Beijing’s Nukes

Beijing's Nukes

United States President Barack Obama's expected announcement Tuesday night (at the time of going to press), in his annual State of the Union address to the US Congress, on plans to reduce the American nuclear arsenal to about 1,000 weapons is unlikely to make a big impression on China.

Beijing has long called for drastic, verifiable and irreversible reductions of the arsenals of the US and Russia, which hold most of the world's nuclear weapons. China, however, is unwilling to make cuts of its own nuclear arsenal at this stage. It has insisted that other nuclear weapon states should join the process of reductions only when conditions are "ripe".

This approach leaves Beijing much leeway in responding to Obama's latest nuclear initiative. It allows Beijing to hold the high diplomatic ground on supporting the long-term goal of global zero, promising to join multilateral talks on nuclear reductions when it is convenient, and leaving room for its nuclear weapon modernisation in the interim.

According to a report in The New York Times earlier this week, Obama has plans to work out an informal agreement in the next few months with President Vladimir Putin of Russia to make deeper cuts in their nuclear arsenals.

Under a treaty called "New START", which the two countries signed in 2010, Washington and Moscow agreed to bring down their deployed nuclear warheads to 1,550 each by 2018. If Obama can get Putin to agree — this is by no means certain, given the current lack of warmth between the two — the two sides could trim the size of their bloated nuclear armouries by a third.

China knows that further negotiated nuclear cuts are possible only when Washington and Moscow sort out their differences on missile defence, which might yet take some doing. Like Moscow, Beijing also opposes the US development of missile defences.

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