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Commentary | 14 May 2020

A path paved with thorns: How does China perceive and advance the P5 Process?

Image of Luo Xi

Luo Xi |Research Fellow at the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association (CACDA)

China NPT Nuclear Arms Control Nuclear Disarmament Nuclear Security Nuclear Weapons Global Security

This piece is part of a new ELN series on the P5 Process exploring national viewpoints from the five nuclear-weapon states ahead of the NPT Review Conference.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the 25th anniversary of the treaty’s indefinite extension. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council and also an important member of the P5, China has tried to play a constructive role in maintaining international security order in the past decades. Since the next NPT Review Conference (RevCon) is approaching, it is worth recalling the evolution of the P5 Process, the contribution that China has made, and the P5 Process’s future prospects.

Fruitful but not enough: Ten years of the P5 Process

In order to fulfil the responsibilities under the NPT treaty, the five nuclear weapons states (NWS) – as the P5 – decided to form a forum to discuss collectively and concretely how they could implement the NPT’s three pillars. Since 2009, the year of the forum’s establishment, the P5 have met regularly and convened nine conferences, with the exception of a pause in formal conferences from 2017 to 2018 due to deteriorating relations between Russia and the West. Following this two-year break, China reset the P5 Process in 2019 and coordinated to finish the first edition of the nuclear glossary. At the 2020 P5 conference that was held in London in February – designed to create a conducive environment for the tenth RevCon – the P5 reiterated a cooperative stance towards the common objective of reducing nuclear risks and safeguarding international security.

Comparative to tangible efforts in producing the second edition of the nuclear glossary, the achievements of disarmament verification and non-proliferation issues in the past ten years have been far from fruitful. There has been no joint P5 nuclear disarmament verification or any other types of international partnerships. There has also been no substantial progress on the most pressing non-proliferation and disarmament issues, such as the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone. Indeed, some non-nuclear-weapon states (NNWS), especially those supporting the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), have accused the P5 Process of taking potentially limited collective steps towards their disarmament obligations.

Beyond resetting the P5 Process: Beijing’s contributions

Beijing’s main endeavours in the P5 Process have gone beyond resetting the Process, having made further contributions in a number of areas. Under the leadership of China, and the joint efforts of all P5 members, three meetings of the Working Group have been successfully held in 2012, 2013 and 2014 to work on a Glossary of Key Nuclear Terms. Based on these efforts, the P5 has finished phase one of the glossary and submitted a list of 227 terms in five languages to the 2015 RevCon. At the 2019 Beijing conference, the working group decided to complete the second phase of nuclear terminology and present it to the next RevCon, which has been postponed in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The discussions on the glossary of nuclear terms help to promote mutual trust and reduce misunderstandings and miscalculations among the P5, thus constituting an important transparency measure on their nuclear policies. Beijing will welcome subsequent editions of the nuclear glossary and facilitate any type of relevant dialogue.

With China’s coordination, the P5 renewed engagement with the ASEAN countries on the Protocol to the Southeast Asia Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty. Such engagement has facilitated the early signing of the Protocol and received a positive response from the ASEAN countries. China also devotes much attention to the nuclear strategy and doctrine discussion, which may be a policy focus that China pushes forward in the future. Beijing believes the nuclear doctrine discussion would allow the P5 to better understand each other’s positions and improve strategic stability which has been weakened by major powers’ rivalry. Additionally, by briefing the NNWS on the nuclear strategies of the P5, the doctrine discussion can increase trust between the P5 states and the NNWS.

How to step forward: the future of the process

Though Beijing and all other P5 states have made significant efforts, the prospects of the P5 Process face a series of geopolitical challenges. A worsening global security environment has led to milestone arms control treaties and agreements being abandoned or facing an uncertain future. After the termination of the INF Treaty, the extension of New START seems not to be a priority arms control issue between the US and Russia. The multilateral disarmament frameworks are also collapsing, as Washington withdrew from the JCPOA and showed its willingness to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty. Washington’s recent allegations against Russia and China of violating the CTBT increases speculation that the US will withdrawal their signature, which will weaken the treaty.

In order to reverse this stagnation in the disarmament process, the P5 Process could regain momentum through the following efforts. First and foremost, major nuclear powers should diminish the role of nuclear weapons in their military doctrines by quitting a preemptive nuclear strike or holding nuclear weapons as the last resort to defend their national security. The deterioration of major powers’ relationship has increased their tendency of nuclear war-fighting and their negative attitudes toward arms control have become the major barrier to disarmament progress. Major nuclear powers should take the famous saying “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought” as a common understanding and keep restrained in developing and employing strategic weapons.

Secondly, the P5 Process should remain attentive to the concerns of NNWS. The P5 Process fell short of expectations mainly from the NNWS. Though deviating from and undermining the NPT, the TPNW represents the frustration of NNWS with the P5 Process. The P5 states could display more intangible results through news briefings or academic symposiums, creating a more constructive and sincere atmosphere to gain trust and support from the NNWS.

Thirdly, the integrity and effectiveness of the multilateral arms control frameworks should be maintained. The NPT regime has faced a series of challenges due to the stagnation of the international nuclear disarmament process. The P5 states should uphold the NPT as the essential cornerstone of the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime through a formal statement. Existing multilateral arms control and disarmament mechanisms, such as the United Nations and the Conference on Disarmament (CD), should be maintained and any withdrawal or breach of them should be prohibited.

Last but not the least, the P5 should take into account factors that could increase the risks of accidental nuclear conflicts. The widespread applications of emerging technologies and non-nuclear military facilities and platforms may add difficulties in nuclear decision-making and increase the risks of an accidental nuclear war. China made the proposal to reach an agreement of no-first-use nuclear weapons against each other among the P5 back in 1994 which could lay the foundation for developing codes of conduct to decrease the risks.

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.

Image: Flickr: Tom Thai