Securing the strength of the renewed NPT: China, the linchpin 'Middle Kingdom.' (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty)

Author:Meise, Gary J.

    The renewal of the Treaty on the Non- Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)(1) on May 11, 1995,(2) twenty five years after the NPT first entered into force, extended indefinitely what many consider to be one of the most effective multinational agreements in existence.(3) The Extension Conference's(4) final statement, in an attempt to underscore both the ultimate goals of the original NPT and its past success, essentially required the five declared nuclear powers(5) to not only commit to complete nuclear disarmament, but to realize its goal as expediently as possible.(6) The unambiguous language of the NPTs goals,(7) its widespread support, the substantial unanimity present at the convention,(8) as well as the more recent activities of the Conference on Disarmament(9) and adoption by the U.N. General Assembly of a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT),(10) indicate an era of global nonproliferation and a promise of disarmament unequaled in the last fifty years.

    Of course, the nuclear reality beneath the signatures of the more than 170 nations that participated in the Extension Conference(11) is quite different. While vertical proliferation(12) by the United States and the former Soviet Union posed the biggest nuclear threat to the global environment during the first twenty years of the NPT regime,(13) horizontal proliferation(14) has recently become the greatest danger.(15) Important concerns with respect to nonproliferation and disarmament of both U.S. and Soviet strategic nuclear weapons still predominate U.S. nuclear Politics.(16) However, the threat of nuclear initiatives by militant Third World governments or by other renegade militias that may have acquired unaccounted-for fissile materials(17) is much more imminent.(18) Finally, the past NPT noncompliance of all five declared nuclear weapons states(19) (NWS) as well as the recent activities of some(20) states that are in clear defiance of the goals of the renewed NPT, may undermine any possibility that the NPT regime will stop and reverse nuclear proliferation.

    China is particularly intertwined with many of the current nuclear proliferation problems, and, surprisingly, it may be the unanticipated linchpin that may ensure and strengthen the post-1995 NPT regime. During the Cold War, the United States looked upon China as the stepchild of the former Soviet Union, unable to adhere to pure Marxist-Leninist philosophy(21) or to advance the and Communist Manifesto with the same vigor. China was still mysterious and untrustworthy, but less of a threat.(22) Now the United States can no longer overlook the dangers of a resurgent Chinese Nationalism as Chinese leaders embrace a Mandate of Heaven to restore their Middle Kingdom.(23) Neither can the United States afford to ignore China's unique position among NWS as a Third World leader in the United Nations(24) and the accompanying influence China can have on keeping these countries free of nuclear weapons, or its central role in affecting security alignments in East Asia.(25) Current regional conflicts exist regarding Taiwan,(26) the borders of the former Soviet Union, and the Korean peninsula.(27)

    In the 1990s, global security transformation, from a bipolar international system to the present system dominated by the United States, coincided with the emergence of China as a market economy that has experienced unprecedented growth.(28) In addition, cutbacks on military expenditures by other NWS during the last five years have contrasted with increasing military budgets in China.(29) With the end of the Cold War and an accompanying power vacuum in Asia, China's new military and economic strength calls for it to reassess its traditionally isolationist attitudes to determine what kind of regional leadership to assert. With South and Southeast Asia as remaining hotbeds of potential nuclear engagement,(30) China's recent nonproliferation hypocrisies,(31) if continued, coupled with its growing sphere of influence, may ultimately lead to a completely disingenuous nonproliferation regime.

    China's role as a proliferator is riddled with inconsistencies. In recent years, China has given more assistance and nuclear hardware to Iran, North Korea, and Algeria, the three non-nuclear weapons states (NWS) under the NPT that are most likely to join the "nuclear club"(32) than any other NWS.(33) In spite of this fact, China's aid to these countries was never rooted in a desire to actually see them obtain nuclear weapons capabilities.(34) China was the only NWS to declare the right to conduct "peaceful nuclear explosions" prior to signing the CTBT.(35) Additionally, China and France are the only NWS that have tested strategic nuclear weapons since the NPT renewal.(36) Yet China insisted that it wanted a test ban treaty between all NWS(37) and, along with the other NWS, signed the CTBT on the first day it was opened for signature.(38) These contradictory signals, coupled with China's historic disregard of the NPT and other global regimes,(39) create an obvious concern about China's role under the renewed NPT.

    Although the NPT regime has probably exceeded expectations during its first quarter century,(40) continued inconsistencies in China's proliferation policy could seriously undermine the regime's future strength. More precisely, for the nuclear balance between NWS and NNWS to remain as static over the next quarter century as it was between 1970 and 1995 under the NPT regime, China must not only adhere to NWS provisions within the treaty, it must also take a leadership role in nonproliferation diplomacy between NWS and its Third World friends that are on the verge of "going nuclear."

    China is better positioned than other NWS to take on such a role. Third World countries that were often skeptical of Moscow and Washington under the bipolar international system of the previous three decades have come to rely on China to champion their causes in the U.N. Security Council.(41) China has the least democratic government of any declared NWS,(42) and thus may have the most in common politically with those foreign states considering a nuclear stockpile. China, as the only NWS currently increasing its military spending and number of nuclear warheads, may share similar incentives to proliferate (and incentives to curtail proliferation) with threshold nuclear states currently undergoing military buildup.(43) Like these threshold states, China has disdained U.S. control of nonproliferation diplomacy, and has largely ignored the NPT regime during the Cold War.(44) As China's "open door" policy(45) has created greater economic ties with the United States and other First World countries,(46) China has been forced to reconsider how it responds to U.S. actions and how it can bridge the sometimes irreconcilable differences between the First and the Third World.

    This Note is divided into four main areas of discussion. Part II discusses the NPT regime and its goals, giving particular attention to the inherent weaknesses and surprising successes of the original NPT and the new CTBT. Part III addresses China's historic role as a nuclear proliferation, both horizontally and vertically. It examines attempts by China to accede to the nonproliferation policy of other NWS and possible reasons for such accession. Part IV compares China's obligations under the NPT renewal conference pronouncements and the CTBT with China's current activities and stated policies. In so doing, this section attempts to predict the likely consequences if U.S. policy towards China remains unchanged. Under current U.S. policy, China's actions may undermine the future of the NPT regime drastically. Finally, Part V discusses U.S. tactics to encourage compliance with the NPT, in light of evidence that systematic pressure by the United States and the United Nations to control Chinese proliferation efforts is effective. However, this section advises caution in using threats of economic sanctions and offers explanations for why the imposition of economic sanctions on China would not serve U.S. interests effectively. It also suggests diplomatic strategies the United States could employ.

    The Note concludes by highlighting China's crucial role in determining the future success of the NPT. While China does not seem to pose a serious nuclear threat to any country at this time,(47) some of China's allies do. These countries(48) rely on China for economic and military support, and have historically undermined the effectiveness of the NPT regime. Consequently, they may follow China's lead if China complies with the newly extended NPT.


    1. Pre-NPT

      The early 1960s saw several developments that created the desire for multinational arms control and nonproliferation agreements.(49) In 1960, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA),(50) at just three years of age, began to provide nuclear safeguards to the growing number of bilateral and multilateral transfers of nuclear goods.(51) Still, the number of NWS was growing, with France conducting its first atomic test in 1960 and China conducting its first test in 1964.(52) Perhaps more startling was the development of long-range rockets, as evidenced by the Sputnik satellite and the Cuban missile crisis, which underscored U.S. fears of a nuclear attack. In addition, India openly sought the opportunity to develop nuclear weapons, and both Japan and Germany were gaining the technological capabilities necessary for such an endeavor.(53)

      The international community responded to these and similar developments by enacting a series of treaties, such as the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963,(54) the Outer Space Treaty of 1967,(55) the Treaty of Tlatelolco of 1967,(56) and ultimately the NPT.(57) The NPT is the backbone of the nuclear nonproliferation regime.(58) No other part of the regime has been "more symbolic of nonproliferation or has done more to institutionalize the norm of...

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