Nuclear Responsibilities: A Chinese Perspective

The purpose of the Programme on Nuclear Responsibilities is to stimulate and deepen a global dialogue on the responsibilities that surround nuclear weapons. Through this inclusive and normative conversation, the Programme aims to reduce strategic distrust, build trust and confidence, and as a result, reduce nuclear risks. To facilitate this, BASIC and the Institute for Conflict Cooperation and Security (ICCS) at the University of Birmingham have designed the Nuclear Responsibilities Approach: an alternative way of thinking, talking and writing about nuclear weapons that is grounded in empathy and responsibility, rather than blame. This piece, by Mr Zhou Chang forms of a number of reflective pieces written by experts to respond to the Nuclear Responsibilities Approach and is co-published between BASIC, the ICCS and the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association (CACDA).

The global strategic security and arms control environment has been facing severe challenges in recent years. The deterioration of major power relations exacerbates each other’s mistrust, shaking the foundation of global strategic stability. The erosion of the international arms control regime greatly increases the risk of an arms race. Furthermore, the adoption by some states of a more aggressive and war-fighting nuclear strategy triggers more and more concerns from the international community on the possible use of nuclear weapons and risk of nuclear war, with a particular focus on what the responsibilities of nuclear weapon states are to reduce these risks.

China is one of the five nuclear-weapon States recognized by the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and a Permanent Member of the United Nations Security Council. China’s perceptions of nuclear responsibilities are a vital part of the global endeavor against the rigorous challenges in the field of strategic security. From my point of view, one may apprehend China’s basic thinking on the issue of nuclear responsibilities from two aspects.  

To begin with, the obligations of a state party under the relevant international laws are usually regarded as their primary and essential nuclear responsibilities. The NPT is the most important and universal international treaty in the nuclear field. China, together with other States Parties, have the obligation to implement nuclear disarmament, nuclear non-proliferation and peaceful uses of nuclear energy as stipulated in the treaty, which should be reckoned as the common nuclear responsibilities shared by all countries.

Besides that, how a country thinks about nuclear responsibilities lies more often in its nuclear policy and practice. Among all nuclear-weapon States, China’s nuclear policy is the most consistent and stable one, which helps us to acquire a more comprehensive and accurate understanding of China’s view on nuclear responsibilities. Based on the analysis of China’s longtime nuclear policy and practice, it appears that the nuclear responsibilities China advocates include at least the following:

The complete prohibition and thorough destruction of nuclear weapons. On the very first day that China came into possession of nuclear weapons in 1964, the Chinese government issued a statement proposing a summit of world leaders to discuss the complete prohibition and thorough destruction of nuclear weapons. Since then, the promotion of complete prohibition and thorough destruction of nuclear weapons has frequently appeared in China’s official documents, such as China’s national report submitted to the NPT review process, the Defense White Paper, etc, which can be regarded by China as the ultimate nuclear responsibility.

Restricting the use of nuclear weapons. In the statement issued by the Chinese government in 1964, China proposed that nuclear-weapon States should undertake not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon States, not to use nuclear weapons against nuclear-weapon-free zones, and not to use nuclear weapons against each other. China also declared that it will never be the first to use nuclear weapons at any time and under any circumstances. In practice, China has consistently adhered to the no-first-use (NFU) pledge, provided unconditional negative security assurances to non-nuclear-weapon States and actively sought a commitment to mutual no-first-use of nuclear weapons with other nuclear-weapon States, which demonstrates that China believes restricting the use of nuclear weapons is an important nuclear responsibility for nuclear-weapon States.

Limiting the role of nuclear weapons. China has clearly stated on many occasions that China has always pursued a nuclear strategy of self-defense and does not engage in nuclear arms races with any other country. The sole purpose of China’s nuclear weapons is to maintain national strategic security by deterring other countries from using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against China. China does not develop or deploy tactical nuclear weapons, constantly calls on nuclear-weapon States to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in national security strategies, and advocates that nuclear-weapon States should reaffirm the understanding that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought” and undertake not to target nuclear weapons at any country. It shows that limiting the role of nuclear weapons is a nuclear responsibility that China vigorously promotes.

Safeguarding international nuclear arms control and non-proliferation regime. China has repeatedly called on all countries to safeguard the international nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime based on the NPT, the existing multilateral arms control mechanisms such as the United Nations and the Conference on Disarmament, and relevant treaties including the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. China opposes the withdrawal from and non-compliance with relevant treaties. China also attaches great importance to the cooperation mechanism among the five nuclear-weapon States (P5 process) and believes that nuclear-weapon States should enhance strategic mutual trust and reduce nuclear risks through dialogue. It can be concluded that safeguarding the effectiveness and authority of multilateralism and the international nuclear arms control and non-proliferation regime is another important nuclear responsibility acknowledged by China.

The analysis of China’s understanding of nuclear responsibilities sheds some light on relevant international discussions. First of all, the nuclear responsibilities championed by China in its practice are complementary to the common nuclear responsibilities of nuclear-weapon States. For example, limiting the use and role of nuclear weapons is an important step in promoting nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. Secondly, as a country’s nuclear policy and practice are based on its national security interests, so are its nuclear responsibilities. The nuclear responsibilities promoted by China reflect the integration of national security interests and state obligations under international law. Thirdly, the differences in national security interests and capabilities require the international community to pursue “common but differentiated” nuclear responsibilities. For example, in terms of nuclear disarmament, countries with the largest nuclear arsenals should fulfill their special and primary responsibility by further reducing their nuclear weapons substantially. Meanwhile, other nuclear-weapon States should maintain the number of their nuclear weapons at the lowest level needed for their national security. Finally, under the current international security landscape, the advocacy of nuclear responsibilities for limiting the use and role of nuclear weapons is conducive to reducing nuclear risks and easing the concerns of the international community. Nuclear-weapon States should pursue common ground on this issue through dialogues to jointly promote world peace and security. In addition, the nuclear-weapon States should also strengthen the communication with non-nuclear-weapon States and make joint efforts to move towards a nuclear-weapon-free world.

Mr. Zhou Chang is the Director & Research Fellow for Strategic Security Programme of China Arms Control and Disarmament Association (CACDA). He began to work in China Institute of International Studies (CIIS) in 2001. From 2002 to 2004, He worked for the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific (CSCAP). Then he was posted to the Chinese Consulate General in Manchester, U.K and served as consul attaché and vice consul until 2008. He was the Deputy Director of the Foreign Relations Office and assistant research fellow of CIIS from 2008-2015. Mr. Zhou got his master degree in international relations from China Foreign Affairs University.

Views expressed belong solely to the original author of the article and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of BASIC. 

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