China and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime

By Malik, J. Mohan | Contemporary Southeast Asia, December 2000 | Go to article overview

China and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime

Malik, J. Mohan, Contemporary Southeast Asia

This article surveys China's policy towards the nuclear non-proliferation regime and contests the view that China has now completed the transition from a challenger to an upholder of the global non-proliferation regime. It argues that "the learning curve hypothesis" and the "bureaucratic politics and profit motives" arguments provide only a partial explanation of China's shifting but ambiguous and contradictory policy towards non-proliferation. China has cleverly played "the proliferation card" by exploiting loopholes in the nonproliferation regime and contradictions in major power relationships so as to serve its national security interests. The article examines the factors that have led Beijing to disregard the non-proliferation regime in the past and might make it continue to do so in the future. It also analyses the changing Asian security environment and its impact on China's nonproliferation commitments in the future.


The global nuclear non-proliferation (NNP) regime is an outgrowth of the steps taken during the second half of the twentieth century to halt the horizontal spread of nuclear weapons. The NNP regime consists of several components. These are the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), founded in 1957; the 1953 Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) banning the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, outer space, or under water; the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which was extended indefinitely in 1995; the London-based Nuclear Suppliers' Group (NSG), formed in 1974, which requires IAEA safeguards on all of its participants' nuclear exports; the 1987 Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) aimed at halting the proliferation of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles and other unmanned delivery systems; the 1996 Wassenaar Arrangement (a successor to the Cold War era's COCOM) covering conventional weapons and dual-use exports; and the Zangger Committee which covers nuclear-related exports. T he 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which has yet to come into force, further constrains all states from conducting nuclear tests. In addition, the nuclear weapons free zones (NWFZs) in Latin America, the South Pacific, and Africa have further strengthened the regime. In 1995, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) proposed the establishment of a NWFZ in Southeast Asia, and in 1997 the five Central Asian states issued the Tashkent statement proposing a NWFZ for Central Asia.

The overall record of the NNP regime has been a mixture of success and failure. On the positive side, the five decades of international efforts at curbing the spread of nuclear weapons have created a political and normative climate in which no state can easily declare its nuclear intentions. The unsuitability of nuclear weapons to most military situations also renders them useless. Moreover, a number of nuclearcapable states -- notably Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, and the former Soviet republics of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan -- have in recent years agreed to abandon the strive for, or dismantle their nuclear weapons capabilities. In this sense, the regime has been fairly successful.

On the negative side, the campaign for nuclear disarmament appears to be failing just when success seemed at hand. Since the mid1980s, the regime has been undermined by the emergence of new suppliers of nuclear technology and delivery systems, as well as by an increase in the number of threshold or new nuclear weapons states (NWSs).. Apart from the five declared NWSs (the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China), and two new self-declared NWSs (India and Pakistan), several other nations (Israel, Japan, North Korea, and Iran) are widely believed to have made significant progress towards acquiring nuclear weapons capabilities. The changes in the international system and the global nuclear balance of power since the end of the Cold War have thrown up new challenges and opportunities for the NNP regime. …

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