Nuclear Nonproliferation: China's Thinking and Practices

By Jishe, Fan | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace - Reports, October 28, 2016 | Go to article overview

Nuclear Nonproliferation: China's Thinking and Practices


Jishe, Fan, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace - Reports


China's nuclear nonproliferation policy has undergone a slow but significant evolution during the past six decades. In 1963, at the beginning of the nuclear age, the People's Daily stated in an editorial that "it is necessary for socialist countries to acquire such weapons, only to resist imperialists' nuclear blackmail," and it argued that the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty would only restrict socialist countries.1 Today, according to a government white paper, "China firmly opposes the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and their means of delivery, and consistently deals with nonproliferation issues in a highly responsible manner." China points out that it has joined all international treaties and international organizations related to nonproliferation.2 It is apparent that China's nonproliferation policy has evolved over the years in a series of gradual quantitative changes that have led to more drastic, qualitative alterations.

Not all of China's policies have changed. Its commitment to its policy of no first use of nuclear weapons, its unconditional pledge not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states or nuclear-weapon-free zones, and its advocacy for the comprehensive and complete elimination of nuclear weapons remain largely unchanged. By contrast, China's changing nonproliferation policy is reflected in its policies and attitudes toward regional nonproliferation issues and international nonproliferation regimes.

The driving factors for such significant changes merit a closer look, specifically by examining China's basic nonproliferation thinking and practices from the perspective of national interests.

CHINA AND NUCLEAR NONPROLIFERATION: AN INTERPRETATION

There are at least two facets to China's nonproliferation policy: first the country's own attitude, policies, and practices that are directly or indirectly related to nuclear nonproliferation; and second, its approach to regional nuclear nonproliferation.

China's positions on many of these issues have shown a relatively high degree of continuity. For instance, the country has consistently believed that only the elimination of nuclear weapons can address the root causes of nuclear proliferation, and it has always supported the establishment of nuclear-weapon-free zones. Meanwhile, there have been frequent changes to China's positions on some other nonproliferation issues, such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and multilateral export control regimes.

Scholars both in China and abroad have proposed many explanations for this disconnect between the consistency of some of China's nonproliferation policy positions and the changes in other positions. For instance, the U.S. scholar Evan S. Medeiros attributes the evolution of China's nonproliferation policies since the country's reform and opening up to both internal and external factors. These factors include the interventions of the United States, the degree to which China has accepted nonproliferation rules, China's foreign policy priorities, and its institutional capacities. Medeiros argues that U.S. diplomatic intervention is the independent variable that has driven China's continuous expansion of nonproliferation commitments; without that intervention, he says, China's nonproliferation behavior would have developed very differently.3

Meanwhile, Alastair Iain Johnston cites at least three factors that have advanced China's integration into international arms control and nonproliferation regimes: an overall costbenefit analysis, a calculation of the social costs and gains related to China's international image and status, and China's internalization of ethics and normative values associated with international nonproliferation regimes. Johnston also uses two paradigms, "learning" and "adaptation," to explain the changes in China's arms control policy in the 1980s and 1990s.4

Meanwhile, some Chinese scholars have tried to interpret the evolution of China's attitude toward international nuclear nonproliferation regimes from a constructivist perspec- tive; that is, based on China's identity. …

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