Skip to content
Commentary | 3 September 2014

Nuclear Weapons and Non-Proliferation in Asia: importance of China-U.S. agreement on CTBT ratification

In most of the international relations literature we read today about the Asia of the twenty-first century, we are told time and time again that this region, my region, is increasingly becoming the centre of global geo-economic gravity. And the literature is right. Whatever the economic measure – proportion of global GDP, trade, foreign direct investment or global capital flows – Asia has moved from the margins to the centre of the global economy. The truth is the health of the 21st century global economy will largely be determined by, and driven by, the emerging mega-economies of Asia.

The parallel reality is that overlaying this 21st century global economic narrative is an array of Asian security policy realities that are almost 19th century in their character. Unresolved territorial disputes litter the region: the Korean Peninsula, the East China Sea, the Taiwan Straits, the South China Sea, the India China border dispute, as well as the long-standing standoff between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. Add to this a tidal wave of resurgent nationalisms across the wider region. And the absence of regional political and security institutions and norms capable of ameliorating the sharp edges of these various simmering regional tensions, or mechanisms or protocols for managing crises or major incidents when they inevitably occur. All this also occurs against a background of ballooning military budgets, at a time when most western military budgets are in a period of serious military retrenchment.

If this were not enough, Asia is also host to five nuclear weapons states China, Russia, India, Pakistan and the United States, apart from nuclear weapons programs in both North Korea and Iran. Strategic stability in the Asia-Pacific region is therefore of continuing concern for both the region and the world.

The critical question is what is to be done? The response to this lies at multiple levels, of which the future application of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty to non-ratification states is one.

Here the central issue is the state of strategic trust between China and the United States. This “trust deficit” is a continuing feature of Chinese official commentary about the China-US relationship in general, focusing on Chinese concerns about a concerted strategy of “containment” of China in Asia on the part of the United States and its allies. Meanwhile, the continuing American complaints are about the absence of transparency of Chinese military budgets, China’s posture in the East and South China Seas and broader Chinese strategic intentions in Asia. In fact, political distrust between the two is now at a higher level than has been seen for some decades, although ironically military-to-military contacts continue to be maintained, and in some areas even expanded.

In June 2013 Presidents Obama and Xi Jinping met at Sunnylands in California for their first ever “working-level” summit. This was intended to achieve agreement on what President Xi had advanced as “a new type of great power relationship,” expressly designed, at least at a conceptual level, as a means of avoiding conflict or war between an emerging great power (i.e. China) and the established great Power (i.e. the United States). Some progress was achieved at that summit, particularly at the level of expanded mil-to-mil engagement which until that time had been thin. Progress on other levels has however been fitful.

A second working level summit is due this November in Beijing on the back of the APEC Summit being hosted by the Chinese. While the agenda has not been agreed, it will be critical for both sides to make some progress on reducing the strategic trust deficit. One area for potential progress could be the future ratification of the CTBT. At present there is something of a Mexican stand-off between the two, whereby each is effectively saying to the other: “you go first please.” The Chinese are particularly concerned that even if they agreed with the US Administration on a conjoint ratification, the US Senate would then refuse to support any such agreement. Despite these formidable difficulties, an agreement on simultaneous ratification (whereby Chinese ratification would come into force as of the date of US final ratification) would represent a major, measurable advance in narrowing the widening strategic trust deficit between them, which of itself becomes increasingly dangerous for the wider region.

Finally, progress on the bilateral nuclear front could also pave the way for greater substantive security policy cooperation on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. China’s policy towards the DPRK has hardened considerably since the last North Korean test in February 2013. Chinese policy makers are themselves concerned about the prospect of a nuclear-armed North Korea, in terms of their own security, as well as the implications for South Korean and Japanese responses (not to mention the reaction of the United States). China wants to see a North Korea as a non-nuclear weapons state and therefore, like all other regional states, has a deep interest in North Korean ratification, including with all necessary verification. China does not want to see a further intensification of strategic tensions in North East Asia. Even less does China want to see any further nuclear “breakout” in the region. Both would undermine China’s economic development strategy which requires regional strategic stability for decades to come. This is where increased strategic trust between China and the US is crucial too. Any move by China on North Korea on the nuclear question, and more broadly the political and strategic future of the Korean Peninsula would necessitate broader engagement with the United States, taking into account Washington’s own long term future strategic posture on the Peninsula.



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 challenges of our time.