A Chinese View of NPT Conference

Questions about Iran and North Korea will undoubtedly be on the table at the UN’s NPT Review Conference. But expert Li Hong says those issues are best handled outside the conference, which will be more effective focusing on nuclear disarmament, nonproliferation of weapons, and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

April 30, 2010

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Questions about how to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions and North Korea’s quitting the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty will undoubtedly be on the table at the NPT Review Conference that begins this week at the UN. But a leading Chinese expert on arms control, Li Hong, says those issues are best handled outside the conference, although the conference should express general support for resolving those issues. Instead, he argues, the conference will be more effective focusing on nuclear disarmament, nonproliferation of weapons, and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. He says the recent U.S.-Russian New START agreement, while a "positive" development, only "modestly cuts the nuclear arsenals of the two countries, and remains reversible as such accords have in the past."

What is the most important topic for the conference?

The mandate of the Review Conference is to evaluate how the NPT has been working. These include the fields of nuclear disarmament, nonproliferation and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The most important goal at the forthcoming Review Conference is how to build on previous momentum and convert political will to concrete actions in those three areas: Recognition of the indispensable role of the NPT, reaffirmation of the unequivocal commitment of member states to the NPT and seeking the elimination of all nuclear weapons as a final objective.

Russia and the United States have the signed New START agreement. Will this have any impact on the conference? Will it convince other countries that the nuclear powers are sincere about wanting to reduce their nuclear arsenals?

Surely the new agreement will have a positive impact. It at least shows some steps for reducing nuclear arsenals and creates a favorable atmosphere for the conference. However, the agreement only modestly cuts the nuclear arsenals of the two countries, and remains reversible, as such accords have in the past. Besides, thousands of tactic nuclear weapons of both countries are outside the agreement. Therefore, it is far less than expectations and far from sufficient to convince other countries that Russia and the United States are sincere about their disarmament commitments. Some critics even say they are just optimizing their nuclear arsenals under the changed international situation. The United States and Russia, as the countries with the largest nuclear arsenals, should continue to cut the size of their nuclear arsenals deeply and pave the way for including other nuclear powers in multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations.

Should the conference deal with North Korea, which left the NPT and has detonated two nuclear devices and says it wants to be a nuclear weapons power? Or should North Korea discussions be left to the Six Party Talks in Beijing?

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The North Korea nuclear issue is a complex one that goes much beyond nuclear questions. It is closely related to the regional security situation of the Korean peninsula and to history. The Review Conference provides a useful angle for the international community to examine the issue from the nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament aspects. Nobody, however, should expect the conference to solve the issue, [but] it still can exert some influence to the process of solving the issue. The conference could convey, through its final document, the grave concern of the international community and make a strong call for the DPRK [North Korea] to return to the NPT regime.

United support for the full implementation of the relevant UN Security Council resolutions aimed at North Korea could also be emphasized. Desire could also be expressed for the peaceful resolution of the issue and early resumption of the Six Party Talks. In such a way, the conference could avoid spending too much of its time on discussing whether new measures are necessary or not. Instead it could create a favorable atmosphere for the Six Party Talks to tackle the problem.

There is considerable concern about Iran’s nuclear program. What can be done at the conference to persuade Iran to accept negotiations with the P-5 [the United States, Britain, France, Russia, and China] plus Germany on ways to ensure that it does not develop nuclear arms?

As with the DPRK issue, the conference should convey the message that the international community is united and resolute in wanting to solve the problem. Taking into consideration that the issue is closely related to the regional situation of the Middle East, the review conference could point to the P5+1 mechanism for proper resolution of the issue.

Is it realistic to expect any progress toward a Middle East nuclear-free zone?

It is not realistic to expect to solve the Middle East issue overnight. Building a nuclear-free zone in such a complicated area is a long-term objective. Yet, beginning the process for the final resolution of the issue is attainable. The starting point should be the consensus document regarding the Middle East from the 1995 review conference.

What can be done, if anything, to persuade India, Pakistan, and Israel to join the NPT?

Taking into account the political situations in South Asia and the Middle East and witnessing the developments and practices in dealing with proliferation matters concerning those countries, nobody could be optimistic about dragging the above three countries into the NPT mechanism. From personal perspective, little can be effectively done in persuading the three countries to join the NPT. Having said that, it is still necessary and appropriate for the conference to continue its practice of unanimously making strong appeals to the three countries to join the treaty. This would show the desire and resolution of the international community to safeguard the integrity and authoritativeness of the NPT regime.

You are interested in making sure that the conference provides a way to ensure that there is a multilateral nuclear fuel supply mechanism. Can the conference make it easier for states to develop peaceful uses of nuclear energy?

The peaceful use of nuclear energy and nonproliferation are two of the conference’s key topics. In this sense, creating a multilateral nuclear fuel supply mechanism is an appropriate subject for discussion. It is not economically and technologically feasible for every country, especially small ones, to have their own fuel cycle system. A multilateral nuclear fuel supply mechanism would provide a useful option for those countries interested in peaceful uses of nuclear energy. It could be so arranged to guarantee the viable supply and reduce the risk for proliferation. There should be no doubt that a multilateral fuel supply mechanism should be operated on a voluntary basis. The conference, although it cannot solve all disputes over the issue, could bring all sides closer, to pave way for agreement in the future discussion at IAEA or other multilateral forums.

Do people put too many hopes on the conference, which cannot be fulfilled because of the need for consensus?

Due to a perceived increase in calls for a nuclear weapons-free world since last year, people increasingly put their expectations on the conference. However, such issues cannot be solved by the NPT Review Conference alone. Solutions depend on measures inside and outside the NPT. The consensus mechanism created for the Review Conference is one factor in hindering the conference from going further, but it is not the key factor. To some extent, the progress on implementing the NPT reflects the general security situation. Lack of progress in the NPT Review Conference cannot be totally blamed on its rules of procedure but need to be considered in the context of the world security situation.

More on:

Global Governance

Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament


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