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Why China joined the nuclear weapons club

Once an outsider to global nuclear decision-making, China is now firmly an insider, a valued member of the nuclear community. How did this dramatic transition take place?

Let’s start by casting our thoughts back to a time when China was a not a rising superpower and the world’s second largest economy, but instead a war-torn country. The year was 1949, and the Chinese Communists, led by Mao Zedong, were emerging victorious from a protracted civil war. The atomic age had only just begun with the tragic August 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The initial Chinese reaction to the first atomic bombings could not have been more different to the Americans and Soviets. The superpowers saw nuclear weapons as true game-changers, heralding a revolution in warfare, but China quickly dismissed nuclear weapons as “paper tigers” with little military value. Unimpressed and unintimidated, in 1950 it entered the Korean War against the nuclear-armed US. While China had just secured an alliance agreement with the nuclear-armed USSR, their agreement gave no explicit guarantees of a nuclear defence umbrella.

In any event, shortly after the Korean War, China decided to embark on a nuclear weapons programme. This decision was not a contradiction in terms. Mao’s tune remained unchanged: the bomb was still a paper tiger, but there was political and security value in getting it. It promised greater recognition on the world stage, much-needed since Taiwan held the China seat at the United Nations Security Council.

The bomb would also counter nuclear threats from the US, since it would be far more difficult to ignore or bully China if it had one. This rationale became even more urgent when China’s ties with the Soviets came to an end in the early to mid-1960s.

Taking the plunge

When China eventually tested the bomb on October 16 1964, Beijing issued a statement downplaying the significance of its nuclear deterrent: it would be for self-defence only, and operate under a pledge of No First Use. Similarly, there would be no attempt to match the arsenals of the superpowers and enter into a nuclear arms race.

China’s first nuclear bomb test.

These positions were unusual for the time; the precedent set by the superpowers was rapid development of forces, and the placing of weapons on high alert. Yet China opted instead for a limited arsenal, and held fast to its core view that these weapons had little military use.

However, shortly after it began testing, China did start to change its behaviour in nuclear politics. By 1971, China had become a permanent member of the Security Council and throughout the 1970s took a step back from global nuclear politics. Until then, the country had been highly critical of the superpowers’ attempts to regulate nuclear weapons through bilateral arms control agreements and international treaties, including the 1961 Partial Test Ban Treaty and the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

China only re-entered global nuclear politics in the 1980s as part of a much wider attempt to “join the world” under its new leader, Deng Xiaoping. Armed with an emerging domestic clutch of nuclear experts, China issued statements supporting non-proliferation, joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1992, and signed up to new treaties such as the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Up to date

This brings us to the present. China now has a seat at all the major nuclear conferences and institutions, has played a key role in the negotiations with Iran, and is now leading the way in defining the international terms of nuclear arms control among the nuclear weapons states. The Beijing government has become a skilled negotiator in nuclear politics. This change has been welcomed by most of the world – but suspicion of China’s nuclear policy remains.

The main source of this suspicion is lack of transparency. China, for instance, does not make public how many weapons it has. Even though China has not changed its declaratory policy since 1964 – remarkable consistency for a nuclear armed state – there remains concern that China will “sprint to parity”, expand its nuclear arsenal and abandon the principle of NFU.

In essence, countries such as the US have never trusted China to stick to its core idea that nuclear weapons have little military value. Perhaps Beijing will hold the line as it jostles for ever more global influence; time will tell.

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