Let’s start with taming the dragon
As G7 leaders signal their commitment tonuclear disarmament at the 2023 Japan summit, China’s nuclear ambitions continue at pace. Yvonne Gill reports on the dynamics of theseantipodal positions and their implications for regional and global security
Laying wreaths at the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima in the run up to the 2023 G7 Summit, the leaders of the most powerful countries in the world have sent out an unequivocal message to the world: we should commit to takingcredible measures to move towards genuine nuclear disarmament.Clearly encouraged by Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who hails from Hiroshima – the first of the two citieshit by history’smost horrifying military attack on civilians –the G7 summit set the tone for bringing the issue of nuclear disarmament back into public discourse.
The Peace Memorial Museum, located in the park, is dedicated to the memory of the victims of the two US atom bombson 6 and 9 August, 1945. More than 220,000 were killed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. About half of them died in the initial blast. Of those who had initially survived, manymet a painful demise within the next four months due to radiation exposure and injuries. Many children born in later years suffered disabilities.
Between the parkand the A-Bomb Dome, the shell of the only nearby structure which withstood the massive impact,is the Cenotaph for the A-Bomb Victims,an arched tomb over a stone chest which holds a register with 220,000 names of those who died –a grim reminder of the monumental tragedy.
However, the Russia-NATO proxy war in Ukraine brings the world much closure to anuclear doomsday than ever before. Andnuclear weapons are a thousand-fold more powerful and destructive than the first A-bombs.
This is first time that nuclear disarmament has come onto the G7 agenda as three of the group’s members –the US, UK and France – are existing nuclear powers whilethe remaining members are protected under the US’s nuclear umbrella. However, besides criticising Russia’s nuclear rhetoric and undermining arms control regimes, the leaders lashed out at their pet whipping boy,Iran, and at North Korea, a minor power with bloated military ambitions. Russia’s membership of the group, then G8, was suspended in 2014 following its annexation of Crimea.
The G7 Hiroshima communiqué rightly underscored the importance of the 77-year record of non-use of nuclear weapons and it did notmince its word when stating that ‘China’s accelerating build-up of its nuclear arsenal without transparency nor meaningful dialogue poses a concern to global and regional stability’, hitting the nail firmly on the head.
Indeed, China’s aggressive manoeuvres inthe East and South China Seas and its firing of ballistic missiles into Japan’s exclusive economic zone have already escalated tensions. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP),led by Xi Jinping, has been engaged in a massive modernisation drive of its armed forces.This includes upgrading and expanding its nuclear capabilityso that it not only acts asa deterrentbut is also capable of launching a counter-attack.
Since its first nuclear test in October 1964 at Lop Nor,China has followed the Mao Zedong’s doctrine of minimum deterrence and limiting the numberof nuclear weapons. China has a modest arsenal of around 400 warheads compared to the thousands possessed by Russia and the US. With Xi’s declaring at the last CCP Congress that China should ‘establish a strong system of strategic deterrence,’ the Pentagon estimates its arsenal could grow to 1,500 warheads by 2035.
Down incrediblyfrom anestimated 70,000 warheads during the peak of the Cold War, nuclear powersstill have 12,700 nuclear weapons.Of the nine countries that possess nuclear weapons – Russia, the US, Britain, France, India, Pakistan, China, North Korea and Israel –Russia has 6,375 nuclear warheads and the US 5,800.
AsChina strives to become the world’s third nuclear superpower,it has been workingassiduously to strengthen its nuclear ‘triad’ –the capability of launching nuclear weapons from land, sea and air. While working on a new generation of nuclear-armed submarines, there have been reports of China testing the Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS),capable of launching nuclear-capable hypersonic glide vehicles, which can evade modern missile, defence systems.
Then there are satellite pictures showing China building three sprawling missile silos fields in the northern desert expanses of Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia. These underground silos could house as many as 350 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) armed with multiple warheads. The lack of transparency about its nuclear arsenal has been a major international concern. China stopped voluntarily disclosing its civilian plutonium stockpiles to the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2018.
China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) is also building two fast-neutron nuclear breeder reactors on Changbiao Island, on the shoreline of Fujian province. Also called the Xiapu fast reactor pilot project, the first of the two reactors will connect to the grid sometime this year and the second in 2026. These reactors can produce more nuclear fuel,in form of plutonium,than they consume. This, in turn,could be reprocessed and used as a fuel source for other nuclear plants or toproduce nuclear warheads;the Xiapu reactors can annually produce 400 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium, enough tomake100 nuclear warheads.
The plutonium could also be used as a trigger for hugely devastating thermonuclear weapons like the W93. In such a weapon, popularly called the Hydrogen bomb, a small plutonium atom bomb embedded in its core ignites the warhead’s hydrogen fuel. The blast can be a thousand times more destructive than the Hiroshima bomb. Rosatom, Russia’s nuclear giant, has supplied25 tons of highly enriched uranium for the Xiapu reactors.
Notably, most countries in the world have stopped constructing fast-breeder reactors because these are more expensive than the conventional water-cooled ones. France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the US have shut down their fast breeder power reactors and Japan decommissioned its in 2016.Meanwhile, while a breeder-reactor prototype has been under construction in India for about two decades, Russia with its two fast breeder reactors has no plans to build more.
The immediate concern of the global community should therefore be to discuss and arrive at the widest-possible consensus on strict, all-encompassing arms control measures. There is also the need to put an end to proliferation of nuclear technology and equipment by countries like China, which has unabashedlybeen supporting Pakistan’s clandestine nuclear weapons and missile development programmes, jeopardising regional and global peace.
It is high time that the dragon is tamed and made to abide by the rule-based international order, for the sake of the peaceful progress of humanity as a whole.
Yvonne Gill is a freelance journalist based in London