In an interview with Anna Louis Strong in 1945, Mao Zedong said that ‘the atom bomb is a paper tiger which the US reactionaries use to scare people.’ Since then, China’s approach towards nuclear weapons and arms control has changed dramatically. It is important, especially because of the upcoming 2021 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference.
The NPT is the foundational architecture providing the fulcrum for the entire non-proliferation regime and nuclear exchange. In the 2019 preparatory committee meeting, China came up with a working paper where it advocated an unconditional negative assurance by nuclear-weapon states to non-nuclear-weapon states. This article explores China’s interface with NPT, its non-proliferation commitment & anomalies and their agenda for the upcoming NPT Review Conference.
China’s interface with NPT
Communist China believed that every peace-loving nation has a sovereign right to acquire nuclear weapons as per their security requirement and capability. NPT came into being in 1970. Under the treaty, non-nuclear-weapon states (NNWS) would commit not to acquire a nuclear weapon or destroy it in return for the nuclear energy resources provided by the nuclear-weapon states (NWS) NNWS can utilise for their economic development. China did not sign the NPT because it opposed forming an exclusive nuclear club, which entailed promoting a nuclear monopoly. Apart from the issue of nuclear monopoly, it contended that the treaty does not give any assurance by the NWS to NNWS for not acquiring nuclear weapons (negative assurance).
China was also opposed to various obligations apart from stringent and intrusive verification and inspection regimes of the International Atomic Energy Agency for NNWS, while NWS was absolved of such ‘binding’ obligation and was allowed to practice vertical proliferation. For them, the only obligation under article 6 of the treaty is a vague commitment to ‘negotiations in good faith’ towards cessation of nuclear arms race and treaty on general and complete disarmament. Communist China believed that the treaty would, additionally, provide the leverage on NWS to forestall the economic development of NNWS by controlling nuclear energy exchange. However, with growing educative experience and demand for international image building in the wake of Deng’s economic reforms and the Tiananmen Square incident, China altered its stated position, and eventually, they joined NPT in 1992.
China’s non-proliferation commitment
China released a white paper in November 1995 titled ‘China: Arms Control and Disarmament.’ They highlighted “China is actively promoting the international arms control and disarmament process with both real action on its part and many realistic and reasonable proposals.” However, while China joined NPT in 1992, agreed to adhere to MTCR guidelines in 1993 and actively supported the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, it also conducted nine nuclear tests, including the one conducted less than a week from the NPT review conference of 1995. Chinese commitment to NPT and its subsequent support for NPT indefinite extension in the 1995 NPT Review Conference is often marred by perceived contradictory behaviour. There were sufficient pieces of evidence of China exporting missile technologies and equipment, nuclear knowhow, heavy waters and nuclear reactors to Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and North Korea. In the 2005 NPT Review Conference, China reiterated its past commitments as well as vital deviation from the past owing to changed circumstances. It reiterated unconditional commitment for non-use or threat of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states. China put forth its defence for lack of transparency about its nuclear weapon program by pointing towards the vulnerability of its small and lightly deployed nuclear force, which makes an easy target for an enemy armed with the right intelligence.
On the nuclear modernisation program, China indicated that it is retaining a small force while enhancing its safety and survivability. It was during this RevCon that China explained its doctrinal shift from its earlier position on arms control. It feels to be a part of the nuclear club (that is vehemently opposed in the early 1960s), eager to join export control regimes (joined NSG in 2004 and seeking admission in MTCR), and most notably, China noted that ‘it will likely not press for nuclear disarmament within a particular timeframe, which could embarrass the other nuclear-weapon states.’ China also opposed research on tactical Nuclear weapons and low-yield nuclear weapons. In 2010 and 2015 NPT review conferences, China reiterated its commitment to complete prohibition and thorough destruction of nuclear weapons, unconditional NFU, and nuclear self-defence strategy.
China’s agenda for tenth NPT Review Conference
China presented a working paper in the 2019 Preparatory Committee for the 2020 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. This paper, along with its traditional commitment towards the complete prohibition and thorough destruction of nuclear weapons and ‘negative assurances’, quite bluntly defended its nuclear modernisation programme. It claimed that its nuclear weapons modernisation aims to ensure the safety, security, reliability, and effectiveness of its nuclear weapons by adapting to developing trends in military science and technology. As per this paper, China may call for all nuclear-armed states to commit to unconditional NFU doctrine in the 2021 NPT Review Conference. This, apart from portraying its overarching desire to portray itself as a champion of peaceful uses, will showcase China’s unwillingness to endanger global strategic stability for want of nuclear disarmament.
There has always been a nuclear proliferation and transparency issue with China. China has a long history of providing nuclear and missile-related assistance to Pakistan, including weapons-grade uranium and warhead designs. It continued even when China vehemently projected itself to be in compliance with all its obligations. Even after joining the Nuclear Supplier Group (NSG), China entered into an agreement with Pakistan in 2010 to supply two additional plutonium-producing heavy water reactors at Chasma nuclear complex. They used the ‘grandfathering clause’ linking it to the 2003 agreement between Beijing and Islamabad when China was not a member of NSG. This agreement was seen as a strategic move to counter Indo-US nuclear deal signed in 2008 after getting the NSG waiver. Recently, there have been debates over China likely to acquire Launch on Warning (LoW) nuclear posture due to US precision strike, missile defence, and Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) systems threatening the credibility of China’s deterrence is based on second-strike capability.
Hence, with its incessant rise and assertive foreign & security policies, China has ramped up its defence modernisation program to counter any eventuality it may face. The tenth NPT Review Conference will seek answers for China’s renewed assertiveness in the nuclear domain and test Chinese resolve to walk the talk in the future.
The author is a former intern with Takshashila’s China Studies programme.