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P-5 Joint Nuclear Statement: Much Ado about Nothing?

Dr Rajiv Nayan is Senior Research Associate at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • January 31, 2022

    On 3 January 2022, all the five permanent members (P-5) of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) issued a joint statement on preventing nuclear war and avoiding arms race.1 Incidentally, these five countries are also the nuclear weapon countries recognised by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which has divided the world into Nuclear Weapons States and Non-Nuclear Weapons States on the basis of a cut-off date.  Interestingly, this short statement comprising just five paragraphs, has been received with a high degree of pessimism as well as with an equally pitched elation and optimism. Some bizarre analyses have also been seen, especially in the Chinese media.2

    The joint statement seems to have been issued to reassure the world and address the concerns raised by the NPT members, which have been demanding commitment to the grand bargain, especially on nuclear disarmament. Is there anything new in this statement? By now, many have expressed that there is nothing new, including the much-quoted statement: “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”3 This statement was made in 1985 in the dying years of the Cold War4, between Soviet Union and the US, and was reiterated a few times during the post-Cold War period and continues to be used in the 21st century as well.5 The recent P-5 statement seems to have made it multilateral, but without adding anything new to the original statement.

    Three of the P-5 countries are members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). US has been directing the philosophy of the alliance. The United Kingdom (UK) and France, generally, supported the core nuclear issues of the NATO-led by the US. China, which was close to both socialist and capitalist blocs during the Cold War, is now trying to emerge as an atypical actor of the global nuclear system. Its nuclear stockpile is growing and so is its aggressive behaviour. All the arms control efforts by Russia and the US would be meaningless if China is not a part of it.

    It is worth noting that on 4 January 2022, the spokesperson of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs added to the P-5 statement: “China has been advocating the principle that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. It effectively steered the five States toward joint actions.”6 Thus, at least, in principle, this multilateralisation of the adage is not new even for China. It means that all, in principle, believed the adage even before the 3 January statement.  

    In fact, the 1985 statement was a reflection of the changing world and nuclear orders, where the superpowers wanted to shed the baggage of the Cold War. It was issued when the Soviet Union was doing perestroika and pursuing glasnost. The point to note is that the strategic environment is not the same in 2022.  In Europe, NATO and Russia are at loggerheads over Ukraine. China’s aggressive behaviour is creating a warlike situation in the entire Asia.

    The Cold War and the Soviet Union both disappeared, but nuclear weapons have existed all along. The Soviet nuclear weapons became the Russian nuclear weapons. Other former Soviet Union countries transferred their nuclear weapons to the nuclear successor of the Soviet Union. Some unnecessary weapons were discarded. Some nuclear warheads were dismantled but fissile materials were preserved. Arms control sustained the nuclear force structure.

    Quite significantly, after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, nuclear weapon was never used, and in fact, even in the Second World War, it was a case of nuclear use, not war. The US used nuclear weapons, and as the opponent did not have the nuclear weapon, it only bore the consequences. The increasing nuclearisation of the world made it clear that the consequences of a nuclear use could not be one-sided. Two or more nuclear adversaries may have to share the cost and perils of nuclear use or war.

    That ‘nuclear use would have far-reaching consequences’7 is a realisation of all the P-5 countries for a long period, and statements have been issued from time to time. Even the outcome document8 of 2010 NPT Review Conference (RevCon), in which P-5 countries as members had participated, underlined the fact. However, this realisation has not resulted in any action towards eliminating nuclear weapons. P-5 countries, by and large, stayed away from the three conferences to discuss Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons. Only in the last meeting, the US and the UK participated, but did not sign the pledge issued in that conference relating to humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons.  

    In reality, we may agree that nuclear taboo has been existing since the last use of nuclear weapons. There were some instances, in which the possibility of nuclear exchange had increased. Basically, the idea that nuclear weapon is not an ordinary weapon prevented a war/nuclear exchange. Quite significantly, even when the nuclear weapons countries did not expect any reprisal, they still abstained from the use of nuclear weapons. The P-5 joint statement has basically reiterated the already existing norm against the use of nuclear weapons.

    Unfortunately, other than declaratory statements, the P-5 countries have failed the international community in taking this norm to the higher level. China is the only P-5 country that has a declared No First Use (NFU) policy, though an element of uncertainty as well as credibility clouds the Chinese NFU declaration. In 1993, Russia abandoned the 1982 Brezhnev NFU doctrine. The US has been debating but multiple factors are hindering the way to adopt the NFU. For the other two countries, NFU is hardly an issue.

    The most significant part of the statement was actually in the fourth paragraph, which mentions: “We reiterate the validity of our previous statements on de-targeting, reaffirming that none of our nuclear weapons are targeted at each other or at any other State.”9 The P-5 should consolidate it and start making a move towards NFU. In the press conference of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, held on 4 January 2022, China took the credit for inclusion of this part in the statement.10  In the transition period, they can have an arrangement similar to 1925 Geneva Protocol. For the purpose, other nuclear weapons countries, which are not members of the NPT, may also be approached.

    However, the most disappointing part of the statement was: “we also affirm that nuclear weapons—for as long as they continue to exist—should serve defensive purposes, deter aggression, and prevent war.  We believe strongly that the further spread of such weapons must be prevented.”11 This is a status-quoist statement, which, too, is made too frequently by all the nuclear weapons countries in order to perpetuate their nuclear arsenals. For a long period, the bewildered world is asking the question: who will make the first move?

    China is complicating the puzzle further. This is the first and only P-5 country which has not declared its nuclear arsenals. The way it is aggressively modernising its military, including nuclear, has left the whole world except a few countries such as Pakistan and North Korea extremely worried. Yet, China seeks a refuge in the large arsenals of Russia and the US. Eventually, defence and deterrence are nothing but tools to perpetuate the nuclear weapons oligopoly of P-5 countries.

    The last three paragraphs of the P-5 statement are equally unexciting. The pledge of the five countries to their bilateral and multilateral non-proliferation, disarmament, and arms control agreements and commitments, including to the Article VI is also not new. The looming nuclear threat seems to be the overarching issue, which the P-5 countries intend to address; therefore, the statement also gives space for averting unauthorised or unintended use of nuclear weapons.

    Just a few weeks after the statement, the world watched its futility on almost all fronts. The trust deficit continues. On 21 January 2022, China attacked12 the US–Japan joint statement of 20 January 202213 in which both countries expressed concern over continuing growth of the Chinese nuclear capabilities. In the 20 January statement, Japan and the US had merely appealed to China “to contribute to arrangements that reduce nuclear risks, increase transparency, and advance nuclear disarmament.”14

    Similarly, on 21 January 2022, China expressed concern15 about the notice issued in the US Federal Register the same day, which imposed sanctions on three Chinese entities for two years. These entities are: (i) China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) First Academy; (ii) China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) Fourth Academy; and (iii) Poly Technologies Incorporated (PTI), and their sub-units and successors.16 However, this shows that the proliferation behaviour of China has remained unchanged, and a long paragraph in the P-5 joint statement on non-proliferation eludes the stark reality reflected in the China-led proliferation network.

    Then comes the final question: How should the P-5 statement be treated? Of course, there is no harm in an appearance of such statements when the world is experiencing a paradoxical situation. Covid-19 as a universal enemy is wreaking havoc virtually indiscriminately, yet the P-5 countries are involved in the tension in Asia and Europe. The anxious world overreacted with a glimmer of hope. It does not realise that the hope or optimism will be dashed in almost no time.  

    The statement, by and large, has not gone beyond the routine or ritual statements made by the all the P-5 countries on different occasions and on different platforms. The NPT member countries demanding some concrete steps on nuclear disarmament may have to wait and be content with this kind of statement. In all likelihood, the P-5 is not going to announce anything substantial on nuclear disarmament when the postponed NPT RevCon is held in August 2022.17

    On other issues, the P-5 countries need to show some progress and provide a road-map to the world. It is difficult to expect doctrinal changes in the near future. China will continue its nuclear modernisation and proliferation behaviour, and at the same time, it will continue to talk about NFU and project itself as an important stakeholder of the global nuclear system and order. P-5 countries are showing some seriousness regarding nuclear risk, including accidental and unauthorised nuclear use. They have submitted some working papers over the years. We may hope a couple of measures on this front.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the MP-IDSA or of the Government of India.