Since China has pledged no first use of nuclear weapons and only seeks a small and effective deterrent force, it has to keep a larger arsenal of ground-based intermediate-range missiles for strategic equilibrium with other nuclear powers. In other words, if China reduces the number of its ground-based intermediate-range missiles, most of which are subject to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, it has to increase its nuclear-strike capabilities massively. Which is the “lesser evil” for the West?
China is no stranger to nuclear disarmament. In 1994 China presented a draft of a no-first-use policy to France, Russia, the U.S. and the U.K.—the four other countries in the nuclear club at the time. After India and Pakistan conducted nuclear tests in 1998, China and the U.S. agreed to point their nuclear missiles away from one another. Other nuclear powers followed suit in 2000.
Do we really need another ineffective nuclear-disarmament treaty, as Mr. Trump suggested? The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons only recognizes the nuclear powers that conducted tests before January 1967. It hasn’t prevented India, Israel and Pakistan—not to mention North Korea—from becoming de facto nuclear states. The 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons understandably reflects frustration over “the slow pace of nuclear disarmament,” but it probably won’t come into effect. So far only 23 nations have ratified the treaty, which requires 50 to go into force. Ironically, Japan refuses to join. The only country to have suffered a nuclear attack claims to see no use in the treaty.
Washington and Moscow need to take the lead on this issue and reduce the size of their nuclear arsenals if they want to live in a world with fewer weapons. The prospect of this happening appears remote. The U.S. is set to withdraw from the INF treaty on Aug. 2. North Korea refuses to make even superficial concessions without the promise of an economic payoff, and if Iran decides to go for a bomb, Saudi Arabia will follow. Dominoes in Egypt and Turkey would likely fall after that.
The number of nuclear warheads in the world has fallen from about 65,000 at the peak of the Cold War in the mid-1960s to 13,865 at the start of 2019. That’s progress but it didn’t happen by accident. It required brave leaders to make smart decisions.