China in the Catbird Seat

There were two major nuclear non-proliferation conferences in April, one in Washington (President Barack Obama’s Nuclear Security Summit) and one in Tehran (International Conference on Disarmament and Non-Proliferation). A third, aka the Big One – the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference held in New York City under the auspices of the United Nations – is now taking place in New York.

China has attended all these confabs in its apparently successful efforts to stake out an advantageous and independent position on nuclear weapons policy and the Iran crisis – and counter Russian attempts to create a new, anti-China security condominium in alliance with the United States.

After months of anxiety and uncertainty, China finds itself in the catbird seat – and in a position to profit if Obama’s Iran diplomacy succeeds or, as appears very possible, it fails.

The US apparently approached the 2010 NPT Review Conference with the hope that it would have Moscow in its corner and a deal with Iran, or at least sanctions on Iran, in place to present the suspicious non-aligned nations with a fait accompli of US leadership.

However, in an eerie recapitulation of its difficulties at the climate change conference in Copenhagen, the Obama administration came to the NPT conference with only the Russian element of its intricate, multi-layer geopolitical strategy in place – and is forced to rely on atmospherics, indignant rhetoric, and recycled data and agreements instead.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was able to score points with the non-specialist international media by revealing for the first time the size of the US active nuclear stockpile: 5,113 warheads, according to the Department of Defense.

This probably came as little surprise to the arms control community, since the most interesting figure – 3,696, the number of actively deployed warheads mated with delivery systems and ready to descend upon America’s enemies – was published in 2007, and the total number of warheads in the active stockpile (both operationally deployed and those that are completely operational but not pointed at anybody) had already been estimated at 5,200 by Hans Khristensen of the Federation of American Scientists based on open source information. (1)

If and when the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia enters into effect, the 5,113 number apparently will not change. A certain number of warheads will be removed from the roster of actively deployed weapons but they will not be destroyed; they will remain in the active stockpile, maintained, repaired, topped off with tritium, and ready to return to the front lines at short notice. (2)

In addition, to the active stockpile of 5,113 warheads, there are somewhere around 8,000 to 9,000 “obsoleted” nuclear weapons – weapons that will not be kept in good repair, but will be dismantled eventually and their 30 tons or so of weapons grade metal recovered; and another 38 tons of military plutonium that has never been fabricated into a weapon.

That’s perhaps 10,000 megatons’ worth of nuclear metal.

For comparison purposes, Little Boy – the uranium bomb dropped on Hiroshima – was calculated to have a destructive power of less than 18 kilotons.

In other words, the United States has enough weapons-grade metal for 25,000 warheads – or 500,000 Hiroshimas.

America’s nuclear superiority appears assured; but Obama has his work cut out for him at the NPT in positioning the United States as a credible partner in global nuclear disarmament.

However, America’s most nagging NPT headache probably isn’t America’s glacial disarmament process, or even Iran: it’s Israel. Israel’s undeclared arsenal of nuclear warheads has always been an irritant in US’s Middle Eastern diplomacy and its efforts to block Iran’s nuclear program.

The double standards dilemma has been most acute for Obama, who has designed his geopolitical strategy (and collected a Nobel Peace Prize) around the idea of reducing the threat of nuclear weapons through a combination of enhanced nuclear security, vigorous non-proliferation, and great-power nuclear disarmament under US leadership – anchored by universal adherence to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Embarrassingly, from an NPT perspective, Israel doesn’t compare favorably with Iran at all.

Iran is a signatory to the NPT and an active if unhappy and not particularly candid participant in the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) safeguards program. Its current inventory of nuclear material amounts to less than 2 tons of radioactive dirt, perhaps 11 pounds of uranium enriched to just below the 20% threshold (equivalent to less than 3 pounds of HEU if fully enriched), and 0 pounds of bomb grade material.

Israel is not a signatory to the NPT. It joined the IAEA, but does not participate in any safeguards program, apparently regarding its membership primarily as a useful opportunity to pitch negative intel concerning Islamic nuclear ambitions over the Department of Safeguard’s transom. It maintains an undeclared arsenal of at least 200 warheads – perhaps as many as 400. (3)

To build this arsenal, Israel evaded export controls, allegedly diverting heavy water supplied by Norway for peaceful uses to its weapons program and illegally obtaining US krytons (high speed switches) for use in its nuclear weapons program. (4)

And Israel has proliferated. It provided technical assistance and more to the apartheid regime of South Africa that resulted in the construction of six nuclear warheads that could be dropped by bomber on South Africa’s many regional antagonists. It was alleged but never officially confirmed that the Israeli government had also agreed to supply six specially fitted ballistic missiles to carry the warheads, and that South Africa’s sole nuclear test was a joint South African/Israeli affair. (5)

Perhaps recalling its own experiences, as late as May 2009 Israel contemptuously asserted that the NPT “has failed to prevent any country that wanted to from obtaining nuclear weapons”. (6)

Defense Minister Ehud Barak marked the conclusion of the May 2010 Nuclear Security Summit (at which Israel was represented only by a minor government functionary instead of a head of state) and responded to President Obama’s public call for Israel to join the NPT by declaring, “To our friends and our allies we say ‘there is no room to pressure Israel into signing the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.'” (7)

Pointing to the nobility of Obama’s intentions – while politely ignoring America’s deficiencies in execution of its disarmament obligations and its sizable non-proliferation blind spot when it comes to Israel – may not be enough to obtain the acquiescence of the non-aligned movement to America’s Iran-sanctions-first nuclear security policy.

China’s support is key if the United States is going to head into the grinding month-long NPT review consensus-building process without any meaningful support from Israel but still emerge with a revitalized global non-proliferation regime predicated on bashing Iran.

Therefore, the Obama administration acknowledges China’s largely positive role inside the NPT regime (while ignoring its past proliferation indiscretions with Pakistan), almost – but not quite – to the point of accepting China’s modest nuclear arsenal as an acceptable deterrent capability.

An arms control insider told Asia Times Online, “Some in the Obama administration were ready to say that the US does not seek to negate China’s deterrent, but at the last minute concern about how that might affect new START ratification caused them to pull back.”

In contrast to its infuriating role as spoiler at the Copenhagen climate summit, China is determined to play a bridging role at the NPT conference, but on its own terms.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute issued a report, “China and Nuclear Arms Control: Current Positions and Future Policies”, on the eve of the conference. (8)

It pointed out that China is vested in the survival of the NPT as a regime that makes a privileged place for the PRC as one of the five nuclear weapons powers by virtue of its modest arsenal, while allowing it to assume the role of champion of the developing world’s rights to peaceful nuclear power.

That means calling on the declared nuclear weapons powers to abandon policies of nuclear deterrence based on first use of nuclear weapons and pursue disarmament, instead of putting the sole focus on non-proliferation efforts and thereby smoothing President Obama’s geopolitical path.

China did not hestitate to highlight the deficiencies of the Obama administration’s long-gestating Nuclear Posture Review, released on April 10 as an opening salvo in the NPT review campaign.

Intended to serve as the blueprint for Obama’s post-nuclear weapons world, the document took an alarming detour into nuclear intimidation with a jarring addition to its bullet-pointed US doctrine for the use of nuclear weapons:

The United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the NPT and in compliance with their nuclear nonproliferation obligations. (9)

Since the overall doctrine permits use of nuclear weapons “only …in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners”, this final clause – with the permissive for “threatening” – looks like a carve-out, reserving the right to mete out additional nuclear punishment to nations that don’t meet US standards of NPT good citizenship.

Elsewhere in the document Iran and North Korea are specifically called out as targets under this policy.

But not Israel, Pakistan, or India, three nations that have nuclear weapons today but are not members of the NPT, leaving the perhaps inadvertent impression that the safest course for a prospective nuclear weapons state is to run away from the NPT as fast as possible.

China was quick to pounce.

On April 22, Xu Guangyu, a retired PLA general who frequently presents the modern, rational face of the Chinese military to the western media, published a description of China’s nuclear doctrine in Liberation Daily entitled “Deterrence Not Threats”. (10)

As Xu spun the article in a follow-up phone call with Reuters (11), the op-ed was intended to reassure the United States, India, and Japan that China’s relatively modest nuclear arsenal was designed purely to serve as a deterrent, to be used only in a second strike in the event of a nuclear attack against China.

All well and good, but the title of the article itself indicated that China was also needling the United States on the contradictions inherent in its pursuit of a universal NPT regime but selective sanctions against Iran and North Korea only.

In contrast to the US NPR, Xu described China’s nuclear posture as no-first-use under any circumstances and, instead of a carve-out, added a reaffirmation:

“China…unconditionally promises that it will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear state or region.”

China also used Xu’s article to push back on Russia’s attempt to put the PRC’s delivery systems on the disarmament table.

The technology for making a nuclear bomb – if not a small, highly efficient nuclear warhead like America’s W88 – is mature, well-understood, and not prohibitively expensive.

Delivery systems, on the other hand – and the defense systems they seek to evade – are areas of continual, costly, and destabilizing innovation.

In partnering with the US on non-proliferation, Russia has conceded it lacks the financial wherewithal to replace its aging delivery systems to counter the US missile defense systems, or develop its own missile defense that could plausibly cope with a blizzard of American warheads.

In contrast, China still hopes to maintain a credible deterrent, at least against Russia and India if not the United States.

Russia has actively pursued cooperation with the Obama administration on a non-proliferation security regime – and made a major strategic choice to distance itself from Iran – in an effort to break its own strategic isolation and get on the right side of the Asian security equation with the United States and India to isolate China instead.

National defense hardliners in both Russian and the United States would both like to see China’s improved delivery systems – solid fuel rockets and new generations of submarines – as a disarmament topic.

From the rhetoric employed, it also looks as if Russia is looking enviously at Israel’s hookup with neo-conservatives in the United States,and is looking to develop similar synergies between the political and ideological preoccupations of anti-China hardliners in the United States and its own strategic calculations in Asia.

“Sprint to parity” – a rapid, destabilizing increase in China’s nuclear weapons capabilities that threatens America’s strategic superiority – was traditionally the preoccupation of worst-case scenarists and reflexively anti-disarmament hardliners within the US security establishment.

Now the concept has gained new life as applied to Russia’s China-related anxieties, as Moscow seeks to position itself as the indispensable ally in America’s anti-proliferation crusade.

As an arms control insider told Asia Times Online, “The new version is to say that the real concern is they [the Chinese] will sprint to parity with the Russians, thus having indirect impacts on our security.”

In the run-up to the NPT Review Conference, Alexander Pikayev, a Russian arms control insider previously affiliated with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, raised the issue of China’s Jin class nuclear attack submarine in order to raise the specter of a a rapid increase in China’s nuclear capabilities. (12)

China has constructed two of these subs, perhaps four. The existence of the subs has been a matter of public knowledge since 2007, when a picture of two of the vessels docked at a facility in Liaoning Province showed up on Google Earth (the image can be viewed at 40° 42′ 55.19″ N, 120° 59′ 43.15″ E).

Pikayev declared that if China had only about 200 nuclear warheads – as estimated by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute – it would be OK. That would be less than Israel had – and presumably below the threshold for justifiable concern according to today’s orthodoxy.

But, Pikayev speculated, if one assumed that each submarine had 12 Intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launch tubes and each ICBM could be fitted with multiple warheads, then China’s imputed number of warheads would swell to perhaps 500 (more than Israel aka destabilizing), thereby creating the dreaded “alarming prospect” and fueling the demand that China enmesh itself in the Western transparency/trust machinery that Beijing is keen to avoid.

For its part, China firmly restated its nuclear policy and presented the submarine program as an indispensable – effectively non-negotiable – component of its deterrent triad, not an offensive asset to be bargained away in order to reassure Moscow and Washington.

Talking to Reuters, Xu Guangyu presented the existence of the Jin-class submarines matter-of-factly as part of China’s effort to maintain a credible deterrent:

“International experience shows the most effective second-strike capability is submarines,” Xu told Reuters. “That and the upgraded missiles are a focus.”

All in all, China entered the NPT Review Conference doing a good job of holding the middle ground between the United States and the developing world, especially on the issue of Iran.

China’s current position on Iran comes close to recapitulating its strategy to establish itself as the key intermediator with North Korea, albeit on a bigger, more distant, and much riskier stage.

China has been able to accomplish this with considerable subtlety, even as the Obama administration has seen its bold outreach to the Muslim world deteriorate into an Israel-driven exercise in geopolitical kabuki. In late May, the Chinese leadership decided it did not want to exacerbate its fraught relations with the United States – already frayed over climate change, currency, and Google – for the dubious cause of the Iranian nuclear program.

In exchange for a public reaffirmation of the one-China policy that Beijing will find useful as it confronts a new generation of opponents in Tibet and Taiwan (and a private undertaking not to designate China as a currency manipulator for the time being), China agreed to participate in the Nuclear Security Summit – conceived as a pre-meeting for the United States and its non-proliferation minded friends before the NPT Review Conference – and join the current round of Iranian sanction-writing at the UN Security Council.

Iran, which had lost its most effective international protector and interlocutor when Mohammed ElBaradei left the IAEA, had little choice but to accommodate itself to Beijing’s priorities. Judging from subsequent developments, Tehran got the message that it would have to rely on its good works and not just the shield of a Chinese veto threat to avoid UN sanctions.

In the subsequent charm offensive, Iranian representatives reasserted their allegiance to the NPT and the IAEA, emphasized their willingness to negotiate, and attempted to resuscitate the moribund project to fuel the Tehran research reactor with western assistance.

Somewhat complicating efforts to present him as a defiant pariah, Iran’s President Mahmud Ahmadinejad addressed the 2010 NPT conference on May 3 in New York. Beyond the core group of anti-Iran hardliners, these efforts may have had more impact than the Obama administration is willing to admit.

Faced with Tehran’s continual offers to negotiate the terms of the exchange of its low-enriched-uranium for fuel plates fabricated in France for the Tehran research reactor, the Western declaration that the Iranians have offered “nothing new” is starting to sound a little threadbare.(13)

The hardliners may be forced to invoke the dreaded Western “impatience” – that dishonest emotion most famously deployed to short-circuit the unproductive inspections inside Iraq and jump-start the disastrous invasion – in order to rush sanctions through the UN Security Council and enable the harsher follow-on national sanctions that will permanently pre-empt the negotiation track.

Little wonder that France’s Nicolas Sarkozy – the most enthusiastic member of the anti-Iran axis – used his trip to China to declare that the time for sanctions was, basically, now.

“The whole question is to examine at what point the absence of constructive dialogue, must lead to sanctions in order to enhance constructive dialogue. Everyone is convinced that moment is approaching.” (14)

Meanwhile barely a day goes by without China calling for continued negotiations and diplomacy to resolve the Iran crisis, thereby burnishing its credentials as the champion protecting the developing world against selective US nuclear enforcement and making the sanctions job more difficult.

On May 4 at the NPT Review Conference, Egypt, speaking for the Non-Aligned Movement, circulated a draft resolution calling for the commencement of negotiations including Israel to make the Middle East into a nuclear-weapons free zone.

As Haaretz reports, the Western powers appear willing to support the conference – as long as there are no negotiations and nothing happens:

One Western envoy said Egypt’s insistence on a conference with a negotiating mandate was the main “sticking point,” while another expressed the hope that Egypt would compromise during intensive negotiations on the issue in the coming weeks. …One Western diplomat said the Israelis were “understandably reluctant” to take part, even if the conference’s outcome would be merely symbolic. (15)

Egypt can certainly look forward to a month of geopolitical armtwisting, courtesy of the United States, western Europe, and Russia to ensure that the Israel problem is eventually soft-pedaled and a pro-Western consensus prevails at the conference.

Iran will no doubt notice that Moscow is taking the lead with the United States in order to smother developing-world resentment over the Israel double standard with the illusion of consensus, as Reuters tells us:

The United States and Russia, with the support of the other three countries allowed to keep nuclear weapons under the NPT, are negotiating with Egypt to come up with an acceptable compromise proposal, Western diplomats say. (16)

Given Egypt’s reliance on US aid and the prospect of a dicy leadership transition as President Mubarak seeks to turn power over to his son, Iran may discover that Egypt’s determination to extract genuine concessions on denuclearization in the Middle East might not survive the month of May.

Absent overt non-aligned support, it remains to be seen if Iran’s fractured leadership can summon the political will to make the concessions at this critical time that might defang the sanctions drive: suspending enrichment and accepting the one year lag between shipping out its uranium and receiving the fuel plates for the Tehran research reactor back from France .

Even if they do, it is an open question as to whether the Obama administration could summon the political will to accept Iranian concessions, instead of pursuing the policy apparently supported by Israel and France: going ahead with sanctions that can only be removed after the satisfactory completion of unlimited adversarial inspections.

An arms control expert familiar with Obama administration NPT policy-making placed the onus on Iran and commented pessimistically to Asia Times:

I think [Secretary of Defense Robert] Gates is … worried that Iran’s internal dynamics are driving Tehran toward a bomb, even without a deliberate decision to do so. As a result, the Administration is beginning to think through how to deal with an Iran that is either a threshold state or attempts to pass into nuclear status in an opaque manner. I actually think Iran’s [potential] agreeing to the TRR deal would take some of the pressure off for sanctions now, but Washington seems addicted to them as a tool of policy. So, I think the pattern will look like Iran building more and better centrifuges faster than the United States can organize multinational sanctions, with each driving the other.

But for China – as for Israel – the downside to a continued enmity between Iran and the United States is limited.

Given Obama and Gates’s lack of appetite for a third land war on the Asian continent, armed conflict with Iran is unlikely.

If the sanctions process rolls on to its expected conclusion of unproductive confrontation,Israel can continue to occupy its privileged position as America’s essential and embattled ally in the Middle East…and China can look forward to definitively replacing Russia as Iran’s primary superpower patron.

Russia, on the other hand, may find itself unwelcome in Tehran and viewed in Washington as little more than an occasionally useful but untrustworthy asset.

Meanwhile, Beijing can present itself to Washington as a supporter of the new US nuclear security doctrine and mediator in the festering Iran mess – with the threat that it can abate its enthusiasm if US and Russian China-bashing gets out of hand.

That’s called being in the catbird seat.

PETER LEE is a business man who has spent thirty years observing, analyzing, and writing on Asian affairs. Lee can be reached at peterrlee-2000@yahoo.

A version of this article appeared in Asia Times.


1.) US Reveals 5113 Nukes in Stockpile, Estimate by ‘Nuclear Geek’ Was Off by Only 87, Science Insider, May 4

2.) US Nuclear Weapon Enduring Stockpile, August 31, 2007

3.) Nuclear Weapons – Israel, Federation of American Scientists.

4.) Nuclear Weapons program – South Africa, Federation of American Scientists.

5.) South Africa’s Nuclear Weapons Program, The Nuclear Weapon Archive.

6.) ‘Making Israel sign nuclear treaty won’t be miracle cure for world ills’,, May 7, 2009.

7.) Israel Still Not Prepared to Join NPT, Global Security Newswire, April 15, 2010.

8.) China and Nuclear Arms Control: Current Positions and Future Policies, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, April 2010.

9.) Nuclear Posture Review 2010, US Department of Defense.

10.) Deterrence Not Threats , Liberation Daily, April 22. (In Chinese)

11.) China military paper spells out nuclear arms stance, Reuters, April 22.

12.), Voice of Russia, April28 – (in Russian).

13.) Iran wants to reopen talks about a nuclear fuel swap, Guardian, April 19.

14.) Sarkozy stresses Iran sanctions , Al-Jazeera, April 28.

15.) Egypt seeks UN pressure on Israel over nuclear arms,, April 20.

16.) U.S. and other big powers back Mideast nuclear arms ban, Reuters, May 5



Peter Lee is creator of the Patreon Peter Lee’s China Threat Report.