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.