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Foreign Policy

China’s International Responsibility and Opportunity

Dec 02, 2022
  • Nabil Fahmy

    Former Foreign Minister of Egypt, Visiting Senior Fellow at Institute for Global Cooperation and Understanding, PKU

In the late 70s of the last century I was appointed as a member of the Egyptian delegation to the United Nations in Geneva dealing with international security issues and disarmament at the Palais des Nation. A  young Egyptian diplomat, I was quickly startled when i witnessed both  the  Soviet and American delegates vehemently arguing  and promoting  the strategic logic, sustainability and intrinsic deterrent value of nuclear deterrence and particularly that of “Mutually Assured Destruction ”. China had not yet joined the Committee as a functioning member. 

These concepts sounded odd, more relevant to Hollywood Dr Strangelove movies and a partially lucid dangerous game of Russian Roulette, neither of which were strong on rational thinking or definitively calculable circumstances. 

To my satisfaction and that of many others, wise leaders in the United States and Russia soon realized the fallacy of these theories and concepts as well the severe potential dangers of strategic military miscalculation or even inadvertent nuclear engagement because of human or systems error.The 80s and 90s saw serious and sustained engagement of these two powers to curtail growth of stockpiles, de-target nuclear weapons and create crisis management systems. 

The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT),The Intermediate -Range Nuclear Forces Treaty(INF)and the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) were negotiated and entered into force as an expression of the joint realization that flaunting and threatening the use of Nuclear Weapons was not sound and in fact dangerous policy. Regrettably, however, the two powers with the largest military arsenals could not agree to eliminate or comprehensively reduce nuclear weapons from their respective arsenals or prohibit their use. Noteworthy is that reports indicate that US President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party Mikhail Gorbachev actually agreed to these ambitious objectives at The Reykjavik Summit on 11-12 October 1986, before their respective institutions walked them back, promoting instead what was to become The Intermediate -Range Forces Treaty (INF) ultimately concluded in 1987. 

Decades long the two major powers essentially adopted a policy of global nuclear containment, insisting on their right to preserve their nuclear weapons, while only accepting grudgingly its acquisition by other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council France , Great Britain and China.   

Yet, after decades of refraining from doing so, in recent months we have witnessed a recurrence of reciprocal nuclear saber rattling by Russia and the United States. In an interview to the Russian nation, President Putin said his country had “various weapons of mass destruction” and would “use all the means available to us”, adding, “I am not bluffing.” The EU’s Joseph Borell said the Ukraine war had reached a “dangerous moment…..and (Putin) threatening using nuclear arms is very bad .” Russian authorities repeatedly denied that Putin or any of them had explicitly made such threats.Nevertheless we are in ominous times.In fact ,US President Joe Biden described Putin’s nuclear threats as “a  reckless disregard for the nuclear nonproliferation regime.”  When asked about the United States response if Russia used nuclear weapons he affirmed they would be “consequential”.     

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said that amid global tensions humanity was “just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation.” 

The International Community must act now to roll back the  dangerously  heightened and tenuous spirally nuclear posturing which is truly a threat to international peace and security. Equally significant is the overwhelmingly negative mood at the General Assembly  with respect to the state of the world as well as the relevance and compatibility of the present world order. 

On November 4 President Xi Jingping met with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz at the great Hall of the people in Beijing. After extensive discussions the two leaders inter alia declared that they “oppose the threat or use of nuclear weapons, advocate that nuclear weapons cannot be won and must never be fought”.Less than two weeks later at the G20 summit ,Presidents Xi and Biden reiterated the same statement and underscored their opposition to the use or threat of use of Nuclear weapons in Ukraine. 

I commend China for being a common partner in both these statements.As a permanent member of the Security Council the primary organ responsible for the preservation of international peace and security it carries a particular responsibility.These circumstances also provide an opportunity for China to carry its role more visibly in the eyes of an international community in disarray and looking for wise leadership committed to multilateralism and collective engagement. A complementary benefit is that leadership in these circumstances would go a long way in countering exaggerated and frequently false concerns raised about the real motivations behind major projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative. 

Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang YI said amid this “new phase of turbulence and transformation” there are reasons for hope in the economic domain. He went further affirming “Peace and development remain the underlying trends of our time…’and quoted Chinese President Xi Jinping, who had said that “War only opens Pandora’s Box…we must address differences through peaceful means.” 

On the war in Ukraine, the Foreign Minister affirmed that “China supports all efforts conducive to the peaceful resolution of the crisis …and the fundamental solution is to address the legitimate security concerns of all parties and build a balanced, effective and sustainable security architecture.” 

There are two paramount but  not mutually exclusive issues here.One is to end the crisis in Ukraine and the other to create a sustainable security architecture. One step in this regard would be the United Nations Secretary General, assisted  ex-officio by the president of the Council -convening the conflicting parties in Ukraine with a view to establishing a ceasefire and a conflict resolution negotiating process. Needless to say presidents from states associated with the said conflict would recuse themselves. 

Another step would be for the United Nations through different brainstorming, expert level sessions to  prepare proposed “balanced, effective and sustainable security architectures “ that are commensurate with the 21st Century realities and reflective of a commitment to collective security in international relations.These would ultimately be the prerogative of the organization and its member states to adopt or decline. 

The United Nations and particularly the Security Council is duty bound to take the lead here. Realistically speaking given tensions between the western permanent members and Russia, I do not believe that consensual Security Council decisions on these matters can be shortly envisaged. Consequently, principled leadership is paramount in enabling the Organization to rise to the challenges of our times.This is a most opportune time for wise leadership and support from China in this regard.

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