No Weapon Agreement with China: What It Means for Regional Security and Diplomacy
The United States and China have agreed not to use nuclear weapons first against each other, according to a joint statement released by the two countries on August 17. The statement, issued after bilateral talks in Beijing between U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng, also said that the U.S. and China would continue to discuss strategic stability and arms control issues in upcoming meetings.
The no first use (NFU) pledge is significant because it clarifies the respective nuclear doctrines of the world`s two largest military powers. Previously, the U.S. had maintained a policy of „strategic ambiguity” on whether it would use nuclear weapons first in response to a non-nuclear attack or in a crisis. China, on the other hand, had declared in its 2019 white paper on national defense that it would „never” use nuclear weapons first „under any circumstances.”
The NFU commitment by the U.S. and China is not legally binding, and both sides have reserved the right to revise or withdraw it if their security concerns are threatened. However, the agreement sends a signal of restraint and cooperation, especially in the context of the recent tensions and risks of miscalculation between the two countries over issues such as Taiwan, the South China Sea, Hong Kong, human rights, trade, and COVID-19.
The NFU pledge also has implications for other nuclear-armed states, such as Russia, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea, which have different policies on first use. The U.S. and China, as the only countries with massive nuclear arsenals and global reach, can set a normative example for responsible nuclear behavior and reduce the likelihood of a catastrophic nuclear war.
However, some critics argue that the NFU pact is not enough to address the broader strategic challenges posed by China`s military modernization and expansion, especially in the domains of space, cyberspace, and artificial intelligence. They also question the timing and sincerity of the U.S. offer, given the recent withdrawal from Afghanistan and the ongoing tensions with Russia, Iran, and North Korea.
Moreover, the NFU pledge does not cover other types of weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical and biological weapons, nor conventional weapons, which are more likely to be used in a conflict. In fact, the U.S. and China are still competing and cooperating in various arenas of military technology, such as hypersonic missiles, unmanned systems, quantum computing, and 5G networks.
Therefore, the NFU pledge should be seen as a positive step towards reducing the risk of a nuclear catastrophe, but not as a panacea for all the complex security challenges in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond. The U.S. and China need to continue engaging in frank and constructive dialogues on a wide range of issues, including crisis management, arms control, transparency, confidence-building measures, and human security. They also need to work with other countries and international organizations to promote peace, stability, and prosperity in a rapidly changing world.
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