Defining Ideas

Getting to the Table

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

On November 11, 2014, US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced an important agreement to combat the growing threat of climate change. The agreement, apparently worked out over many months of quiet negotiations between Washington and Beijing, pledges that the United States intends to reduce its emissions by 26–28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, and that China would reach its peak carbon emissions around 2030 and would increase its share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption.

The climate change plan marks an important step forward in US-China relations and for the prospect of further cooperation between Washington and Beijing. At a joint press conference Xi spoke of developing a “new model of major country relations between China and the United States” and discussed the importance of deepening military exchanges, mutual trust, and cooperation to create a “new type of military-to-military relations between the two countries.” Obama struck a similar tone, emphasizing the long-standing US policy of welcoming and supporting China’s rise and welcoming opportunities for expanding cooperation “where our interests overlap or align.”

The climate change agreement is important not only because it addresses a pertinent global issue between two of the world’s largest polluters, but also because it presents a new opportunity for the kind of cooperation upon which sustained mutual trust, respect, and stability are built. But while the climate change announcement is a useful development in the continued effort to foster positive and productive US-China relations, significant uncertainties and mistrust persist between Washington and Beijing—and perhaps nowhere is this greater than in the realm of military forces and capabilities. China’s impressive economic growth has brought with it an expansive program to modernize its conventional and nuclear forces (as well as its space and cyber capabilities) and develop new anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) systems that threaten the United States’ unfettered power projection in the region.

These initiatives, in turn, have raised concerns in Washington and allied capitals about Beijing’s true intentions in the region and around the world. At the same time, emerging US capabilities such as ballistic missile defense and conventional prompt global strike, along with the US “pivot” to Asia and the strengthening of alliance relationships in the region, have generated trepidations in Beijing about Washington’s objectives and intentions with respect to China’s rise and its position in the Asia-Pacific region.

The changing security environment in the Asia-Pacific region driven by the rise of China, and the US reaction to it, has important implications for the goal of a nuclear weapons-free world. With China’s ascent to great power status and its significant expenditures associated with the expansion and modernization of its military capabilities, continued progress toward a nuclear weapons-free world requires bringing China into the process. Yet, continued mistrust and mutual uncertainty regarding each other’s military capabilities and strategic intentions present a formidable challenge to deep, meaningful engagement on nuclear issues. Washington and Beijing may be able to agree to cut their carbon emissions, but agreeing to cut or limit their nuclear arsenals is an entirely different matter.

Absent a fundamental shift in international relations or a catastrophic event, such as the use of nuclear weapons in war, it is likely that the process leading to a nuclear weapons-free world will occur slowly and incrementally through a series of carefully crafted, verifiable arms control agreements. Such a process represents an important shift in the logic and objectives of arms control from the Cold War, where strategic ­stability—not abolition—was the central objective. While strategic stability remains an important goal of arms control, modern proponents of nuclear abolition view arms control as a means through which to achieve eventual abolition, with strategic stability being an important and necessary interim product along the path to nuclear zero.

If arms control is to be the means through which verifiable and permanent abolition will be achieved, then analyzing China’s commitment to nuclear zero requires first understanding China’s perspectives on nuclear arms control. This paper will identify and analyze how Chinese officials and scholars view arms control, and assess how these views might affect China’s willingness to engage in formal nuclear arms control and make serious moves toward nuclear zero.

Any assessment of China’s historical and current view of arms control is necessarily speculative given the opaque nature of China’s government, especially concerning issues associated with nuclear weapons. There have been, of course, a handful of official public pronouncements and documents over the years discussing the Chinese leadership’s views on arms control. But, given China’s absence from previous rounds of formal negotiations to limit or reduce nuclear weapons, there is relatively little to provide precedent or serve as a guidepost. Consequently, this paper seeks to get at the question of how China thinks about nuclear arms ­control—and thus if and how China will make real strides toward nuclear abolition—by examining the debates about arms control among Chinese scholars and defense analysts in the belief that at least some of the key themes that emerge from this literature reflect the debates and concerns about arms control among China’s key decision-makers.

At first glance, China would appear to be a “natural” for nuclear arms control. Immediately following its first nuclear test on October 16, 1964, China declared a no-first-use (NFU) policy and encouraged the other nuclear-armed states (the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France) to work toward the elimination of nuclear arms. Beijing’s declaratory policy on arms control and abolition has remained essentially unchanged since that time.

China welcomed Obama’s April 2009 speech in Prague embracing the vision of a nuclear weapons-free world, proclaiming in August 2009 that it was ready to “make unremitting efforts to further promote the nuclear disarmament process and realize the goal of a nuclear weapons-free world at an early date.” The following month, President Hu Jintao told the UN General Assembly that China “has consistently stood for the complete prohibition and thorough destruction of nuclear weapons” and called on the international community “to take credible steps to push forward the nuclear disarmament process.”

Yet, despite its consistent rhetoric in favor of arms control and abolition, China has been reluctant to get down to the actual business of limitations and/or reductions in nuclear arms. To be sure, China has not eschewed any kind of restraint with regard to nuclear weapons. Despite the contention of a February 2012 editorial in the Washington Times that China “has never agreed to be part of any strategic nuclear framework,” China is, in fact, a signatory to several international agreements and is involved in multilateral fora associated with nuclear weapons.

China joined the Conference on Disarmament in 1980; joined the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1984; announced in 1986 that it would suspend atmospheric nuclear tests (although it has not signed the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty); signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1992 and supported its indefinite extension in 1995; signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996 (though it has not yet ratified it); joined the Zangger Committee in 1997; and joined the Nuclear Suppliers Group in 2004. Moreover, China acceded to both the Chemical and Biological Weapons Conventions and has been an active participant in multilateral discussion on a Treaty on the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space.

Nevertheless, China has been ambivalent and noncommittal at best—and outright belligerent at worst—when it comes to formal nuclear arms control with the United States or any other nuclear power. As early as the 1970s, Beijing called the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I) between the United States and the Soviet Union “sham disarmament” and accused the superpowers of using arms control as a smokescreen for the continuation of the nuclear arms race. At least part of this hostility toward early US-Soviet arms control was likely driven in part by Beijing’s fear of some kind of collaboration or alliance between Washington and Moscow against China.

By the time of SALT I the alliance between Moscow and Beijing was completely broken, and the two countries had participated in a series of conflicts along their border on the Ussuri River that included veiled Soviet threats of an attack on China’s nuclear facilities. US-China relations, while moving in a positive direction, were not yet solidified, and thus some in Beijing’s senior leadership almost certainly remained concerned about a threat from the United States. As such, the leadership in Beijing was more inclined to view SALT I as a strategic ploy rather than a genuine attempt to curb the arms race and reduce the danger of nuclear war.

Another factor likely contributing to Beijing’s hostility toward nuclear arms control in the decade following its entrance into the nuclear club had to do with China’s domestic situation. The years immediately following China’s first test were chaotic. The Cultural Revolution that began in 1966 swept over the country, diverting manpower, money, and other resources away from the military and limiting attention and study to military matters, especially new and arcane topics like nuclear strategy and arms control.

China did not establish an office or group within its military or political structures tasked with focusing on nuclear issues in the years immediately preceding its nuclear test. Rather, nuclear issues were treated with extreme secrecy and limited to a small group of the most senior military and political officials, thereby limiting opportunities for dialogue and debate. Consequently, while there was obviously sufficient technical expertise on nuclear weapons in China, in the 1960s and 1970s few had any real expertise on—and certainly no one had any experience with—nuclear arms control.

Over the next few decades, China appears to have gone through a learning period with respect to nuclear strategy and arms control. Beginning in 1978 the Second Artillery, the military component of the People’s Liberation Army responsible for nuclear weapons, opened a research office, and through the 1980s the Second Artillery studied nuclear strategy and published operational documents. In addition, beginning in the 1980s a small community of arms control specialists emerged within Chinese think tanks and government-funded research institutes. Emblematic of the broader political reforms taking place in China, these experts had more leeway for open discussion and began publishing papers and attending international conferences on nuclear issues and arms control.

The result was a more robust and sophisticated debate among Chinese nuclear specialists and, equally (if not more) important, the opportunity for dialogue with foreign arms control experts. As the importance of these topics grew, Beijing funded more research to build a cadre of arms control and nuclear strategy specialists. In 1988, for example, the Institute of Applied Physics and Computational Mathematics, a research component of the nuclear labs, created a program to train younger scientists about arms control. By 1997, China had created a specific department in its Foreign Ministry dedicated to arms control and disarmament.

Editor's note: This essay is part of a series of pieces about nuclear deterrence that Defining Ideas will be publishing in the weeks ahead. All of the essays are and will be from the new Hoover Press book, The War That Must Never Be Fought. To continue reading this essay, click here.