The global nuclear order is witnessing a revival of overt animosities among key nuclear powers. There is a serious gap in global dialogue between nuclear weapons states — at bilateral and multilateral levels.
A report published by the US State Department in April titled, Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments, raised concerns around China’s increasing activity at the Lop Nur test site in 2019. According to the report, China was conducting low-yield nuclear tests which violated the “zero yield” standard moratorium practiced by nuclear weapons states under the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). It is important to note that both the United States and China have signed the CTBT — but not ratified it. They have however, accepted the “zero yield” test ban as a result of the negotiations that took place as a part of CTBT. The report states that “China’s possible preparation to operate its Lop Nur test site year-round, its use of explosive containment chambers, extensive excavation activities at Lop Nur, and lack of transparency on its nuclear testing activities.” Given the great power rivalry and its impact on the global nuclear order, this incident further highlights the cracks in the non-proliferation regime and the crumbling attempts of banning nuclear testing.
It is important to note that the State Department report does not provide conclusive proof of the testing but raises concerns regarding the aforementioned activities. China’s foreign ministry spokesperson was quick to reject allegations made by the US that it conducted low-yield nuclear tests. The response from China has focused on the country’s responsible approach towards international agreements and treaties. Experts on the subject have also suggested that since China possesses sufficient data on low-yield nuclear weapons from tests conducted in the 1980s and 1990s as well as information from computer simulations, it does not need to conduct further low-yield nuclear weapon testing. The argument put forward by the US and the responses in turn have highlighted a trend amongst key nuclear powers in rejecting the role of international treaties in the nuclear order.
Given China’s secrecy around its nuclear weapons programme and ambitions, the report has provided the US with an opportunity to bring attention to the issue of compliance amongst key nuclear weapons states with international agreements. Following the emergence of the State Department’s report, a US senator called on the Trump administration to withdraw from the CTBT given China’s noncompliance. The senator said in a statement, “It’s foolish to trust anything the Chinese Communist Party says, especially when it comes to grave matters like nuclear testing. Beijing is modernising its nuclear arsenal while the United States handcuffs itself with one-sided arms-control restrictions. China has proven it can’t work with us honestly and transparently. We ought to unsign the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty.”
Both the US and China are signatories to the CTBT, but are yet to ratify the treaty. The governments of both countries have maintained that they are complying with the terms set out in the treaty. The report and the subsequent rhetoric emerging from both countries brings into question the stability and the future of the nuclear world order. In recent times, there have been debate and discussion around the possibility of a new nuclear arms race and shift in power.
China has maintained secrecy around its nuclear weapons and delivery systems. There has been concern around China’s nuclear arsenal being bigger than officially estimated and its implications on the stability of the global nuclear order. There have been several instances reported emphasising China’s focus on developing and improving its nuclear arsenal.
On the other hand, there has also been a shift in US rhetoric with regard to future compliance with international nuclear agreements such as the CTBT. The Trump administration has put a renewed focus on the need to improve and modernise the US’s nuclear weapons arsenal. Washington is increasingly focused on arguing for new nuclear agreements with China, whilst also focusing on improving the US’s overall nuclear capabilities.
Furthermore, Washington has demanded the inclusion of China in the discussion on arms controls measures with Russia. The dialogue around new nuclear limitation agreements has been largely absent as Beijing and Moscow appear apprehensive and uninterested in the US’s requests. With the demise of the INF treaty and the uncertainty around renewal of the new START, it is evident that the credibility of international treaties has diminished significantly.
The global nuclear order is witnessing a revival of overt animosities among key nuclear powers. There is a serious gap in global dialogue between nuclear weapons states, at bilateral and multilateral levels. Looking at the aggressive shift in nuclear policy towards expansion and improvement of nuclear weapons, technologies, and their delivery systems along with the rapid deterioration of relations between the US and China, the nuclear order is witnessing a revival of nuclear ambitions and rivalries similar to those of the Cold War era.
The deep mistrust between the two countries extends beyond the nuclear realm and into issues of trade and more recently, the COVID-19 crisis as well. It would be problematic to look at the tensions between the two in isolation. It is important stress the need for effective strategic discussions between countries like the US, China and Russia. However, the success of discussions between these powers is hampered by the complex and multifaceted tensions that exist and will likely persist. In the nuclear context, the increasing hostilities between the superpowers extend beyond the existing nonproliferation measures and highlight the likelihood of the demise of the current nuclear order. This is likely to lead to an intense and costly nuclear weapons competition.
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Pulkit Mohan is the Head of Forums at ORF. She is responsible for the ideation curation and execution of ORFs flagship conferences. Her research focuses include ...Read More +