Nuclear consensus heralds new trends

The leaders of the five nuclear weapon states — China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, which also are the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — issued a joint statement on Jan 3 on preventing nuclear war and avoiding an arms race. This marked the first time in over 20 years that the five major powers reached a consensus on nuclear weapons.

The move is of major significance as the world has entered a critical period of change. It also heralded new trends in the strategic situation that could have profound consequences in the future.

First, the move outlined the boundaries for the strategic games among the major countries. In recent years, the US has scaled up strategic moves with its allies in a bid to contain China and Russia, which has heightened the strategic games between the two sides.

That the five permanent members of the UN Security Council have agreed on the need to reduce strategic risks and avoid nuclear war, and that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”, is intended to draw a boundary to prevent the continuous escalation of the strategic confrontation from triggering a nuclear war.

Second, the move added a bargaining chip to ensure the unimpeded progress of nuclear nonproliferation. The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, or NPT, served to balance nonproliferation and nuclear disarmament, with nonnuclear countries committing to refraining from the development of nuclear weapons and the nuclear weapon nations committing to nuclear disarmament.

The NPT Review Conference, which is held every five years, reviews the nonproliferation situation among nonnuclear countries and the progress of nuclear disarmament among the countries possessing nuclear weapons. The recent statement among the five major nuclear weapon powers is conducive to the smooth progress of this year’s NPT Review Conference.

Third, the consensus has installed guardrails in the event of a possible conflict, including one between Russia and Ukraine. With the risk of conflict and war on the rise, Russia submitted security guarantee agreement proposals to the US and NATO on Dec 15, calling for NATO to rule out the possibility of further eastward expansion and the possibility of deploying land-based short- and medium-range missiles in Eastern Europe near Russia. But the US will not agree. It has always been the choice of the US to employ proxy wars to achieve its strategic goals. It is hoping Russia is sucked into a conflict with Ukraine, so it can use that as an excuse to strike Russia.

Should there be a war, Eastern European countries, including the Baltic States and Poland, will become involved; NATO may then be dragged into the war, and the risk of nuclear war will rise sharply. The statement issued by the five nuclear weapon states has, to a certain extent, reduced the possibility of a Russia-Ukraine conflict escalating into a nuclear war.

Fourth, countries possessing nuclear weapons may adjust their nuclear policies. An effective way to reduce nuclear wars and nuclear threats is to diminish the role of nuclear weapons in the security strategies of the countries with nuclear weapons. It is a move with great historical significance that the five nuclear weapon states that are permanent members of the UN Security Council have concurred and reached consensus for the first time. This will allow these nuclear weapon countries to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in their future national security strategies.

In the future, the prospect of all nuclear weapon states reaching an agreement on committing to no first use of nuclear weapons, which China has been actively advocating, is worth looking forward to.

Fifth, the nuclear weapon powers may accelerate their nuclear disarmament process. The size of a country’s nuclear arsenal depends on its nuclear weapons strategy. If the nuclear weapon powers restrict their strategy for the use of nuclear weapons to defense-only purposes, and to deter aggression and prevent war, then nuclear powers no longer need huge nuclear arsenals in terms of their strategic needs, which would make it possible for them to further reduce their large nuclear arsenals. That would enable the US and Russia to once again sit at the negotiation table in an effort to reach agreement on a new treaty for greater nuclear disarmament.

The author is deputy director of the Institute of World Economics and Politics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. 

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.