Analysis & Opinions - The Providence Journal

Engage China in Nuclear-Proliferation Issue

| October 27, 2008

THE POSITIONS of Barack Obama and John McCain on the Bush administration's latest deal with North Korea indicate different approaches that each might take on non-proliferation issues — engagement or containment. While both consider nuclear nonproliferation a priority and both endorse the idea that the United States should take serious steps toward eliminating nuclear weapons, the North Korean issue highlights the importance for the United States to engage one of its most important partners for accomplishing these goals — China.

China's crucial role has not been diminished since the North Korean denuclearization process started in 2003, even if the United States later started direct dialogue with Pyongyang. Indeed, it was just reported that Washington expects Pyongyang to submit to China a list of verification steps it would allow in return for being removed from the U.S. terrorism-sponsor list.

Yet the North Korean issue only represents one piece of international non-proliferation efforts. At a time when the global non-proliferation regime is weakened in the absence of consensus on priority and process, China and the U.S. share a common interest and responsibility to strengthen measures that prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons.The two countries both agree and disagree on nuclear non-proliferation.

Internationally, the two countries are committed to promoting non-proliferation within frameworks such as the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).

Regionally, they maintain consultations on the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula and in Iran. Bilaterally, they have intensified dialogues and cooperation on export control and intelligence sharing, as well as in other areas. Yet differences, ranging from strategic to practical issues, remain. The next president, together with the Chinese leadership, must lead by example through more effective cooperation. The United States and China should be the strongest advocates for reducing the currency of nuclear weapons.

One thing in the way of their partnership is their differing views on their own nuclear weapons. Since going nuclear in 1964, China has been committed to a policy of no-first-use of nuclear weapons and no use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states or in nuclear-free zones. The United States, on the other hand, reserves its right, as part of its nuclear doctrine, to strike others in a pre-emptive manner.

Many Chinese believe that it is unfair for the U.S. to ask other countries to not develop nuclear weapons while it maintains a huge nuclear stockpile. And its policies are counterproductive because they continue to provide legitimacy to nuclear weapons in international affairs.The United States and China must bridge their respective perceptions of potential nuclear threat and approaches to non-proliferation in order to work together to tackle the most urgent nuclear problems.

The United States could engage China more effectively on concerns, such as the North Korean and Iranian nuclear issues, by recognizing China's own interests. Denuclearization efforts will not succeed without China's support, and the perception that the United States is only using China's influence to reduce a nuclear threat to itself is detrimental to bilateral relations. Regarding North Korea and Iran, China envisions nuclear non-proliferation as a broad security concept that encompasses all-around solutions. China believes that the fundamental purpose of non-proliferation is to safeguard and promote regional and international peace and security. To achieve these goals, non-proliferation should be pursued in a diplomatic manner that eschews coercion and other hostile measures.

China also advocates equilibrium between non-proliferation, peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and disarmament. Because of its perceived balanced stance on North Korea and Iran, China occupies the formidable middle ground and could play a constructive role in facilitating a solution that avoids full-scale crisis. The United States should encourage China to continue its constructive intervention: no nuclear-weapons program, no escalating confrontations, but continued, flexible dialogue. Otherwise, should any of the parties up the ante, the international community will lose a valuable avenue to mitigate the crisis.

The United States can facilitate China's efforts on regional arms control and security by maintaining consistent standards. Supporting nuclear trade with India, which stands outside of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, blurs those standards.

In a rare public response to the controversial U.S. proposal to lift a ban on nuclear trade with India, the People's Daily, China's largest official newspaper, carried an editorial saying: "Whether it is motivated by geopolitical considerations or commercial interests, the U.S.-India nuclear agreement has constituted a major blow to the international non-proliferation regime."

The United States should recognize China's solid position in defending the global non-proliferation regime, and its active role in reducing regional proliferation tensions. The U.S. should support, with China, a more constructive means of countering nuclear proliferation, both regionally and internationally. As Albert Einstein said, "Every kind of peaceful cooperation among men is primarily based on mutual trust and only secondly on institutions." The next U.S. president must work to deepen mutual trust in Sino-U.S. relations for the benefit of both parties and the world.

Anne Wu is an associate of the Managing the Atom Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University's Kennedy School. Views expressed here are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by any unit of Harvard.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Wu, Anne.“Engage China in Nuclear-Proliferation Issue.” The Providence Journal, October 27, 2008.

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