China benefits from nuclear disorder

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Editor's note:

This article first appeared in the Mint. The views are of the author(s).

China’s acts of commission and omission in enabling Pakistan and North Korea to build nuclear arsenals pose twin threats to the post-Cold War nuclear order

The rise in global nuclear disorder and its increasing disconnect from world order is epitomized in the nuclear weapon programmes of two weak and potentially failing states—Pakistan and North Korea. While both these countries might understandably perceive some advantage to having acquired nuclear weapons, the real beneficiary is China. 

Beijing’s acts of commission and omission in enabling both these crises-instigating states to build nuclear arsenals pose twin threats to the post-Cold War nuclear order. First, the proliferation activities of these countries present an existential challenge to the tottering nuclear non-proliferation regime. Second, these actions in turn also challenge the status of the US as the traditional custodian of the nuclear order; by enabling two weak states to acquire nuclear weapons, the Washington-led regime has been thrown into disarray.

While it could be argued (as non-proliferation purists are prone to do) that New Delhi’s arsenal is equally culpable in creating nuclear disorder, India, as the world’s largest liberal democracy, the fifth largest economy, and a member of every existing and emerging global regime, has more stakes in upholding and enhancing the evolving liberal world order.

Besides, in the process of accomplishing the 123 agreement for civil nuclear cooperation with the US (and similar agreements with Canada, France, Japan, Russia and the UK), separating its military and civil nuclear facilities, and signing an additional protocol for inspection of its declared civil nuclear facilities with the International Atomic Energy Agency, not to mention attaining a hard-fought waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group, India has undergone a gruelling agni-pariksha to prove its commitment to upholding the non-proliferation regime.

In contrast, China’s proliferation activities vis-à-vis Pakistan and North Korea have been unmasked on several occasions both before and after Beijing joined the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1992. In the most recent revelation, the Institute for Science and International Security alleged that China had allowed the export of material (in violation of UN sanctions) to North Korea, which would enable Pyongyang to build hydrogen bombs.

China’s active and tacit support of the nuclear programmes of Pakistan and North Korea respectively might be considered a form of extended deterrence (as the US has done by ensuring that its nuclear arsenal also covers its allies). However, China, by enabling the nuclear arsenals of its two neighbours, has not only violated the non-proliferation regime but also created two nuclear armed states that refuse to adhere to the traditional rules of deterrence.

Classic nuclear deterrence is premised on the basic assumption that nuclear weapons will only be used to deter other nuclear weapons. However, Pakistan has used its nuclear umbrella to instigate conventional conflict (in Kargil in 1999) and sub-conventional attacks with non-state actors (in Mumbai in 2008). North Korea has similarly used its nuclear shield to conduct provocative acts (such as the assassination of Kim Jong-nam) and to proliferate.

Apart from the unorthodox use of their nuclear capabilities, they also pose new threats for the US and India—the two-leading democratic established and emerging powers—while allowing China to present itself as a peacemaker and upholder of the new nuclear order.

This has become evident in the latest confrontation on the Korean peninsula, where the US has been pitted against North Korea, and China has eagerly donned the mantle of a mature mediator. When Rex Tillerson, the neophyte US foreign secretary, arrived on his first trip to the region, he pronounced that the era of “strategic patience” was over and warned that “all options (including military action) are on the table”. In a telling response, the spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry chastised both the US and North Korea, asking them not to “escalate towards conflict and potential war” and patronizingly suggesting they “cool down” and seek a political and diplomatic resolution. In doing so, Beijing absolved itself of any responsibility in the imbroglio and deftly presented itself as a responsible custodian of the nuclear order.

By the time Tillerson arrived in Beijing he had fallen for the Chinese ploy (despite an unsolicited cautionary tweet from President Donald Trump warning: “North Koreans are behaving badly and China has done little to help”).

In Beijing, Tillerson shocked seasoned observers when he made no mention of the crisis with North Korea (let alone the “all option” statement) and described the relationship with China as “very positive” and “built on non-confrontation, no conflict, mutual respect, and always searching for win-win solutions”. While these catchphrases have echoes of the China-India Panchsheel agreement, they are entirely alien to the US vocabulary in dealing with China. If former president Barack Obama was accused of bowing too low on his first visit to Beijing in 2009, then Tillerson is guilty of bending over backwards.

If the Trump administration is keen to seek a new approach to deal with the nuclear dangers posed by North Korea and Pakistan, then the first step is to recognize that China is part of the problem, not the solution. The second crucial step would be to develop a backbone to stand up to Beijing. US experts like Robert Blackwill have recognized this imperative and suggest a policy of “engage and contain” towards China. However, it is uncertain that the Trump administration is capable of implementing it.