Resurgent China and Global Nuclear Politics

DR NICOLA LEVERINGHAUS is a Lecturer in War Studies (East Asian Security and International Relations). She is the author of China and Global Nuclear Order (Oxford University Press).

China is today both a resurgent power and valued member of the global nuclear order. It is a member of key nuclear institutions like the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Yet this has not always been the case. During the Cold War, China was a bystander to global nuclear politics, outside of major treaties and critical of superpower arms control negotiations. Yet, in the 1970s and 1980s, China’s position on nuclear institutions and emerging nuclear norms began to change. In 1973, China decided to sign the Tlatelolco Treaty (the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean) and in 1980 joined the Conference on Disarmament. A decade later, in 1992, China acceded to the NPT. China can therefore be characterised as a latecomer to global nuclear politics.

In a recent book, I trace the twist and turns of China’s journey from outsider to insider in the global nuclear order. One argument from this book is that despite China’s dramatic transformation in status within the nuclear order, Chinese ideas about the bomb have actually remained remarkably consistent since becoming a nuclear weapons state in 1964. For instance, after testing a nuclear weapon on 16 October 1964, in an unprecedented move for a new nuclear weapons power, China declared it would maintain a No First Use (NFU) pledge. This remains in place, even today. In addition, for almost three decades, China rejected mainstream strategic concepts such as mutual assured destruction (MAD) and nuclear deterrence – labelling these unsuitable for China’s minimalist and restrained nuclear policy based on retaliation and self-defence. Only in the 1990s did China start to embrace particular aspects of nuclear deterrence. In other areas, China has sought to demonstrate nuclear restraint by emphasising that it has consistently de-alerted its missiles, and has conducted the smallest number of tests among the NPT nuclear weapons states.

In my current work at the Department of War Studies, I focus on more recent Chinese nuclear thinking and diplomacy. Understanding Chinese nuclear thinking is more pertinent than ever because after several decades, China’s nuclear force modernization is finally bearing some fruit. As a result, certain weapons platforms, such as a sea-based deterrent, are now becoming a reality for China. In addition, under Xi, China is professionalising the bureaucracy around its nuclear deterrent. As for nuclear diplomacy, China has become a skilled navigator of global and regional nuclear politics. Early examples of this include the Chinese decision to host the Six Party Talks to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis from 2003 to 2008. More recently, China was an important player in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed in July 2015 between Iran and the P5+1 and EU. China has also invested significantly in the nuclear security agenda (an agenda initiated by former US President Barack Obama in 2009/10). For example, Chinese President Xi Jinping has personally attended every Nuclear Security Summit held since 2012. In 2015, China established a centre for regional excellence in nuclear security. More recently, in January 2016, Chinese issued a white paper on nuclear emergency preparedness and a series of domestic laws in this area have been announced.

In other areas, China has been less confident. China signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996 but has yet to ratify it. Unofficially, this reluctance has been linked to US failure to ratify the CTBT as well. In the last decade or so, China has also been under external pressure to join multilateral arms control. Beijing’s response to this pressure is that the United States and Russia, with the largest nuclear arsenals (thousands of nuclear weapons each, compared to roughly 280 nuclear weapons in China) have primary responsibility to reduce their arsenals to significantly lower numbers first. China is also wary of engaging in a reduction of its forces at a time when the United States is actively pursuing counterforce capabilities as well as missile defence systems in Asia (such as THAAD in South Korea) that are potentially problematic for China’s small nuclear deterrent.

Chinese reluctance and hesitation on these matters cannot be fully explained by realpolitik. There are important ideational drivers behind Chinese actions in the global nuclear order too. One of these drivers relates to competing international audiences. On the one hand, China is now an established member of an elitist nuclear club, namely an NPT nuclear weapons state that also has a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. This is audience of ‘great powers’ in international relations. Yet, on the other hand, China has a much older relationship with the developing world that can be traced back to the Bandung era of the 1950s. In practice, these competing audiences influence China in different ways today. In the United Nations, for example, China has been leading ongoing P5 efforts to compile an official glossary of nuclear terms among the small club of nuclear weapons states. This glossary, once complete, will be the first of its kind. Yet, in other areas, China has not always followed the P5 path. For instance, in March this year, contrary to the P5 position, China’s Foreign Ministry went to some length in explaining its regret at not being able to join the nuclear weapons ban discussions in the United Nations led by non-nuclear states.

In conclusion, China is in a relatively comfortable position in global nuclear order today. It is no longer sitting at the margins of nuclear politics, but is instead a pivotal member of nuclear institutions. Indeed, in the era of Trump and Putin, Xi is often a voice of calm and restraint. China still has areas of discomfort, such as US developments in missile defence. Despite this, China has carved a role for itself in a number of areas, notably nuclear security, and has become a skilled negotiator, better at communicating its goals to both the nuclear club, and the non-nuclear world.

Image: Chinese nuclear bomb on display at “Our troops towards the Sky”. Podium says: “Our first atom bomb.” Notice general similarity in shape to Fat Man and RDS-1, via Wikimedia.

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