Nowadays, China is one of the most (if not the most) important power player in the Asia-Pacific region. The remarkable rate at which Beijing’s economy is growing makes us wonder how long it will take before it surpasses the American one. Beyond the fact that it is one of the world’s leading powers (at least in economic terms), China also possesses an atomic arsenal: in a nuclear notebook released earlier this year, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists estimates that Beijing has roughly 250 nuclear warheads. This study has three parts: the first one focuses on China’s policy of no first use; the second segment presents Beijing’s position in regard to nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. Finally, the third part offers some insight on China’s stance related to the nuclear programs developed by Iran and North Korea. It is also worth mentioning that some ideas presented in this study were also delivered (although under a slightly different form) during the 12th edition of the international conference Strategies XXI: The Complex and Dynamic Nature of the Security Environment, organized by the Centre for Defence and Security Strategic Studies, “Carol I” National Defence University, in November 2014.
No first use
On October 16, 1964, China joined the nuclear club, in the aftermath of successfully testing its first atomic bomb, at the Lop Nur test site. Ever since, Beijing has adopted a nuclear policy of no first use. According to it, “China will never use nuclear weapons first against any nuclear-weapon state and China will never use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear-weapon state or nuclear-weapon-free zone”. By this logic, Beijing only regards its nuclear weapons as a deterrent against any strategic aggression. U.S. decision-makers believe that this deterrent is focused on “maintaining a nuclear force structure able to survive enemy attack and respond with sufficient strength to inflict unacceptable damage on the enemy”.
In April 2013, the Chinese Information Office of the State Council published the so-called White Paper on China’s armed forces. The most interesting aspect of the report is the fact that it is the first official Chinese document that does not explicitly mention Beijing’s adherence to the no first use policy. What is the significance of this lack of an explicit mention regarding China’s allegiance to a no first use nuclear policy? It might be the result of a debate that has risen over the past few years among Chinese military men, decision-makers and experts on whether or not the no first use nuclear policy is still the way to go. It might also signify the beginning of a major change in Chinese nuclear policy. Why? As it was mentioned before, China is one of the most important power players in the Asia-Pacific region. It is obvious that it can be a very serious adversary for the U.S. We must also take into account the fact that a few Beijing-Washington antagonisms do exist; some of the most pressing ones are as follow: they are in a global economic competition, they have divergent positions regarding Taiwan, to which we also add the frictions between China and Japan (U.S. ally) regarding the status of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands – controlled by Tokyo and claimed by Beijing – in the East China Sea. In the event of a military confrontation, no one could probably muster a bigger conventional army or resist more punishment than China. On the other hand, the United States has a highly mobile army, with global strike capabilities, to which we must also add its undoubtedly superior strategic forces (at least from a numerical point of view). This being the current state of affairs, many among the People’s Liberation army believe that the American military power and its potential to coerce or dominate China is a latent threat.
The Chinese perception of U.S. military power as a threat is understandable, especially given some of Washington’s attitudes towards Beijing. For example, if we look at the George W. Bush administration’s Nuclear Posture Review of 2002, we discover that “U.S. strategic forces need to provide the President with a range of options to defeat any aggressor”, while “nuclear attack options that vary in scale, scope and purpose” are on the table. According to the same document, contingencies are made in which American “nuclear strike capabilities” can be involved. For example, an immediate contingency would be “a military confrontation over the status of Taiwan”. The Nuclear Posture Review also states that because Beijing is “still developing strategic objectives” and because of the “ongoing modernization of its nuclear and non-nuclear forces, China is a country that could be involved in an immediate or potential contingency”. In 2010, the Obama administration elaborated a new Nuclear Posture Review, which has a significantly more moderate tone in regard to Beijing: although “concerned about China’s current modernization efforts”, to which we add the “lack of transparency surrounding its nuclear program”, Washington is interested in “promoting strategic stability with […] China and improving transparency and mutual confidence”. Although the Obama administration’s stance on nuclear weapons does basically nothing in enforcing the Chinese perception of U.S. strategic offensive forces as a threat, there are no guarantees the situation will remain this way. This is due to the fact that mainly every new U.S. administration comes with a new position on the role and possible use of nuclear capabilities.
If nothing else, the lack of an explicit mention regarding China’s adherence to a no first use nuclear policy in the 2013 White Paper is in line with Beijing’s traditional secrecy regarding the specifics of its nuclear program. Thus, this move further strengthens China’s nuclear deterrent. Beyond the fact that it projects uncertainty through the lack of an explicit mention regarding the no first use policy, the 2013 White Paper offers flexibility to Beijing’s strategic nuclear forces. It also makes China more unpredictable, as nobody can know for sure how if the country is prepared to use its nuclear power offensively.
Non-proliferation and disarmament
In 1992, China joined the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (or NPT), an international agreement which stipulates that “Each nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to transfer” or receive “nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or control over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly; and not in any way to assist, encourage, or induce any non-nuclear-weapon State to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices”. The treaty also mentions “the inalienable right of all the Parties […] to develop research, production and use and nuclear energy for peaceful purposes”. Probably the most interesting provision of the treaty (and ultimate goal) is “general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control”. NPT is thought to be the cornerstone of the international nuclear non-proliferation effort, having been joined by 189 countries up to this moment. There is, however a pressing question related to it: is this treaty still relevant nowadays? The NPT was opened for signature in 1968 and entered into effect two years later. It is a product of the Cold War nuclear arms race logic: both the U.S. and the Soviet Union were interested in the success of this international understanding, as it aimed to freeze the nuclear status quo of that time. The two superpowers, having gone through some tense moments, which could have led to a nuclear confrontation (like the Cuban missile crisis) were worried that more states on the international arena could pursue atomic weaponry, which would have further complicated the already complex international security system. However, the Cold War has ended. Since then, the international nuclear environment has known changes. First of all, a tense moment appeared when the USSR crumbled, as three new nuclear-weapons-capable states appeared: Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Fortunately, the three nuclear-born states agreed to give their atomic arsenals to the Russian Federation. Secondly, there is the chance that possibly irrational states might acquire nuclear weapons: a reality in the case of North Korea and, for the time being, a dilemma in the case of Iran. Thirdly, we live in an age when terrorism has become one of the most pressing challenges to security. Such actors make the NPT obsolete, as the treaty does not address non-state actors. The non-proliferation regime proposed by the NPT was also not able to prevent Pakistan or India from developing nuclear arsenals of their own. Also, having in mind the fact any member-state can withdraw with a 90 day notice, (the case of North Korea) nowadays the relevance of the treaty is resumed to a few aspects: it is a channel for dialogue and peaceful promotion of nuclear energy use. Also, the quality of being a member-state can be interpreted as a political sign of good faith. In regard to the treaty’s provision regarding nuclear disarmament, it is a distant possibility, at best. The focus should rather be concentrated exclusively on further reductions and limitations.
In 1996, Beijing signed the U.N. proposed Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban-Treaty (CTBT), according to which “Each Party State undertakes not to carry out any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion, and to prohibit and prevent any such nuclear explosion at any place under its jurisdiction and control” and “to refrain from causing, encouraging, or in any way participating in the carrying out” of any other nuclear explosions. However, to this day, China, as well as the United States (and a host of other states) have failed to actually ratify the treaty; the understanding has not yet entered into effect, as it requires the ratification of all signatories. Unwillingness to ratify the understanding leaves an open door for future tests of nuclear weapons, which might be necessary if China decides to consolidate and retest some of its existing atomic capabilities or if it decides to develop new types of nuclear weapons.
In regard to Beijing’s position on nuclear disarmament, the statement made by the Chinese delegation at a U.N. session back in 2012 can shed some light: “first, all nuclear-weapon states should fulfill in good faith nuclear disarmament obligations under the NPT, and publicly undertake not to seek permanent possession of nuclear weapons”. In addition, the responsability for leading international nuclear arms disarmament rests on the shoulders of the states with the most impressive arsenals – namely the United States and the Russian Federation: “countries with the largest nuclear arsenals should continue to take the lead in making drastic reductions in their nuclear weapons in a verifiable and irreversible manner so as to create conditions for comprehensive and thorough nuclear disarmament”. Beijing also expressed its opinion that a policy of no first use should be shared by all nuclear-weapon-capable states, ideally in the context of a written international understanding: “all nuclear-weapon states should abandon the nuclear deterrence policy based on first use of nuclear weapons and unequivocally undertake no-first-use of nuclear weapons and negotiate and conclude a treaty on no-first-use of nuclear weapons against one another”. Additionaly, the nuclear club “should also unequivocally undertake not using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states or nuclear-weapon-free zones, and conclude a legally-binding international instrument in this regard at an early date”.
On Iran and North Korea
To this hour, the international community was not able to establish with certainty whether or not Iran is actually pursuing nuclear offensive capabilities. However, a conclusion was made: Tehran’s nuclear infrastructure could harbor the development of atomic weaponry. As a result, the international community has imposed sanctions on Iran. China, however, adopted a different stance. According to an article dating from November 2013, and published in The Diplomat, “China hasn’t been a strong voice on the Iran nuclear issue”, but it has been “one of the beneficiaries”, because while “Western countries imposed sanctions against Iran due to concerns over its nuclear program, Chinese oil companies were able to win bids for developing large oil fields in Iran”. Obviously, regarding the question of Iran’s nuclear program, Beijing is more focused on following its economic interests, especially since Tehran “has never been considered as one of the top three targets of diplomacy by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs”. According to the same article, Chinese decision-makers believe that “Iran may carry out limited uranium enrichment activities”; they also stress the fact that “the Iranian nuclear issue should not lead to war”. The way China has dealt with the Iranian nuclear issue requires some brief comments: first of all, Beijing has seized a window of opportunity and pursued its economic interests (we must emphasize that a strong economy is an expression of national power). Secondly, China’s anti-war stance will likely trigger an open, even friendly attitude from Tehran. Thus, Beijing has also consolidated its investments in Iran.
Unlike Iran, North Korea is a known nuclear power. So far, under the worried eyes of the international community, it has conducted three nuclear tests (in 2006, 2009 and 2013). In the case of its neighbor, China adopted a different stance, as we find out from an article published earlier this year by Reuters: although “China is North Korea's most important diplomatic and economic ally”, Beijing “has used diplomatic channels to warn” Pyongyang “against conducting a fourth nuclear test”. According to a Western diplomat, “briefed by Chinese officials”, and quoted by this article, “China has told North Korea that there is no justification for a new nuclear test and that they should not do it”. Obviously and justifiably, Beijing is preoccupied with the evolution of the Pyongyang’s nuclear program. We must not forget that occasionally, North Korea is susceptible of behaving in irrational and unpredictable ways. For China, this is a reason for worry, as the advance of the North Korean nuclear program could upset the regional (and global) security environment. It could also change the strategic state of affairs, by triggering a regional arms race (besides China and North Korea, there are three more nuclear-weapon-states in the area: the Russian Federation, India and Pakistan). It is safe to say that a war on China’s doorstep, caused by North Korea’s nuclear program, is one of the last things Beijing wants.
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