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Foreign Policy

Building on China-U.S. Cooperation at NPT Conference

Jun 26 , 2015

Last month’s Ninth Review Conference (RevCon), of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) saw important Chinese-U.S. cooperation on nuclear weapons issues despite the meeting’s failure to reach a final document. The RevCon meets every five years to discuss the state of the treaty, which came into force in 1970, and how to strengthen it. All of its members, now numbering some 190 states, must consent to the final communiqué.

In his speech to the conference, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Li Baodong said, “the Treaty has stood the test of changing international landscape, and made [an] important contribution to the endeavor of upholding international peace, security and stability.” He stressed the NPT’s foundational role in constraining the nuclear arms race, preventing other countries from obtaining nuclear weapons, and promoting peaceful nuclear medical research, civilian power production, and other non-military uses of nuclear energy.

Chinese and U.S officials were aligned on some of the most important issues at the RevCon. For example, the Chinese and U.S. delegations both explicitly supported all three of the so-called NPT pillars of nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation, and peaceful use of nuclear energy. More controversially, despite the impatience of some delegates, the Chinese speakers agreed with the United States that a gradual “step-by-step” approach would achieve more progress toward nuclear disarmament than would adopting a proposed nuclear weapons convention, which would impractically try to ban all nuclear weapons immediately.

At the conference, the Chinese delegation largely stood aside when their U.S. counterparts came into conflict with other participants. For example, Chinese officials refrained from intervening in the Russian-U.S. disputes over their reciprocal allegations that the other was impeding further nuclear weapons reductions or violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear forces Treaty. Unlike Russia, moreover, China is still planning to attend next year’s final Nuclear Security Summit in the United States. The meeting will help develop a framework to promote nuclear security after the summits end.


Given their large-scale domestic use of nuclear energy and interest in selling nuclear technologies on international markets, China and the United States share a strong interest in preventing nuclear accidents, such the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi power plant disaster that until recently stymied China’s nuclear energy expansion plans. Following an agreement at an earlier Nuclear Security Summit, China and the United States are preparing to launch a joint Center of Excellence on Nuclear Security in Beijing this year.

China also played no evident role in the primarily U.S.-Egypt dispute over the conditions required to secure a productive conference on the establishment of a Middle East zone free weapons of mass destruction. The divisions over this issue in the final days of the RevCon became the immediate obstacle to reaching a consensus final document. The United States and other Western countries were concerned that Israel would not attend unless the arrangements were suitable.

Asked to comment on the issue, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying constructively said: “China consistently and firmly supports the establishment of a zone free of weapons of massive destruction in the Middle East, and welcomes the work done by parties concerned including the Arab states. We are willing to work in tandem with all parties and try to convene the relevant international conference as soon as possible.”

During the last few years, China has included the United States, Russia, and Britain and France in a series of “P5”meetings in which the five countries recognized by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as “nuclear-weapon states” meet to exchange views and perspectives on issues related to the Treaty. They also have undertaken activities to support the NPT and nonproliferation in general. For example, China has been leading P5 efforts to develop an agreed Glossary of Key Nuclear Terms, which would promote mutual understanding and dialogue on nuclear issues.

More recently, China has joined the United States in contributing money to the IAEA’s Nuclear Security Fund, a voluntary pool of funds intended to support nuclear security activities to prevent, detect, and respond to nuclear terrorism and other security threats to nuclear materials.

There were of course some differences between China and the United States at the RevCon. For example, Minister Li and other Chinese officials stressed more openly than their U.S. counterparts the importance of achieving “win-win” solutions regarding even states of proliferation concern, expanding the geographic scope of nuclear-free zones, promoting equality and justice between the nuclear and non-nuclear weapon states, and for the former nuclear possessors, adopting “no-first” use doctrines. Unlike China, the United States has treaty obligations whose extended security guarantees imply Washington’s willingness to use nuclear weapons in defense of allies.

In words that could be interpreted as critical of U.S. policies, moreover, Li said: “We must abandon the practice of double standards and fully respect the legitimate interests and concerns of all countries. We need to solve hot-spot issues peacefully through equal consultation and dialogue, stay committed to multilateralism and consensus building, and uphold the authority of multilateral mechanisms.”

Meanwhile, U.S. observers again perceived a gap between Chinese word and deed. For instance, as in previous meetings, the China representative publicly invited Russia and the United States to make progress toward nuclear disarmament without committing his own government to make any reductions or other concrete contributions. At present, China is the only one of the P5 that is increasing both the number of its nuclear warheads and improving the capabilities of its nuclear weapons delivery vehicles.

Adhering to a policy of nuclear opacity regarding its capabilities, moreover, China has yet to follow the United States and Russia in public declaring the number of these weapons or delivery systems.  Americans were surprised that the Chinese government opposed the Japanese proposal that foreign leaders visit to Hiroshima and Nagasaki to see for themselves the humanitarian consequences of using nuclear weapons.

Nonetheless, both Chinese and U.S. officials said they were eager to look beyond the recent RevCon deadlock and move ahead.  U.S. Ambassador Adam Scheinmanrecently wrote that, “The absence of a final document is disappointing, but it could well serve as motivation to identify new ways to strengthen and support the NPT.”

Hua likewise said that, “ Despite the failure to reach an outcome document at the conference, all parties still pay great attention to the Treaty’s role as a cornerstone in the international nuclear non-proliferation regime, and support the purposes and goals of the Treaty.”

Looking ahead, the two countries have a special role to play in overcoming the recent RevCon setback due to their possession of nuclear weapons, their permanent membership in the UN Security Council, and their pivotal role in the talks aiming to prevent Iran and North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons. Hopefully the two governments will discuss this important issue at this month’s U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue.

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