#08 event report: China’s Role in the Global Nuclear Weapons Order since 1964


May 31, 2011, Bridge Café (Wudaokou)

Speaker: Dr. Nicola Horsburgh, Researcher, Department of International Relations, Oxford University (UK)


Dr. Horsburgh’s thesis explores the Chinese nuclear weapons behavior  in terms of its participation in the global nuclear weapons order. Participation here relates to China’s engagement in the process of creating (during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s), consolidating (in the 1980s and 1990s) and maintaining nuclear order today. In unpacking China’s participation, I am particularly interested in the methods used and strategies adopted by China as well as the motivations driving its engagement.

This is an alternative approach to the study of nuclear weapons behavior, since most analysis has a narrow focus on issues related to proliferation, nuclear weapons development, or strategy. In relation to China, analysis typically concentrates on its poor proliferation record, the uncertain direction and depth of its military spending and modernization process; as well as opaqueness in policy. More recent studies have focused on China’s decision to sign up to major nuclear treaties such as the Non Proliferation Treaty (1992) and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (1996). While these studies have their merits they all rest on underlying negative assumptions and are set against China’s rise in international affairs. Nuclear order offers an alternative lens and background against which to assess behaviour, resulting in a more holistic (beyond a proliferation or strategy focus) and historical perspective. The historical perspective is especially important because there is little analysis in English on China’s role in the wider global nuclear history, nor of China’s interpretation of that history.

In terms of structure, the thesis is divided into two sections, the first part is conceptual, here I present my own definition of nuclear order and outline how participation in that order can be used to assess nuclear weapons behaviour. The second part of the thesis is more empiricial, it presents a chronological study of Chinese participation in the global nuclear order between 1949 and the mid to late 2000s.

Before I offer my definition of nuclear order it is useful to briefly consider the existing literature, and to note that the term is increasingly used by the International Atomic Energy Agency, and policymakers worldwide: unfortunately, many consider the nuclear order broken (due to proliferation in Iran, North Korea, the threat of nuclear terrorism, etc…). However, academically speaking, very few, with the exception of Professor William Walker, have explored the term in serious detail. According to Walker, nuclear order consists of two systems: the first, managed deterrence, is a system based on power politics in which doctrines of deterrence are key; the second system, abstinence, is based on regimes, of which the NPT is key. Both systems are held together by a reliance on deterrence and eventual promise of nuclear disarmament among nuclear weapons states party to the NPT. Walker adds that the nuclear order is currently broken, and lays much of the blame for this on the George W. Bush administration. Walker’s ideas sparked an intense intellectual debate in a 2007 edition of the International Affairs journal, with Realists highlighting instead the US role as a positive factor in upholding the nuclear order, an order defined by Realists as very much based on power politics. Unfortunately, the nuclear order debate has remained largely a Western debate, with the slight exception of some limited discussion in India and China.

So, where do I place myself in this debate? I agree with Walker that nuclear order is more than a set of deterrent relations, in fact, I argue that norms and ideas play a play a powerful role in constraining nuclear behaviour, take for instance the norm of nuclear non-proliferation and non-use. However, I define nuclear order in terms of four core elements or pillars: nuclear deterrence, arms control, nonproliferation and disarmament. I highlight the interplay between these pillars, especially how they might underpin or undermine one another. For instance, though they share the goal of strategic stability, their longer term imperatives differ. Take disarmament: its ultimate manifestation is the undoing of nuclear order, transforming it into a non-nuclear order, while at the opposite end of the spectrum, deterrence preserves the status quo, keeping the nuclear order ‘nuclear’. The current nuclear order is very much driven by the deterrence rather than disarmament imperative. This thus has important implications for the ‘nuclear weapons free world’ debate that has been raging since 2009 by suggesting that disarmament will be extremely difficult to achive because it requires the undoing of the very fabric of nuclear order, based on deterrence.

In assessing the methods and motivations behind China’s participation, I propose several sets of variables. To identity methods, I distinguish between actions that directly or indirectly contribute to nuclear order, those that are strategic, organizational and normative in nature; as well as the pace of engagement, from joining to promoting a treaty. In terms of motivations, I have two (inter-related) sets of variables: domestic and external. Among domestic variables are financial incentives, sub-state interests, normative sources of power, and historical experience; external variables include foreign pressure, institutional constraints, changes in balances of power, as well as perceptions of nuclear order.

In terms of China’s nuclear behaviour, I start chronologically, before China successfully detonated its first atomic device, between 1949 and 1964; and then assess China’s role in the nuclear order as a nuclear weapons state thereafter. So far, the main arguments include:

  • During the 1949-1976 period, most analysis suggests China was a voiciferous bystander critical to treaties like the NPT, an obstacle to building nuclear order. My thesis complicates this picture: China actually came to faciliate the nuclear order as it eventually emerged by indirectly influencing the thinking of the superpowers as to how best to manage nuclear weapons and shape an order based around nonproliferation. In the early 1960s, China even saw value in a nuclear order, presenting its own ideas for order (based around what I term ‘Socialist Proliferation’).
  • In the 1970s and 1980s, China’s ‘opening up and reform’ process actually had a slowing-down effect on its military efforts and nuclear programme, thus China retreated from the nuclear order.
  • In the late 1980s and 1990s, China re-engaged with the nuclear order as a more confident nuclear weapons state (with second strike force capabilities: intercontinental ballistic missiles, as well as submarine launched ballistic missiles); export controls in place, and as a member of major treaties such as the NPT and CTBT. In this period, I also assess China’s decision to host the Six Party Talks;  and its commitment to dialogues, especially with the US, in the nuclear field.

Overall, this thesis intends to present a more balanced understanding of Chinese nuclear weapons behaviour, grounded in a reassessment of global nuclear history, and China’s place in that history. The thesis also develops nuclear order as a more useful academic concept (beyond the non-proliferation regime) through which to understand how nuclear arms are governed globally as well as how actors behave in that order.