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.

China is also certain that fiscal pressures to significantly cut American defence expenditure are as much behind the logic of deep cuts as the traditional framework of arms control with Russia.

Much like the West that saw Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's nuclear disarmament initiatives nearly three decades ago as stemming from Russia's economic weakness, China could interpret Obama's moves as reflecting long-term American decline.

Asian concerns

If China is unconcerned about deep cuts in American nuclear weaponry, some among its East Asian neighbours are deeply worried about the credibility of America's "extended deterrence".

America's Asian allies, especially Japan and South Korea, chose not to develop their own nuclear weapons, on the bet that the US "nuclear umbrella" works for them. During the Cold War, the US extended deterrence against the Soviet threat seemed credible for Washington's allies.

Today, amidst the rise of China and its increasing political assertiveness, many in Japan and South Korea wonder about the sustainability of US nuclear guarantees if Washington brings about rapid reductions in the size of its arsenal.

Many American arms controllers dismiss the Asian fears about extended deterrence as overblown. But for East Asia, living through a historic shift in the regional balance in favour of China, deep cuts in the US nuclear arsenal may reinforce their apprehensions about America's ability to sustain the regional balance of power.

Delhi's View

In contrast to some in East Asia, India has every reason to welcome Obama's plans to negotiate deeper nuclear cuts with Russia. Like China, India has seen deep cuts in the US and Russian arsenals as an important first step on the road towards nuclear disarmament.

When Obama came to India in November 2010, he and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reaffirmed their shared commitment to a nuclear-weapon-free world and called for "meaningful dialogue among all states possessing nuclear weapons to build trust and confidence and for reducing the salience of nuclear weapons in international affairs".

This is not very different from China's call for multilateral nuclear arms control at an appropriate stage. The differences are essentially about timing and the list of participants and other conditions.

Yet, there is no denying that India's disarmament policy shares much common ground with the stated positions of the US, France, Russia and China. This is a good moment for India to actively intervene in the global nuclear debate, articulate the priorities and seek to promote a nuclear consensus among the major powers.

The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a contributing editor for 'The Indian Express'

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