Officially, Beijing’s position on nuclear weapons is one of complete and thorough disarmament globally. This view was reaffirmed by Wang Qun (王群), China’s disarmament ambassador to the UN at the UN General Assembly on Friday.
Wang said nuclear disarmament should be based on the principle of global strategic stability and involve a “viable long-term plan” composed of “phased actions.” Meanwhile, Beijing has voiced support for efforts by Washington and Moscow to reduce their nuclear stockpiles to between 1,500 and 1,675 warheads each as part of a successor to the START treaty.
While it is difficult to disagree with calls for nuclear abolition along a moral line — current stockpiles, albeit reduced, are still enough to blow us out of existence many times over — Beijing’s enthusiasm on the matter is far less humanistic than it would like us to believe.
Key for China, as stated by Wang, is strategic stability, which at present it does not enjoy. Despite the impressive modernization of its military, China’s estimated 200 nuclear warheads are insufficient to deter rivals such as the US or Russia, whose arsenals remain in the thousands. Beijing is aware that a country that seeks to become the dominant power regionally, if not globally, cannot hope to freely flex its muscles with a nuclear component about the size of the UK’s.
This explains why China has been supportive of negotiations on nuclear arms reduction between the US and Russia and it accounts for Beijing’s rhetoric on universal abolition. Beijing stands to benefit tremendously from reduced nuclear arsenals among the nuclear club, as any reduction brings it closer to nuclear parity and therefore reinforces its own nuclear deterrent. A true test of China’s commitment to denuclearization would be for it to embark on cutbacks of its own, perhaps in proportion to those that are being implemented by Washington and Moscow.
That, however, is unlikely to happen, as Beijing will argue that it already faces a tremendous handicap vis-a-vis the US, not to mention that it inhabits a “dangerous” — and nuclear — neighborhood.
Rather than move toward abolition, China in recent years has instead embarked on a program to expand its nuclear deterrent, modernizing its mostly ground-based launchers, developing submarines to launch its JL-2 SLBMs, working on multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles for its intercontinental ballistic missiles and building a 5,000km tunnel in Hebei Province, presumably to store and ensure the survival of its nuclear arsenal from a first strike.
China’s role as a proliferator of nuclear and missile technology with clients such as Iran, Pakistan and North Korea also raises questions as to its commitment to a nuclear-free world, something that some think tanks that have accused the defense establishment of overstating the Chinese nuclear threat should keep in mind.
The development of China’s nuclear deterrent is in line with its “rise” as an international power and in that regard it cannot be blamed for seeking to rectify an imbalance it perceives as imposing insurmountable constraints on its ambitions. With this in mind, negotiators in Washington, Moscow, at the UN and elsewhere should be aware that once parity approaches, Beijing could prove much less willing to abandon its own nuclear ambitions. The lack of transparency regarding all things military in China also means that current estimates of its nuclear capabilities may be too conservative and that the actual number could be higher. If that is the case, China could achieve parity much sooner than expected.
As other countries disarm, China could become more confident that its limited, though comparatively more muscular, nuclear arsenal is now sufficient to deter its adversaries, thus freeing it to make use of its growing conventional might to subdue its opponents, which would have direct ramifications for Taiwan.
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