Why China will wait on nuclear test ban ratification

Mark Fitzpatrick

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To understand what lies behind China’s positions on arms-control issues, a roundtable in Beijing with non-government experts was not a bad start. Joining a delegation organized by the U.N. Association of the United Kingdom, I was fortunate to have that experience on Friday, courtesy of the U.N. Association of China and the Chinese Arms Control and Disarmament Association (CACDA).

Why can’t China exercise leadership on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and ratify it without waiting for the U.S. Congress to go first, I asked our hosts, embarrassing as that would be for me as an American. Because the United States has conducted over 1,000 nuclear-test blasts and China only 45, they replied. By signing the CTBT in 1996, China made a huge sacrifice, we were told, stopping its testing program at an early stage in the learning curve. Needing more tests to ensure reliability of its nuclear arsenal, China has no incentive to ratify before the United States does so.

A Chinese think tanker recalled that 15 years ago, a senior U.S. official testified that the test-ban treaty would lock in other nuclear-weapons states to their lower place on the nuclear learning curve. For the United States, a few more tests would make no significant difference, but for China, even one or two additional tests would benefit its nuclear program.

A former Chinese military officer put the point more directly: stopping China’s testing program was one of the main reasons for the United States to push for a CTBT. He wondered if, having achieved that objective, Washington now felt complacent and wanted to keep its own options open by not ratifying. He suggested that China should consider saying that it was fed up with the U.S. position and would give up on the treaty unless the U.S. ratified. Hinting partial seriousness, he said maybe such a position would spur a U.S. sense of urgency.

Such a threat is not the party line, however. In China these days, one can hear different opinions. Another academic said it is a cultural trait that, having signed the treaty, China will continue to honour it. But there are uncertainties. Beijing will wait on ratification for an appropriate moment when it can be used as an incentive for others to ratify, he said.

Not hiding

With regard to the other would-be international treaty on the minds of arms controllers, our Chinese counterparts insisted that China was not hiding behind Pakistan’s obstruction of a ban on fissile material production for nuclear weapons. Having heard that accusation many times before, they did not need much of a prompt to reiterate Beijing’s denials. China used to link support for a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) to its desire for a treaty banning nuclear weapons in outer space, but broke this linkage a decade ago, they said.

why doesn’t China join the other four permanent members of the Security Council in declaring a unilateral end to fissile-material production?

Mark Fitzpatrick

Then why doesn’t China join the other four permanent members of the Security Council in declaring a unilateral end to fissile-material production, I asked. This time the answer did not come easily. One professor deferred to another, who also pleaded lack of knowledge. The retired military officer indicated such a declaration was being held as leverage for future negotiations. One of the professors then voiced a personal opinion that, since China’s fissile-material stockpile is the smallest among the nuclear-weapons states, it is not as easy for Beijing to declare a moratorium as it is for nations that have an excess. Another of the Chinese participants said he assumed China has enough fissile material for its military purposes. It was ready to go along with an FMCT that would apply to all countries. They all agreed that Chinese nuclear scientists were willing to accept verification measures in such a treaty.

The roundtable discussions were not entirely harmonious. We clashed, for example, in our perceptions concerning Iran and North Korea, as well as over Japan’s alleged nuclear intentions. But the transparency of the Chinese positions, even when explaining China’s lack of nuclear transparency, was refreshing. It didn’t hurt that the dense smog that was suffocating Harbin was nowhere in sight in Beijing. With unusual blue skies prevailed during our visit, it was hard not to feel upbeat.

This article was first posted in the IISS blog on Oct. 28, 2013.


Mark Fitzpatrick directs the IISS Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Program. Mr. Fitzpatrick's research focus includes nuclear proliferation concerns and preventing nuclear danger in the emerging ‘nuclear renaissance’. He is the author of The Iranian Nuclear Crisis: Avoiding worst-case outcomes (IISS Adelphi Paper 398, 2008) and has written articles on non-proliferation in the Financial Times, International Herald Tribune, Survival, and other publications.

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