From Renegade to Defender and Beyond?

How the United States and China Can Work Together for a Successful Nuclear Summit

Nina Hachigian discusses how the Obama administration can use this week’s nuclear summit to push China to take a more active role in nuclear nonproliferation.

Chinese President Hu Jintao is greeted upon his arrival at Andrews Air Force Base on April 12, 2010 for the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC. (AP/Evan Vucci)
Chinese President Hu Jintao is greeted upon his arrival at Andrews Air Force Base on April 12, 2010 for the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC. (AP/Evan Vucci)

China’s overall record on nuclear proliferation has dramatically improved over the past decades, and its actions show that Beijing will increasingly play by the rules on some global issues. But this week’s nuclear security summit in Washington, D.C. offers President Barack Obama an opportunity to encourage China to move to the next level—to become a true steward of the nuclear nonproliferation system, as fits its increasing influence on the global stage. Beijing can do so by supporting a more effective nuclear nonproliferation regime and joining the international community to punish those states that break the rules.

Becoming nonpro

Beijing vociferously upheld the right of every country to develop nuclear weapons as a matter of sovereignty in the 1960s and 1970s, and officials were highly skeptical of nonproliferation regimes conceived and created without China’s input. China actively and directly aided some nations to achieve nuclear capabilities in the 1980s, most notably in Pakistan, when China hoped a nuclear Pakistan would counter rising Indian influence in South Asia. China also assisted Iran and North Korea with their nuclear programs.

But China began by the 1990s to reframe its own interests to coincide with international norms on nonproliferation and accept the cost of ratifying and complying with nonproliferation treaties. China agreed to sign the NPT in March 1992, and in September 1996 it became the second country after the United States to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. China has also developed an extensive domestic system of export controls to enable compliance with its international obligations. Today, China’s nuclear related exports are far fewer and dual use in nature.

From renegade to defender

China is now a member of nearly every major nonproliferation organization and has signed every international treaty meant to stem proliferation of nuclear weapons, including those with intrusive inspection regimes. China has become an active member and even an advocate of the nonproliferation regime.

China agreed to give up profitable sales of nuclear weapons technologies in the 1980s and 1990s at the same time it was already making drastic cuts to its military budget to free up resources for economic development and could have used the extra revenue. This also meant that China could no longer offer this valuable technology as a strategic sweetener to friendly states, as it did with Pakistan in the 1980s.

This shift in behavior has occurred for three primary reasons. First, and most significant, China now views nonproliferation as in its best interests. Helping to create a stable external security environment allows Beijing to concentrate on its domestic concerns. Second, China’s involvement in nonproliferation helps project a benign image to nations potentially anxious about its rise. Third, China’s involvement serves to both mollify U.S. fears about potential conflict while constraining U.S. influence by sometimes lobbying for alternative positions in international negotiations.

But just as importantly, Evan Medeiros, now China director at the National Security Council, has argued, “U.S. policy intervention played a significant and enduring role in fostering China’s increasing commitment to nonproliferation. America’s use of rewards and sanctions repeatedly led China to expand its commitments and comply with them.”

China’s role in today’s challenges

The greatest challenges to the nonproliferation regime today come from North Korea and Iran, which contravene their obligations under the NPT. A critical question is whether China will move beyond improving its own behavior and consistently help the global community find solutions when other states do not comply with international rules.

Beijing stepped up in 2003 by hosting all six meetings of the Six-Party Talks, which included North Korea, the United States, Japan, Russia, and South Korea. It played a substantial role in facilitating dialogue with North Korea at the table many times, using diplomatic pressure and financial incentives. Yet it took U.S. pressure at every turn for China to act.

When it comes to Iran, China is more conflicted and less proactive. China is trying to have it both ways. The Chinese government officially supports the U.S. position that Iran has a right to peaceful, but not militarized, nuclear technology, and has agreed to work with the United States to encourage Iranian compliance. But 15 percent of China’s imported oil comes from Iran and Beijing has wielded its power in the U.N. Security Council to water down sanctions on the country. While the international community has been trying to increase the pressure on Tehran, China’s energy companies continue to sign multibillion-dollar contracts with the regime.

Bush-era setback

Collaboration on nonproliferation suffered a setback during the Bush administration. President George W. Bush withdrew from the 1972 Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia, discussed developing new types of nuclear weapons including “bunker buster” bombs, described in official documents circumstances under which the United States might use nuclear weapons first in a battle, refused to engage on the idea of a treaty to ban an arms race in outer space, and withheld critical funding from the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, the international body responsible for preparing the CTBT’s entry into force.

These developments dismayed the Chinese and led them to conclude that the widely shared norms of nuclear nonproliferation were fragile. In a true role reversal, the Chinese became the rhetorical champions of the existing nonproliferation regime and criticized the United States for undermining it. At the same time, China revisited some important nonproliferation decisions. It began to reconsider its decades-long (but informal) commitment to the “no first use” of nuclear weapons—which it formally recommitted to in January 2009—and it decided bolster its own limited nuclear force, which increased by a staggering 25 percent between 2006 and 2008. These were dangerous repercussions of America’s rejection of established norms.

China and the future of nonproliferation architecture

President Obama worked to get nonproliferation back on track immediately upon entering office, and on September 24, 2009, became the first American president to chair a session of the U.N. Security Council where he proposed and won unanimous approval for a resolution on nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament, urging strides toward a nuclear free world. President Hu Jintao pushed at this session for a last-minute addition that was not included: “no first use” guarantees that nuclear weapons states will refrain from using nuclear weapons against nonnuclear-weapon states in a conflict.

The Obama administration’s wish was that this nonbinding resolution would, along with other steps such as the New START agreement, kick start a stalled process for improving the nonproliferation regime. But conventional wisdom has predicted that China is unlikely to be much help with this goal, because, as President Hu’s intervention illustrates, Beijing wants to maintain an allegiance with developing, nonnuclear weapon states.

At the International Atomic Energy Agency, which enforces the NPT, according to one U.S. official who requested anonymity: “[The Chinese] have a big mission with good experts and are thoroughly professional. But when it comes to votes, they… sit back and don’t take useful or strong positions.” In fact, on every issue, the Chinese default setting is to make common cause with the nonaligned movement of developing countries. The challenge for the United States and others is to convince the Chinese “to lighten up a little on the Cold War paradigm in Vienna,” says the official.

China’s recent behavior would suggest that it will use its efforts at the May NPT review conference to call on the United States and Russia to take further steps toward reducing their stockpiles and reminding the nuclear powers that the right to fair access on civilian nuclear technologies is an important part of the bargain.

Turning the tables

But the Obama administration has recently taken steps that will pressure China to change its default positions. Concluding a new landmark START treaty with Russia right before the NPT review conference makes it difficult for China and others to shift the focus of the debate onto disarmament. And the recently released Nuclear Posture Review—which states that the United States will never execute a nuclear attack on a member in good standing of the NPT and also commits the United States not to seek new varieties of nuclear weapons—takes away two other standard Chinese talking points and alters the momentum of the nuclear discussion. The United States has essentially pre-emptively done what China and other nonnuclear states have long asked.

This is therefore a good window to press the Chinese to do more—to turn their impressive historical record into a real commitment to improve the international system that ultimately benefits them. The Obama administration should use this week’s summit to push for three important steps. First, we should push China to uses its clout with nonnuclear states to forge a renewed NPT regime that will keep the world safer from nuclear terrorism and accidents. Second, China should ratify the CTBT, even though the United States has not yet done so. Beijing should beat Washington to the punch. It will get extra credit in the world’s eyes for being even more responsible than the nuclear superpower. And third, China should back tough sanctions against Iran. Tehran simply cannot justify its actions any longer, and surely Beijing doesn’t want to let Russia get the credit for helping to forge an international solution.

China has come a very long way on nuclear nonproliferation—especially when it comes to its own conduct. But it has a long road yet to travel. China has bought into and largely complied with the many mandates of the nonproliferation groups it has joined and treaties it has signed over the past 30 years, but especially the last 10. It took a lead on the Six-Party Talks with North Korea with considerable coaxing. Yet it has not exerted itself to strengthen the nonproliferation regime or used its leverage to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Hopefully that will change in the very near future.

Nina Hachigian is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and the co-author of The Next American Century: How the U.S. Can Thrive as Other Powers Rise (Simon & Schuster, 2008).

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Nina Hachigian

Senior Fellow