The world’s five most powerful nuclear weapons states delivered a New Year’s surprise: by declare last week that “a nuclear war can not be won and must never be fought”, the US, Russia, China, the UK and France have indicated their willingness to tackle the growing nuclear conflict risk arising from geopolitical tensions, cyber warfare and the new delivery technologies.
The move of the permanent members of the UN Security Council – the so-called P5, and also the only countries recognized as nuclear weapons states under the Non-Proliferation Treaty – calls for the most important moment in the history of nuclear weapons control: It repeats the language of 1985 joint statement of US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, which led to the two superpowers’ disarmament push and the end of the Cold War.
However, last week’s initiative is unlikely to yield similar results. The statement comes in response to pressure of non-governmental groups and non-nuclear weapons states. But nuclear weapons experts say it does nothing to address the biggest issues facing the leading nuclear powers today, namely the distrust between the US and China and Beijing’s pressure to modernize its arsenal.
“This is the first time the P5 has ever agreed to this kind of language, and given the level of tension, it’s amazing that they could agree on anything,” said Heather Williams, a Kings College weapons control expert currently working as a visitor. . research fellow at Harvard University. “China has supported this kind of statement and sees itself as a leader in the P5 process. But the real challenge is that Beijing has shown no interest in engaging in strategic risk mitigation. “
None of the mechanisms that Washington and Moscow have developed over decades to reduce the risks of nuclear miscalculation – hotlines, disarmament treaties, timelines and surveillance structures – have so far applied to China. And Beijing has strongly opposed attempts to include it in arms control negotiations, fearing that it will soon face demands to reduce its arsenal, which is much smaller than that of the US and Russia.
But Beijing has begun improve its nuclear capabilities, both through the acquisition of new launch platforms and through addition explosive heads. Moreover, China’s core doctrine differs drastically from the concepts known to the US and Russia.. Beijing, for example, believes that uncertainty increases deterrence, as opposed to the transparency and verification mechanisms that underlie arms control designed by the US and Russia.
The P5 statement could provide a glimmer of hope for an opening. “Some Chinese nuclear experts have previously argued that the US is still thinking about nuclear war with China, and this statement helps alleviate that concern to some extent,” said Zhao Tong, a professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing. “Of course a bilateral declaration would have been better, but it did something. China was an important factor behind this proposal. “
Progress beyond these hot words, however, seems unlikely. “China wants to see more, actually much more: it wants the US to recognize that the two countries have mutual nuclear vulnerability and mutually assured destruction,” Zhao said. “By accepting this, the US will confirm that it is no longer pursuing nuclear priority and will accept peaceful coexistence with China.”
Neither such bilateral issues nor progress in binding Beijing into concrete risk mitigation mechanisms is likely to occur at the P5.
“I would not expect the P5 to become the place where a breakthrough takes place,” Williams says. She believes China is using P5 diplomacy to ward off pressure to join arms control negotiations or provide transparency over its nuclear program.
Last but not least, arms control experts warn that rivalry between the US and China stands in the way of meaningful dialogue.
“Ten years ago I would have had argued it was possible to achieve strategic stability and avoid an arms race between the USA and China, but not now, ”says Wu Riqiang, a professor at Renmin University in Beijing. In a repeat of the history between the US and the Soviet Union, “the two sides will have to reach a much higher level of construction until we can talk”.