On June 16, 2022, NPEC held a virtual meeting on “China and Article VI: Death Threats to the NPT” with Sharon Squassoni and Thomas Grant. The topic covered China’s unwillingness to negotiate “in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date,” as required by Article VI of the NPT. Thomas Grant examined how China’s nuclear misbehavior raises NPT legal compliance concerns. Sharon Squassoni suggested some practical initiatives that would demonstrate good faith efforts to limit nuclear competition. To view the recording see below.
To read Sharon Squassoni’s read-ahead click here.
To read Thomas Grant’s read-ahead click here.
With the current crisis in Ukraine, it’s tempting to view Chinese compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) as an academic indulgence. Giving in to this inclination, however, would be wrong. As dangerous as Russia currently is, China will be more threatening in the long run. As we are learning with Russia’s violation of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, binding understandings must be enforced lest their violators run roughshod over law and good order. This is true with Russia’s behavior in Ukraine. It is no less so with China’s nuclear weapons buildup and its repeated refusal to enter into good faith negotiations to limit its nuclear weapons arsenal as required by Article VI of the NPT.
This buildup and diplomatic refusal clearly fly in the face of Beijing’s legal obligations under the treaty. The question is what might bring Beijing back into compliance. To get the answers, NPEC held a battery of workshops last fall, followed by a week-long diplomatic simulation. The participants included U.S., Japanese, and Australian former and current officials and staff as well as outside experts. The group concluded that Beijing is unlikely to comply willingly with the NPT anytime soon, but that U.S. and international security would still be best served by spotlighting Beijing’s nuclear adventurism and suggesting diplomatic off-ramps to arrest its nuclear buildup.
In specific, the group recommended that Washington raise concerns about China’s noncompliance with Article VI in international forums, that it share sensitive intelligence on China’s nuclear weapons activities, and that it work with allies and key nonaligned states to promote new, practical steps to restrain nuclear competition.
The steps included creating nuclear hotlines between all five of the recognized NPT states (United States, Russia, China, the UK, and France), using the P-5 forum to further clarify precisely what a nuclear test is, and calling on China to resume its adherence to its voluntary agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to report annually on its “peaceful” production and use of plutonium. They also included taking a time-out in the commercial deployment of plutonium-fueled reactors (or, at least, submitting them all to IAEA inspections) and opening talks to cap the numbers of deployed nuclear weapons systems.
The group also recommended that the United States leverage Beijing away from nuclear adventurism militarily. This should be done, however, not by mounting a quantitative nuclear weapons buildup of our own, but by doing more to make America’s nuclear weapons less vulnerable to attack and by accelerating U.S. and allied advanced conventional and new generation warfare capabilities.
1. China’s nuclear weapons buildup and its refusal to negotiate in good faith to limit its nuclear arsenal constitutes a clear NPT compliance concern. Article VI of the NPT stipulates that each of the parties to the treaty “undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” It has specific, enforceable meaning. China’s unwillingness to join in nuclear arms reduction talks with Russia and the United States until American and Russian arsenals come down to Chinese levels as China more than doubles its own nuclear numbers constitutes a not-so-subtle evasion of Article VI. Beijing’s prevarication is compounded by evidence of China’s nuclear buildup (e.g., the construction of hundreds of new missile silos, Beijing’s crash “civilian” plutonium production efforts to expand its nuclear stockpile, the suspicious activities China is conducting at its nuclear test sites, etc.). China gives token support to gridlocked talks to ban “weapons” in space and discussions on a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT). It also participates in a dedicated forum that brings together the five nuclear weapon states of the UN Security Council. It supports disarmament resolutions at the UN and professes a no first use policy. None of this, however, releases China from its Article VI requirement to negotiate in good faith with the United States and other NPT nuclear weapons states to limit nuclear arms. At best, referring to these forums and proposals constitutes diplomatic smoke designed to deflect requests China join in specific negotiations to reduce nuclear numbers. Given bureaucratic conservatism within the U.S. Department of State, finding China in clear, legal violation of Article VI is unlikely. Finding that its nuclear behavior raises NPT compliance concerns, however, is bureaucratically feasible.
2. Pressuring Beijing to uphold its NPT obligations may afford strategic benefits to Washington and its allies, but these are unlikely to be realized unless the United States and other NPT nuclear weapons states back effective nuclear restraints. None of the game’s participants believed pressuring China to enter in earnest nuclear talks would be easy. Yet, all believed taking China to task regarding its Article VI obligations could help increase the diplomatic costs of China expanding its nuclear arsenal, maintain the integrity of the NPT, and strengthen U.S.-allied ties and U.S. relations with nonaligned states. None of this is likely to obtain, however, if Washington and its nuclear-armed allies are seen to be trying to gain greater nuclear superiority over China and have no serious nuclear limitation proposals to offer.In this case, nonaligned states would continue to attack the United States, the UK, and France at the United Nations and in other multilateral disarmament forums (e.g., in Geneva, New York, and Vienna). If, on the other hand, Washington and its nuclear armed allies promoted new, effective nuclear controls (limits that might be made contingent on China or Russia also agreeing to comply in some fashion), the group thought many states, including nonaligned nations, would likely support efforts to get China to reciprocate and uphold its Article VI obligations. All of these observations are salient to what America and like-minded states might say at this August’s NPT Review Conference; the annual sessions of the UN First Committee; the sessions of the Conference on Disarmament; and at the meetings of the IAEA Board of Governors this September and November.
3. A successful NPT campaign regarding China’s noncompliance, would require Washington to shed normal modes of operation. At a minimum, Washington would have to share much more sensitive intelligence on Chinese nuclear activities than it has with allies as well as nonaligned nations. It would have to declassify much of this information to convince the world that China’s nuclear buildup is both real and threatening. Beyond that, Washington would need to promote talk on nuclear limits to uphold its Article VI obligations. Ideally, this would entail proposing nuclear control positions with other nuclear armed states — e.g., by restricting plutonium production for any purpose, establishing nuclear hotlines, clarifying the terms of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (perhaps at a P-5 meeting), adopting new nuclear transparency measures (including more reporting to the UN, the IAEA, and IAEA safeguarding of Chinese and nuclear states’ most militarily useful “civilian” nuclear facilities), freezing or reducing strategic nuclear weapon numbers, etc. Care would have to be taken, however, not to rush to get to yes embracing positions — e.g., jettisoning missile defenses or of America’s extended nuclear deterrence policies — that might fray Washington’s ties with its closest allies. Securing the active support of our allies and that of non-nuclear weapon states (e.g., members of the Nonproliferation and Disarmament Initiative or NPDI, the Stockholm Initiative, etc.), would be critical to any effective Article VI China compliance campaign. Washington also would have to take an even more active role than it currently does in international nuclear control forums in Geneva (at the Conference on Disarmament), Vienna (at the International Atomic Energy Agency), and New York (at the UN First Committee, UN Disarmament Committee, and the NPT Preparatory Committee and Review Conferences).
4. Military leverage will be important to move China on Article VI, but, in the short and long-term, the highest military leverage may not be nuclear. Trying to leverage China’s strategic nuclear buildup by keeping up or getting further ahead quantitatively on a nuclear-warhead-for-nuclear-warhead or nuclear-missile-for-nuclear-missile basis will hardly play to America’s advantage. For the next decade or more, China will be able to produce new nuclear warheads and missile delivery systems much more cheaply and quickly than the United States. Rather than enter into a quantitative nuclear arms race with China, the United States should make it more difficult for China to target America’s nuclear weapons. This should be done by making U.S. nuclear systems more difficult to locate, disable, and destroy. There are several ways to do this. The U.S. can make its ballistic missile submarines stealthier and its land-based missiles mobile. Virtually proliferating the number of possible air-based nuclear delivery systems by basing a few nuclear weapons on platforms that are numerous and making U.S. command, communications, control, and surveillance systems far more secure and survivable would also help. Ultimately, it is unclear how important nuclear weapons will be to providing strategic deterrence as more discriminate ways of disabling countries are developed in the coming decades (e.g., with high-precision, long-range unmanned conventional strike systems; cyber warfare and crypto technologies; unmanned surface and underwater naval warfare and sensors systems; resilient space-based military systems etc.). Conversely, America and like-minded nations will hardly be able to isolate China regarding Beijing’s nuclear buildup, if the United States, which currently has more nuclear weapons than China, chooses to acquire even more.
To view the full occasional paper click here.