Time for UK to lead West in pledging ‘no first use’ of nukes
Published: Jan 04, 2022 07:03 PM
Illustration: Liu Xidan/GT

Illustration: Liu Xidan/GT

China, Russia, the US, the UK, and France - the five nuclear-weapon states - issued on Monday a joint statement on preventing nuclear war and avoiding arms races, stressing that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. The five countries underline the avoidance of war between nuclear-weapon states and the reduction of strategic risks, and reiterate the validity of their previous statements on de-targeting, reaffirming that none of their nuclear weapons are targeted at each other or at any other state.

This was the first statement by the leaders of the five countries on nuclear weapons. According to those countries, the proliferation of nuclear weapons must be prevented. They also emphasized the importance of nuclear disarmament and intent to prevent an arms race that would benefit none and endanger all.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Monday welcomed the joint statement, said his spokesperson. Nevertheless, it is still concerning how some in the US reacted. The Associated Press reported that "Angst over China, Russia lessens chance of US nuke changes." It said US President Joe Biden's move that "seemed to herald a historic shift toward less US reliance on nuclear weapons" may stop due to China's "expanding nuclear force and talk of potential war with Taiwan."

As a media professional from China, I am glad to see such a joint statement, because it is by all means a positive sign. At the same time, people should keep in mind that of these five nuclear-weapon states, only China has publicly pledged no first use of nuclear weapons. Even though China's nuclear arsenal is expanding, there is still a huge gap between China and the US. Besides, the US has no restraint of "no first use" of nukes. It is farfetched and illogical for the US to use China as an excuse to continue upgrading its own nuclear arsenal.

Not even Western strategists will deny that China faces one of the worst global strategic environments among all the great powers. The US regards China as its top strategic competitor and places huge military pressure upon the country in areas of Taiwan Straits and the South China Sea. Therefore, China will definitely not be able to maintain a strategic balance without enough nuclear deterrence. In addition, China is determined not to engage in an arms race. We won't compete with the US on the number of nuclear weapons. All we care about is whether our nuclear deterrence is truly effective to suppress the urge of some lunatics in Washington. We don't have the ambition to use nuclear weapons to suppress the US.

The US clearly has too many nuclear weapons. With the strongest economic and technological strengths in the world, it has the most powerful conventional forces. None of Washington's rivals can compete with its 11 aircraft carrier strike groups and massive overseas military bases. The US does not have an external military threat in terms of traditional sense, so when George W. Bush took office, he questioned whether the US needed too many nuclear weapons. The Obama administration considered making a "no first use" declaration regarding US nuclear weapons and even tried to promote "a world without nuclear weapons." But the Trump administration has reversed Washington's approach on nuclear weapons and accelerated the modernization of the US nuclear arsenal.

The Biden administration faces a new test on how to deal with the issue of nuclear weapons. It was allegedly exploring whether the US should impose restrictions on the use of its nuclear weapons. This included declaring a "no first use" of nuclear weapons or a "sole purpose" nuclear policy, such as only using those weapons to retaliate against a nuclear attack. But Biden's aggressive policy toward China and Russia has increased global geopolitical tensions and the administration is in contradiction now.

US allies failed to play a positive role. The UK, France and Germany, as well as Japan, the only country that had suffered a nuclear attack, firmly oppose the US' restrictions on the use of nuclear weapons, according to reports. It seems that Tokyo's long-term antinuclearism is fake. 

Under such circumstances, it is not easy for the five nuclear-weapon states to come up with a joint statement. This at least shows that the basic attitudes of all parties to avoid nuclear war and nuclear blackmail, to prevent nuclear proliferation and an arms race, are similar, and rationality has taken the upper hand.

It now appears that it will be difficult for the US and Russia to commit to not being the first to use nuclear weapons. But it is believed that France, and the UK especially, should take a positive step - such as to declare that they will not be the first to use nuclear weapons under any circumstances, and that they will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear countries or regions, as China has already stated.

Neither the UK nor France faces an urgent strategic threat. And the US has been providing a nuclear umbrella to its allies. In particular, the UK maintains a special relationship with the US and sits at a core position among US' allies. The US providing a nuclear umbrella to the UK is supposed to be a most reliable thing. The UK should follow what is right and take the lead in making a commitment not to use nuclear weapons first among Western nuclear powers, making its due contribution. 

It is also worth noting that only the leaders of China, Russia, the US, the UK and France participated in making the statement this time. Other countries that also possess nuclear weapons, including India, were not invited to join. This shows that the determination of the international community on nuclear non-proliferation is firm, and it is difficult for those countries to be recognized as nuclear-weapon states.

The author is a commentator with the Global Times. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn