Maxwell Downman considers the role China can play in helping to de-escalate global nuclear tensions

Nuclear sabre-rattling on the Korean Peninsula and the potential collapse of the Iran Deal: progress on non-proliferation has never appeared more strained than in recent years. Within this bleak atmosphere, it is high time that states seriously consider their responsibilities to create a world free of the threat of nuclear annihilation.

If you were to ask any Chinese scholar on nuclear weapons ‘What does it mean to be a responsible nuclear weapon state?’, they would confidently refer you to China’s ‘declaratory’ policy – China’s public statements on the role of Chinese nuclear weapons. On October 16 1964, the day after China’s first atomic test, the government declared: ‘China will never at any time or under any circumstances employ nuclear weapons first.’ Subsequently, China categorically pledged to ‘not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons on non-nuclear weapon states and nuclear weapon-free zones’ under any circumstances.

These two statements – China’s no-first-use pledge and unconditional negative security assurances – form the cornerstone of China’s nuclear policy. ‘China has never engaged in an escalating nuclear arms race, but has kept a lean but effective nuclear arsenal, for the sole purpose of deterring a nuclear attack,’ according to the Deputy Director of the Institute of Arms Control and Security Studies, Professor Guo Xiaobing.

China is in many ways a reluctant nuclear power; its approach to nuclear weapons has deep cultural roots. Professor Shen Dingli of the Institute of International Studies at Shanghai’s Fudan University notes the impact of the so-called ‘century of humiliation’ – starting with the Opium Wars in 1839 and ending with Communist liberation in 1949 – on Chinese strategic planning. This instilled an imperative to never lag behind the West technologically and to ‘control the county’s strategic destiny’.

During the Korean War and the Taiwan Straits Crisis during the 1950s, the US threatened to use nuclear weapons against China. Mao Zedong viewed China’s nuclear programme as critical to deter nuclear use against it and prevent future nuclear coercion. Nevertheless, beyond these two goals, Mao saw nuclear weapons as paper tigers, distinctly limited in function: once two countries had them, they would become effectively useless due to the countries’ mutual vulnerability.

China’s restrained declaratory policy served a country that both decried nuclear weapons as tools of imperialism, yet possessed those very same weapons. In trying to be a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, it has lavished generous security assurances on the Global South to compensate for its nuclear status. These assurances are essential to its unique roadmap for disarmament. For China, universal agreement on no-first-use and negative security assurances strengthens the taboo against using nuclear weapons, decreasing their saliency in international politics and resulting in their ultimate removal.

In 1994 China led international negotiations on this issue, encouraging nuclear weapons states to declare unconditional no-first-use and to pledge never to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states. But the US scuppered these plans because of its nuclear commitment to its European and Asian allies. Following the summit, Russia and China agreed to a bilateral no-first-use deal, and in a face-saving measure, China and the US agreed not to aim their nuclear weapons at each other.

Yet the virtues of China’s restrained posture have been called into question. For years India, the only other nuclear weapon state to have a no-first-use policy, has sought a bilateral agreement with China. However, China continues to rebuff India, arguing that such an agreement would imply that India, a non-NPT signatory, is legitimate in having nuclear weapons.

China is in many ways a reluctant nuclear power

Critics point to hypothetical situations in which China might use nuclear weapons first, such as Taiwan, or in response to an overwhelming conventional attack on Chinese nuclear systems. Professor Shen Dingli goes as far as to say, ‘China is a benign liar.’ He claims that China would clearly use nuclear weapons first if existentially threatened.

There is a nascent debate in China on these issues. Although an ardent defender of China’s declaratory policy, retired General Pan Zhenqiang asks: ‘How can we define a strategic nuclear strike?’ During the Cold War all ‘strategic’ strikes were nuclear but now these could take another form – for example, a cyber attack or a high precision conventional attack such as the US’ Prompt Global Strike programme.

Critics also point to the lack of transparency of China’s nuclear modernisation programme. Although tiny compared to the US’ and Russia’s respective 6,800 and 7,000 warheads, China has slowly increased the number and capabilities of its missiles. Current estimates put China at 270 warheads, up from 240 in 2011.

China has slowly increased the number and capabilities of its missiles
China has slowly increased the number and capabilities of its missiles

General Pan counters that China’s modernisation ‘is a must’ due to ‘new threats [the country] faces’. Modernisation is admissible if it is ‘exercised under the premise of no-first-use.’ The question of whether China’s declaratory policy is credible or not misses the point. The point of China’s policy is to take nuclear threats off the table, reducing international tension.

Two recent developments in international security have brought declaratory policy and the threat of nuclear attack to the fore. Firstly, the successful negotiation of the Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty by non-nuclear weapon states on July 7. The Treaty could drive nuclear and non-nuclear weapon states further away from international cooperation on disarmament. Significantly, China abstained.

PAPER TIGERS: Mao Zedong saw the function of nuclear weapons as limited
PAPER TIGERS: Mao Zedong saw the function of nuclear weapons as limited

As both an emerging power and as a country sympathetic with the treaty’s aims, China could be in a unique position to bridge this divide. Sebastian Brixey-Williams, from the British Security Information Council, has argued that the Treaty could come ‘to resemble a big nuclear-weapon-free-zone’. China could use its diplomatic capital to push for no-first-use and unconditional negative security assurances as a response.

The second development is the escalating tension and nuclear sabre-rattling on the Korean Peninsula. Excluding military action, it is unlikely that North Korea’s nuclear programme will be rolled back any time soon by current sanctions. The international community may slowly and begrudgingly need to learn to live with a nuclear North Korea and shape it to be more responsible.

Interestingly, North Korea has shown at least some efforts to present itself as a responsible nuclear stakeholder. In January 2016, after its fourth nuclear test, Pyongyang declared that North Korea, as a ‘responsible nuclear weapon state, will neither be the first to use nuclear weapons… as long as the hostile forces for aggression do not encroach upon its sovereignty.’ This, of course, has been belied by its otherwise escalatory rhetoric and action.

Critics point to the lack of transparency of China’s nuclear modernisation programme

Both international agreement on no-first-use and negative security assurances could moderate North Korea’s behaviour. The former would alleviate Pyongyang’s concerns over a decapitating first strike emanating from the US and would also reassure the international community that North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, like those of other nuclear weapons states, exists solely to deter a nuclear attack from another state. The latter would buttress these assurances. Japan and South Korea, most directly at threat from North Korea, would feel safer. It would also stifle hawkish voices arguing that they should develop nuclear weapons for their security. In the long term, it could even incentivise Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons, as it would receive the same negative security assurances from the international community.

This is not to suggest no-first-use and negative security assurances are a universal panacea. But there is an urgent need for states to consider how they can create the conditions for multilateral disarmament. While many criticisms can be levelled at China, there are lessons to be learnt from China in approaching the emerging nuclear crises of the 21st century.

Maxwell Downman is a political researcher with the British American Security Information Council (BASIC), London’s independent disarmament and arms control think-tank. He focuses on nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation and East Asian international security

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