China Upstages US at Nuclear Non-Proliferation Conference
by Heather Wokusch
China was the undisputed star of last week's Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) conference in Vienna, leaving Uncle Sam hiding in the wings.
The US has always been somewhat impatient with international non-proliferation agreements. Despite a 1992 self-imposed moratorium, in the past six years the States has conducted 19 nuclear tests, dismissing them as sub-critical and therefore acceptable.
But the Bush administration has upped the nuclear ante considerably. It plans another sub-critical nuclear test for 2004, and has authorized the nation's weapons labs to resume full-on nuclear testing with as little as six-months' notice.
And that's bad news for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The UN-sponsored organization was set up in 1996 to ban nuclear-test explosions and to establish a corresponding global monitoring system. But there's a catch - the treaty can't go into effect until all 44 of the nuclear-capable countries that joined in 1996 have ratified it, a prospect looking increasingly unlikely as holdouts point to US intransigence as justification for their own burgeoning nuclear weapons programs.
Take Iran, which as one of the original signatories, permitted five monitoring stations to be built on its soil. In January 2002, soon after the US began withholding funds from the CTBT's on-site inspection program, Iran began withholding monitoring data from the international community, thus rendering its stations useless.
With America pulling back from the CTBT, other countries have been expected to join Iran in withdrawing their support as well. According to Daryl Kimball of the US-based arms Control Association, "The US is risking that possibility, and that may indeed be what the US wants."
After all, Armageddon is big business stateside. The US budget for nuclear-weapon activities in fiscal 2004 tops $6 billion, over half a billion more than in 2003. Expenditures for nuclear-test readiness alone surged by 39% in the same period, and in a major policy shift, the Bush administration is poised to seek Congressional authorization for "usable" nuclear weapons.
So expectations have been understandably low for the CTBT, which to enter into force must be ratified by the "dirty dozen" holdouts (including the US, Iran, China, North Korea and Israel, among others) from the original group of 44 nuclear-capable signatories. Many predicted the recent conference would produce little more than platitudes and hand-wringing.
Then in walked China.
Rumors had circulated that Beijing may be making a major announcement at the conference. Its diplomatic flurry in hosting recent six-way talks over North Korea's nuclear program suggested a newfound sense of urgency in confronting proliferation, so when China's Ambassador Yan Zhang assumed the podium, the room fell silent.
Zhang began by issuing China's strong support for the CTBT. With a veiled reference to North Korea, he cited "the absence of a sense of security" as a strong motivation for non-proliferation, and then discreetly railed against the US and other countries that have withdrawn CTBT funding by demanding every member state pay "in full and in time."
In a jab at the Bush administration's pre-emptive strike policy, Zhang went on to say members should "unconditionally undertake not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states." He concluded by reaffirming the Chinese government's strong commitment to completing the "ratification procedure ... by an early date."
The impact was profound: cameras flashed and pens raced even though Zhang had not specifically committed to anything new.
Meanwhile, the US observer to the CTBT conference was unavailable for comment because the person had failed to even identify him/herself to anyone.
The upshot: China came off as a responsible, upstanding world citizen and the US came off as a detached oaf.
Not that the Bush administration minds. Its isolationist policies were laid out quite clearly in the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), a classified Pentagon document leaked in January 2002. The review recommends beefing up the nation's nuclear weapons program as a way of providing "credible military options to deter a wide range of threats," and goes on to list contingencies in which a US nuclear strike would be justified; examples include "an Iraqi attack on Israel or its neighbors, a North Korean attack on South Korea, or a military confrontation (with China) over the status of Taiwan."
Pyongyang's response to the NPR was predictable: "Now that the nuclear lunatics are in office in the White House, we are compelled to examine all agreements with the U.S." North Korea then struck down the 1994 Agreed Framework commitment to end its nuclear program.
North Korea admitted to having a secret nuclear weapons program last October, then kicked out UN monitors, and started reprocessing spent fuel rods, a critical component of nuclear weapons. And at the conclusion of recent 6-way talks in Beijing, Pyongyang said it might conduct a nuclear test as early as this month since the US had refused to sign a non-aggression pact.
But it was exactly this nuclear tit-for-tat escalation that the CTBT was set up to discourage.
Admittedly, China has hardly been a non-proliferation role model in the past; its nuclear and missile sales to Iran, Syria, Pakistan and others were dangerous and irresponsible. But Beijing's apparent newfound commitment to end the nuclear arms race can be applauded, and if China actually does ratify the CTBT, pressure will increase on other holdouts to follow suit.
Hopefully, Uncle Sam won't still be hiding in the wings.
Heather Wokusch is a free-lance writer with a background in clinical psychology. Her work as been featured in publications and websites internationally. Heather can be contacted via her website: http://www.heatherwokusch.com