Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

China: A Nuclear Loner

Perhaps the only substantive accomplishment of the Moscow nuclear summit of the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations and Russia was a formal commitment by the eight to sign, by this September, a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty prohibiting all nuclear explosions of any size. This treaty will prevent existing nuclear-weapon states from modernizing their nuclear warhead designs and will raise significant hurdles for Third World nations hoping to develop their own nuclear weapons.

Notably, the "Political Eight," -- the G-7 plus Russia -- include all the declared nuclear-weapon states except China, which is largely responsible for delaying the completion of the test ban treaty in Geneva. At last week's bilateral summit in China, Russian President Boris Yeltsin quietly delivered a message from the P-8 to China's leaders which sought more flexibility in China's test ban positions. While Yeltsin left with a vague Chinese commitment to "join the P-8 agreement to negotiate and conclude the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty," it is clear that Chinese attitudes toward the treaty and nuclear testing remain nonconstructive and are receiving little international support.

Specifically, China has persistently sought an exemption in the treaty for the right to conduct "peaceful nuclear explosions."

Although the United States, Britain and France long ago abandoned their research into the value of nuclear explosions for peaceful purposes -- such as creating harbors or digging canals -- and Russia is prepared to forego such tests, China argues that the utility of peaceful nuclear explosions is insufficiently understood, and therefore such technology should not be curtailed prematurely.

Critics of peaceful nuclear explosions counter that all nuclear explosions yield information that could be applied directly to the design of nuclear weapons. Furthermore, there is no way to verify that a peaceful nuclear test device does not contain military components.

Secondly, China announced in January that it would continue to conduct nuclear tests even after it signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, violating the international norm of adhering to treaty obligations after signature. Instead, China would stop testing only after the treaty entered into force, a date that would fall no sooner than two years after the treaty was opened for signature.

Assuming the best case, the treaty would be completed this September, and provisions for its entry into force would be met within two years. This would mean that China would continue to test well into 1998. But the best case may not be the most likely, as some of the provisions now proposed in Geneva require ratification by all the nuclear-weapon states for the treaty to become binding, effectively giving China a veto over the treaty's implementation and potentially extending its right to test indefinitely.

Finally, China is the only nation in the world that currently has a nuclear explosive test program. Russia has not conducted a nuclear test since 1990, the United States since 1992 and Britain since 1991. France recently conducted its final nuclear tests and signed a protocol to the South Pacific Nuclear Weapon Free Zone that prohibits France from testing at Mururoa. China has maintained a regular testing schedule throughout the '90s, and will probably conduct its first test this year in several weeks.

Given the recent difficulty in U.S.-Chinese relations, particularly in the area of nonproliferation, the P-8 have recognized that Yeltsin may have the best opportunity to influence China's nonproliferation policies.

The United States would be seen as wanting to keep China down. The British commitment to the test ban is seen as making a virtue of necessity, since the Nevada Test Site, where Britain tested, is closed. France stopped testing only a few months ago, after completing a series of shots intended to prepare its nuclear test computer simulation capabilities.

Last week's Chinese-Russian summit marks new levels of cooperation between the two nations, including sales of advanced conventional weaponry, transfers of nuclear power technology and progress on border demarcation agreements.

Yeltsin must continue to explain to China the benefits of an effective comprehensive nuclear test ban. First, the treaty will ensure that China's modest deterrence force will continue to effectively counter the threats China perceives from Russian and U.S. strategic nuclear weapons.

With a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty in place, the United States and Russia will not be able to make qualitative improvements to the design of their nuclear stockpiles. Moreover, those stockpiles will continue to decrease as START I continues to be implemented and START II awaits Russian ratification. Second, the treaty would secure China's position as the region's most powerful nuclear power. The test ban treaty would prevent India, its regional rival, from developing fusion weapons to match China's and would further reinforce the non-nuclear commitments of Japan and South Korea.

Third, the treaty clearly removes obstacles from China's oft-stated goal of global nuclear disarmament. With no comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty, no nation with nuclear weapons would ever eliminate their stockpiles, especially if other nations were permitted to test nuclear weapon designs or to explode peaceful nuclear devices.

The news that Yeltsin succeeded in eliciting general Chinese support for completing the treaty this year is welcome. But Yeltsin will need to continue using Russia's increased influence to extract more constructive commitments from China if we are to see the comprehensive test ban treaty completed at all, much less this year.

Andrei Zobov is program associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center. Gregory Webb is deputy director of the nuclear nonproliferation project at the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace. They contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.