Ray Acheson

The Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva is notorious for evoking frustration, rage, and despair among the members of civil society and the diplomatic community. Mandated to negotiate multilateral disarmament treaties (the only standing body that can do so), it hasn’t even agreed on a program of work for over ten years. It operates on consensus, meaning all 65 member states have to be in agreement for anything to happen. Every year the disarmament community gears up for another round of deliberations, hoping this year is the year that the stalemate will end and the deadlock will be broken. However, some of the major military powers continuously block the creation of new global security arrangements, choosing further military development over arms control, disarmament, and security.

There has been a long-standing dispute in the CD among the five (recognized) nuclear weapon states over the issues on the CD’s table: a fissile materials ban, prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS), nuclear disarmament, and negative security assurances. The US wants to begin negotiations on a Fissile Materials Cut-off Treaty (FMCT), but until this year has refused to allow substantive discussions on outer space (it is now willing to allow discussions on PAROS in the CD, without reference to the possibility of an agreement). China maintains the opposite position. While it actively promotes an international legal agreement on PAROS, it has been cautious and even hostile towards an FMCT.

On 23 March 2007, the six presidents of the CD put forward a proposal of work and a draft decision. The draft decision is a package approach (it includes action on all four issues simultaneously), it is carefully worded, and it accommodates conflicting priorities among member states. However, China (and a few other states) began making noise immediately, stalling the Conference from taking a decision on the proposal by arguing they needed more time to consult with their capitals. The first session of 2007 ended without a decision, and when the CD reconvened on 15 May, several states, including China, maintained they still needed more time to decide if they can accept the proposal.

Without intending to ignore the other states responsible for the delay, it is important to note that China’s response to the draft proposal in particular is reflective of the major problems facing all attempts to negotiate or even discuss disarmament measures: hyper-militarism among the major powers, and the capacity for geostrategic concerns to impede progress in negotiating treaties that could actually help shift the (im)balance.

Of the five nuclear weapon states, China has the least amount of fissile material stocks; if its production were banned, it would never be able to catch up to the other states. China’s objection to this appears, at first glance, rather ironic, considering China is the only nuclear weapon state that regularly calls for nuclear disarmament in its official statements at the United Nations. This concern, however, is determined by the parameters of power in the international community, which are currently set by the US, its foreign policy, and its quest for a “prompt global strike” capacity. It wants its military to be able to “hit targets anywhere on earth in an hour or two,” giving it unprecedented (and unmatched) dominance over the world’s affairs. In this context, China and other major and emerging powers believe they are faced with a choice: acquiesce, or keep up. Meanwhile, the US carefully makes strategic alliances with some of these powers that create the impression of further insecurity for others. For example, the US and India signed an agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation that, if approved by US Congress, will allow India to import foreign uranium for its civilian programme while using more of its indigenous uranium to make nuclear weapons. The agreement undermines every international non-proliferation agreement and resolution, and of course, makes China and Pakistan nervous.

In addition, if a fissile materials ban were to include verification measures as the majority of the international community demands it should, this would grant the US access to concrete information about China’s nuclear capabilities, which they have thus far carefully shrouded in ambiguity. China worries that the more the US knows about its capabilities, the more vulnerable it is to preemptive attack–the US could decide China’s arsenal is a threat to international security, and would know how big of an attack was needed to ensure it eliminated China’s second-strike capabilities.

As long as China, and many others, believe they need to protect themselves from the US and its allies, they aren’t going to cooperate when it comes to reducing and eliminating their weapons and weapon materials–elements they view as crucial to countering US domination. Yet a fissile materials ban might actually work to China’s benefit in some ways, such as limiting India’s ability to produce fissile materials (though if both a fissile materials ban and the US-India nuclear deal are established, it’s difficult to guess how one might affect the other).

Which brings us back to the CD.

A draft FMCT proposed by the US does not call for the reduction of existing fissile material stocks, but only for the cessation of future production of fissile materials, and specifies that only fissile materials produced after the Treaty enters into force cannot be used in nuclear weapons. The US also argues that a treaty calling for the elimination of existing stocks would not be verifiable and, therefore, should not contain any verification provisions. Working from the US draft, an FMCT would be more of a non-proliferation treaty than a disarmament treaty, clearly biased in favour of nuclear weapon states–and further biased in favour of the US over China. Most states do not support the US draft, and call for a return to the 1995 Shannon Mandate, “to negotiate a non-discriminatory, multilateral and internationally and effectively verifiable treaty.” This approach, however, lacks US support, demonstrating the potential for further deadlock even if a programme of work is adopted in the CD–and further proliferation in the meantime. The US might be willing to move forward on the draft proposal, but it is still blocking consensus.

Note: To follow the CD’s activities (or lack of them), read Reaching Critical Will’s CD Report. The next session is scheduled to begin on 15 May 2007. Also see RCW’s Guide to the CD for background information. In addition, an article published by the Union of Concerned Scientists in 1995 outlines China’s concerns about an FMCT, and its possible benefits and drawbacks to China’s security. Though the article is twelve years old, its assessment is still relevant today–which is indicative of how long and drawn out this deadlock has been.