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Obama’s Nuclear Arms Agenda and its Implications for China

Jan 14 , 2013
  • Gu Guoliang

    Director at China Academy of Social Science

As President Obama enters his second term, there have been discussions and policy recommendations in the United States on the Obama administration’s next nuclear arms control agenda. We expect to see some new moves in his second term.

During his first term, President Obama focused on three major nuclear issues, including conclusion of a new START treaty with Russia in April 2010, successfully convening the 2010 NPT Review Conference and holding the 2010 Washington Nuclear Security Summit. In his second term, he will continue to put the above three issues on his agenda. Aside from successfully holding the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit and 2015 NPT Review Conference, pushing forward the nuclear disarmament process will be the major focus in his nuclear arms control policy.

President Obama won his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize because of his speech in Prague on April 5, 2009, calling for a world without nuclear weapons. President Obama certainly wishes to safeguard this diplomatic legacy in his second term and achieve further progress in nuclear disarmament. He has been advised to take the following concrete steps in nuclear disarmament in his second term. [1]

(1)  Negotiating a new START II treaty with Russia, with the goal of further reducing their nuclear weapons from 1550 to the level of 1000.

(2)  Starting the multilateral nuclear disarmament process, with a view to bringing China into the nuclear disarmament process

(3)  Enhancing the BMD program, including a cooperative NATO-Russian arrangement and increased deployment of BMD system in Asia-Pacific.

(4)  Pushing for the ratification of CTBT and the starting of FMCT negotiation

These steps will have major implications for China’s arms control policy and China-US relations.

Over the past years, China and the United States have had good cooperation over major differences in the field of nuclear arms control.

China had good cooperation with the United States at the last two Nuclear Security Summits, and China has been making joint efforts with the Obama administration in complying with the undertakings of the Summits, as it is a new bright spot for China to cooperate with the United States in the field of nuclear arms control.

China will continue to cooperate with the United States at the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit and the 2015 NPT Review Conference, as it always does.

China and the United States have maintained more or less a stable relationship over nuclear issues. Nuclear issues have not been a major issue in China-US relations and it has not been a major topic in the China-US strategic and economic dialogues.

As for nuclear disarmament, China shares President Obama’s goal to achieve a nuclear-free world. China declared its policy goal of complete elimination and thorough destruction of nuclear weapons as early as in 1964.

Nevertheless, there have been voices recently talking about China’s nuclear threat, including some ridiculous rumor of “China’s underground nuclear great wall,” as China is engaged in modernizing its national defense.

It is suggested that Obama’s nuclear arms control agenda would aim at bringing China into the nuclear disarmament process with a view to capping or putting a ceiling on China’s nuclear forces. If so, the Obama administration will exert greater pressure on China to be transparent about its nuclear arsenals, and the nuclear issue may become one of the important issues in China-US relations.

China’s nuclear policy is clear and consistent. China pursues a no-first-use policy and a policy of maintaining a credible deterrent nuclear capability, no more, no less. China has learned good lessons from the two nuclear superpowers, and will not be so unwise to spend so much money to build a huge nuclear arsenal and then spend so much money to dismantle them. China’s small number of nuclear weapons will not constitute a threat to any country, not to mention the United States which possesses the largest nuclear arsenals in the world.

China is greatly concerned about US enhanced development of the BMD program, especially its recent increased deployment of BMD system in Asia-Pacific. This certainly has implications on the credibility of China’s limited number of nuclear weapons. The United States should be transparent to China about its strategic intentions and its future deployment plans of BMD. If the United States continues its development of the BMD program, China will have to take measures to secure the credibility of its nuclear second-strike capability.

China would welcome further reductions of nuclear weapons by the United States and Russia, and will be ready to join the nuclear disarmament process when the condition is right. It means the two nuclear superpowers have to reduce their nuclear arsenals to narrow the existing gap. Nevertheless, there is still uncertainty as to whether the nuclear industry complex in the United States will agree to have deeper reduction and whether Russia is willing to do so as the United States has enhanced its conventional superiority over Russia in recent years, especially with its Prompt Global Strike Program.

As for the ratification of CTBT, the Chinese People’s Congress will give positive consideration to the ratification after the United States ratifies. The only concern for China perhaps is what China should do if the US congress ratifies CTBT, but add some reservations as it did with CWC. China has no problem in pushing for the early starting of the FMCT negotiation in Geneva.

It is essential for the Obama administration to have close consultation with China and to take China’s security concerns into full consideration, especially at the time when strategic suspicion has grown because of US rebalancing strategy.

Gu Guoliang is the Director at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation Studies at the Institute of American Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences


[1] Steven Pifer and Michael O’Hanlon, Nuclear Arms Control Opportunities: An Agenda for Obama’s Second Term, “Arms Control Today”, December 2012.

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