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.