The world’s five most powerful nuclear weapons states delivered a New Year surprise: by stating last week that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”, the US, Russia, China, the UK and France signalled their willingness to tackle growing nuclear conflict risk arising from geopolitical tensions, cyber warfare and the new delivery technologies.
The move from the permanent members of the UN Security Council — the so-called P5, and also the only countries recognised as nuclear weapons states under the Nonproliferation Treaty — invokes the most important moment in the history of nuclear arms control: It repeats the language of the 1985 joint statement of US president Ronald Reagan and Soviet general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, which led to the two superpowers’ disarmament push and the end of the cold war.
It is unlikely that last week’s initiative will yield similar results, however. The statement comes in response to pressure from non-governmental groups and non-nuclear weapons states. But nuclear weapons experts say it does nothing to address the biggest issues involving the leading nuclear powers today, namely the distrust between the US and China and Beijing’s push to modernise its arsenal.
“This is the first time the P5 has ever agreed to this kind of language, and given the level of tension, it’s astonishing they could agree on anything,” says Heather Williams, an arms control expert from Kings College who currently works as a visiting research fellow at Harvard University. “China has been supportive of this kind of a statement and sees itself as a leader in the P5 process. But the real challenge is that Beijing has not shown any interest in getting involved in strategic risk reduction.”
None of the mechanisms Washington and Moscow developed over decades to reduce the risks of nuclear miscalculation — hotlines, treaties with disarmament targets, timelines and supervision structures — apply to China so far. And Beijing has been firmly pushing back against attempts to include it in arms control negotiations, fearing it would then soon face demands to reduce its arsenal, which is much smaller than those of the US and Russia.
But Beijing has started enhancing its nuclear capabilities, both by acquiring new launch platforms and by adding warheads. Moreover, China’s nuclear doctrine differs drastically from the concepts familiar to the US and Russia. For example, Beijing believes uncertainty enhances deterrence, contrasting with the transparency and verification mechanisms underpinning arms control designed by the US and Russia.
The P5 statement could provide a glimmer of hope for an opening. “Some Chinese nuclear experts have previously argued that the US was still thinking about nuclear war with China, and this statement helps mitigate that concern to some extent,” says Zhao Tong, a professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing. “Of course a bilateral statement would have been better, but this did something. China has been an important factor behind this proposal.”
However, progress beyond these warm words looks unlikely. “China wants to see more, in fact much more: It wants the US to acknowledge that the two countries have mutual nuclear vulnerability and mutually assured destruction,” Zhao says. “By accepting that, the US would confirm it no longer pursues nuclear primacy and accepts peaceful coexistence with China.”
Neither such bilateral issues nor progress in binding Beijing into concrete risk reduction mechanisms are likely to happen at the P5.
“I would not anticipate the P5 becoming the place where a breakthrough happens,” Williams says. She believes that China is using P5 diplomacy to deflect pressure to join arms control negotiations or provide transparency about its nuclear programme.
Last but not least, arms control experts warn that rivalry between the US and China stands in the way of meaningful dialogue.
“Ten years ago I would have argued it was possible to reach strategic stability and avoid an arms race between the US and China, but not now,” says Wu Riqiang, a professor at Renmin University in Beijing. In a repeat of the history between the US and the Soviet Union, “the two sides will need to reach a much higher level of build-up until we can talk”.