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A Significant Statement from the P5

Jan 19, 2022
  • Li Yan

    Deputy Director of Institute of American Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

On Jan. 3, China, Russia, the United States, the UK and France, the five nuclear weapon states identified under the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, released a joint statement on preventing nuclear war and avoiding arms races. It was the first time the five countries, known as the P5, had issued a joint declaration on nuclear weapons. It helps enhance global strategic stability amid rising tensions and uncertainties and offers a new opportunity to reshape major power coordination.

The statement was released in an unprecedented high-tension environment coupled with the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic. The existing international landscape and the pattern of major power interactions are facing new challenges. It’s fair to say that now is the toughest time since the end of the Cold War to safeguard global peace and stability.

On one hand, major power relations have sunk to historical lows. As the world’s two biggest nuclear powers, Russia and the U.S. are undergoing worsening relations. Numerous contradictions over Ukraine, security in Europe, arms control and cybersecurity have from time to time pushed the two countries to the edge of a war. Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin mentioned the phrase “nuclear war” in their videoconference last month.

As the world’s two largest economies, China and the U.S. have seen ties spiral downward in recent years. Washington views Beijing as its major strategic rival by putting constant pressure around issues of sovereignty and technology. It also hypes “China's nuclear modernization.”

On the other hand, traditional security threats and non-traditional security issues are interwoven, and they refuel each other. While there’s not yet a panacea to eradicate the roots of terrorism, the pandemic demonstrates again how harmful a non-traditional threat can be. Crises in supply chains, the migration conundrum, the safety of primary products, energy and even food are expected to plague many countries for a long time in the future. Emerging non-traditional security threats are prompting some countries to invest more in mapping their overseas supply chains, which will increase the risk of armed conflict and other traditional security issues.

Given the flaring tensions on the global landscape, the joint statement by the P5 is widely deemed by media outlets to be a rarity. Overall, the statement will help volatile international relations get back on a diplomatic course. It underlines the truths that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought and that no nuclear weapons are targeted at each other or at any other state. It emphasizes the importance of preserving and complying with our bilateral and multilateral non-proliferation, disarmament, and arms control agreements and commitments; and it seeks to avoid military confrontations and prevent an arms race.

By agreeing to such content, the five nuclear-armed states, which are also the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, have chosen to shelve their disputes and make a common commitment to ensure human safety. Meanwhile, they are sending an articulate signal to countries attempting to acquire nukes and serving the purpose of strategic deterrence.

The statement is of great significance to countries seeking a world free of nuclear weapons. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and arms control activists hailed the statement upon its release. 

It also helps relieve the high tensions between Washington and Moscow. After its release, the two sides started engaging with each other via frequent negotiations on a number of security topics. All these showcase that the five nuclear-armed states are making an effort to eradicate the root causes that could lead to nuclear war.

The joint statement provides a reference for the international community to explore major power coordination in a time of crisis. In recent years, cooperation and consultation have gradually given way to fierce rivalries among world powers. In particular, since the onset of COVID-19, some countries have been taking advantage of the pandemic to formulate confrontational policies, and plenty of strategists lament that the big powers failed to launch effective coordination in the face of this once-in-a-century public health crisis. The statement from the P5 thus offers a chance for major countries to reconfigure their relationship. It helps these powerhouses reconfirm where their common interests lie and to act cooperatively based on those interests.

It was reported that the P5 spent several months negotiating over the wording of the declaration before its release. Though they might differ in their concerns and motivations, they still managed to hammer it out.

Whether the positive impact of the declaration will linger on largely depends on how the major powers deal with each other in the future. But it may signal a chance to restore stable, balanced international relations. 

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