Tuesday, March 21, 2017

China DOES Have a Role in the Nuclear Ban Movement

 . . . before our luck runs out!
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China's leader Mao Zedong recognized that one of the paramount issues of our time would be the reversal of dominance by a few powerful states holding arsenals of nuclear weapons. Mao more-or-less single-handedly developed and articulated a doctrine to counter that of deterrence and superpower dominance. He recognized that nuclear arsenals could inflict enormous injury (like real tigers) but would ultimately prove to be unsustainable as sources of national power ("paper tigers"). (See "Great Powers and Atomic Bombs are 'Paper Tigers'" by Ralph L. Powell)

To a very real degree, the fact that negotiations on a global nuclear weapons ban are going forward next week at the UN stems from Mao's vision. Historically, China has been an important leader in the "third world" / non-aligned movement. Moreover, China's continued limitations on its own nuclear arsenal suggest that it stands on the side of countries trying to figure out how to undo the arms race that the US and Russia have perpetrated, rather than participate in it. Certainly, in its history the People's Republic of China has faced the threat of a nuclear attack by the US at numerous points. (See "Nuclear Signaling and China’s Perception about Nuclear Threat: How China Handled Nuclear Threats in the Cold War" by Tong Zhao)

So when I read the reports yesterday that China will not attend the weapons ban negotiations, my initial reaction was disappointment. I believe that the nuclear weapons ban effort demonstrates the ability of the vast majority of the world's countries to insist that the handful of most powerful countries stop threatening them. For the reasons described above, it seemed to me that China needed to be at the table.

China: the US is a "paper tiger"

Once I settled down, however, it occurred to me: maybe the important question is, What affects China's decision? After all, China is bound to act in its own best interest. Moreover, it may have some analysis of what will work best that is not immediately obvious.

Yes, based on history, we can be confident China wants a nuclear ban . . . . I wondered: Is it possible that China can get what it wants without participating in the negotiations? (Yes: a nuclear ban treaty seems likely to be negotiated with or without China's participation.)

I wondered further: Is there some way in which it is actually to China's advantage to view the negotiations from afar, rather than being at the table? (Yes: they can make an up-or-down decision whether to accede to the treaty, without being compelled to voice objections during the negotiations themselves. They can retain the flexibility to join the negotiations later. They can continue to urge other states to participate.)

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the best option for China right now may be to participate by not participating. (Does that sound like Daoist philosophy? Well . . . . ) China is in the peculiar position of being a very important state, and a state that possesses nuclear weapons, but also a state with a tiny nuclear arsenal compared to the US and Russia. China makes the most of its significant but limited influence -- perhaps -- by hovering in the wings . . . .

"Nuclear Civil Defense Measures" (China, 1970)
The text at top is a warning from Mao about
a nuclear war of aggression against China:
"From now on we must be prepared for this!"
(Source: Chinese Propaganda Posters, Taschen)

What might the "silver lining" be? Remembering that things aren't always what they seem . . . that a "negative" may turn out to be a "neutral" . . . and that a "neutral" may turn out to be a "positive" . . . .

If China did participate in the negotiations, it would be compelled to voice the perspective of a "nuclear weapons state." For instance, China would have to insist that the proceedings "go slow" and "be practical." (You know the principle: speak now or forever hold your peace.) By forgoing the privilege of advancing those arguments, China makes it likely that the treaty that is constructed will have as few "outs" as possible for the nuclear weapons states.

In other words, to accomplish something in its long-term (and vital) interest, China may be forfeiting some near-term (but ultimately unimportant) interest.

(By the way: considering all aspects of a development is a highly-valued outlook in China, embodied in the expression "Old Sai loses a horse.")

The more I think about it, the more I wonder: was the US expecting China to do its dirty work for it? Did the US think that it could, itself, boycott the negotiations, while still relying on China to be at the table and advance all kinds of "nuclear weapons state" perspectives?  If so, there will be some disappointed people in Washington, DC.

I wonder what the conversation between Donald Trump and Xi Jinping will be on this subject when they meet in April.

My conclusion: Don't count China out. China DOES have a role in the nuclear ban movement!


Who would possibly vote "NO" to banning nuclear weapons???

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