But it's an unfortunate reality that Washington's nuclear policy and posture loom very large in China's security calculus.

The final question is whether China currently has the capacity to play a leading role in the global disarmament arena. China is still undergoing a momentous social and economic transformation. The government's top priorities remain economic development and social stability. China's recent behavior abroad has been described as assertive, but Beijing's foreign policy hasn't completely moved away from the low-profile approach known in Chinese as tao guang yang hui. China's diplomatic capability in general and its nuclear diplomacy in particular are still underdeveloped. Under such circumstances, China has a limited ability to influence the evolution of the nuclear order, create norms, and set the agenda in multilateral institutions.

Nonetheless, Beijing is on a trajectory toward playing a more active role in the nuclear order. In years to come, as China develops a larger community of nuclear policy experts and enhances its diplomatic skills, that trend should only continue.


Topics: Nuclear Weapons


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