Mao Zedong, the enigmatic founding father of the Chinese Communist Party, famously described nuclear weapons as a “paper tiger.” He believed they could only be used to scare people, not to fight and win wars. Approximately 125,000 nuclear warheads have been built. Only two have ever been used. The last was in Nagasaki more than 75 years ago.
Those three facts suggest Mao was right. That’s why China’s current leadership should consider becoming a non-nuclear weapons state. China has more to gain from getting rid of its nuclear weapons than from keeping them.
The case for keeping them is short and weak. The only purpose China’s nuclear weapons serve is to free Chinese leaders, and the people they govern, from the fear of a nuclear attack. But what are the odds of that happening? Even the United States, which stubbornly clings to a first use policy, is highly unlikely to break the longstanding taboo against the use of nuclear weapons, especially to attack a country that voluntarily relinquished its own.
Consequently, China’s nuclear arsenal fulfills more of a psychological need than a strictly military one. However, fulfilling this need comes at a steep price.
THE COST OF FEAR
China pays a price for its nuclear weapons program. The opportunity cost of directing extremely scarce human, scientific and fiscal resources into the program at the expense of economic development may have been the least expensive item on the bill. The cost to China’s international reputation is steeper.
The Chinese communists may not have coined the term “third world” but they saw China as a potential leader of it. They still do. China was poised to seize that mantle at the Bandung Conference of newly independent Asian and African nations in the spring of 1955.
The conference convened during the Taiwan Strait Crisis, just over a month after the United States publicly threatened to attack China with nuclear weapons. Sukarno, Indonesia’s charismatic leader, began the gathering with a condemnation of nuclear weapons and their association with the colonial mentality the assembled third world leaders risked their lives trying to defeat.
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) will enter into force next January. How the Chinese leadership responds could determine China’s international standing for a long time to come.
Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai lent his support to the anti-nuclear ethos of the conference. But he knew his government had already betrayed it by starting its own nuclear weapons program. China’s statement on the day of its first nuclear test in 1964 reads like an apology for that betrayal and blames the United States for leaving China no choice.
The Chinese leadership claimed their bomb was “a great encouragement to the revolutionary peoples of the world.” It wasn’t. Over time, the bomb separated China from the third world nations it hoped to lead. Moreover, it turned China’s communist leaders into hypocrites: defenders of an inequitable and unjust international system divided into nuclear haves and have-nots.
The nuclear have-nots have had enough. They’ve banded together to draft, sign and ratify a new international treaty making nuclear weapons illegal. As they did, China sat on the sidelines. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) will enter into force next January. How the Chinese leadership responds could determine China’s international standing for a long time to come.
President Xi Jinping has made building a “community with a shared future for humanity” the cornerstone of China’s foreign policy. When Xi announced that policy in a speech to the United Nations, he said, “the sovereignty and dignity of all countries, whether big or small, strong or weak, rich or poor, must be respected.” That global community of equal sovereign nations has decided to make nuclear weapons illegal. If Xi means what he says, China should respect that decision and accede to the treaty.
THE BENEFIT OF COURAGE
It will take an act of extraordinary courage for China to rejoin the ranks of the non-nuclear weapons states. The fears that led it to develop nuclear weapons are understandably strong, particularly as the United States government appears to have decided to treat China as an enemy again.
However, Mao’s understanding of the extreme limitations of nuclear weapons — the unlikeliness that they can ever be used in war — gave him the courage to stand up to US nuclear threats in Korea and during the Taiwan Strait Crisis. Xi could tap into that same wisdom and the courage it inspired to defeat US efforts to stigmatize, isolate and contain China.
The heart of the US case against China is that it has become a revanchist “great power” attempting to undermine international order and intimidate its neighbors in pursuit of its own interests. Nothing could do more to undermine that case than a Chinese decision to respect the will of the international community and relinquish its nuclear status.
That decision would have a profoundly positive impact on China’s neighbors, especially Japan and India. It would make negotiations on all the various territorial disputes in the region much easier, open up a period of cooperative goodwill and reduce the perceived need for a large US military footprint in the so-called “Indo-Pacific.”
It would also transform China’s image in the eyes of the rest of the world. Potential economic partners, especially in Europe, would look at the Belt and Road initiative and Chinese information technology with less skepticism. Chinese arguments for a more just and equitable international system would get more serious consideration. Even the United States would be forced to revisit its interpretation of Chinese intentions.
Political leaders routinely profess their willingness to risk war to defend core interests. But rarely are they courageous enough to take risks for peace. It cannot be denied that giving up its nuclear weapons would expose China to some risk. That’s what would make a decision to disarm so meaningful to others. And given the tremendous geopolitical influence China would obtain in exchange, it is a risk for peace China’s leaders should consider taking.
Dr. Gregory Kulacki is a Senior Analyst and the China Project Manager for the Global Security Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists. His research focuses on China’s nuclear arms control policy and US extended nuclear deterrence policy in East Asia, where Gregory has lived and worked for the better part of the last thirty years. Areas of expertise: Chinese nuclear weapons policy, China’s space program, cross-cultural communication. Follow him on Twitter @gkucs.