China, Russia and the story of their troubled pas de deux on nuclear weapons

nuclear war
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By Laurent Wittner

Even international alliances can unravel as nations face the madness of a nuclear holocaust.

A recent illustration of this point occurred after Vladimir Putin again threatened Ukraine and other nations with nuclear war. “In order to defend Russia and our people, we will undoubtedly use all the weapons resources at our disposal,” said the Russian president. “It’s not a bluff.”

In response to that statement and to the UN’s harsh condemnation of Russian nuclear threats, Chinese President Xi Jinping issued a public statement in early November denouncing “the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons.” To prevent “a nuclear crisis” in Europe or Asia, the world should “stand that nuclear weapons cannot be used” and “nuclear war cannot be fought.”

Aren’t these two nuclear-armed nations currently aligned in their opposition to US foreign policy? Yes they are, and when it came to Putin’s war on Ukraine, Xi refrained from proposing a Russian withdrawal. But nuclear war, as the Chinese leader made clear, was simply not acceptable.

This was not the first time a dispute over the use of nuclear weapons had rocked a Russo-Chinese alliance. An even deeper conflict occurred in the late 1950s and early 1960s when, ironically, the roles of the two nations were reversed.

At that time, the Chinese government, led by Mao Zedong, launched an emergency nuclear weapons development program. In October 1957, China’s weapons program secured a major win when the Russian and Chinese governments signed the new Defense Technical Treaty, in which the Russians agreed to supplement the nuclear aid they had already given the Chinese by supplying a prototype atomic bomb. Missiles and useful technical data.

But Russian officials soon had reason to doubt the wisdom of supporting China’s nuclear weapons development program. The following month, as Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev recalled, Mao gave a speech on nuclear war at a Moscow conclave of Communist Party leaders from around the world that shocked those present.

According to the Soviet leader, the “gist” of Mao’s speech was: “We should not fear war. We shouldn’t be afraid of nuclear bombs and missiles. No matter what kind of war breaks out – conventional or thermonuclear – we will win.” When it came to China, Mao reportedly said: “We could lose more than three hundred million people. So what? war is war. The years will pass and we will get to work and produce more babies than ever before.”

Khrushchev found Mao’s comments “deeply disturbing” and recalled with irritation: “Everyone but Mao was thinking about how to avoid war. Our main slogan was “Continue Fighting for Peace and Peaceful Coexistence”. But here came Mao. . . to say we shouldn’t be afraid of war.’ In early 1958, as Soviet doubts grew about the reliability of the Chinese leadership in dealing with nuclear weapons, Khrushchev decided to postpone the delivery of the atomic bomb prototype to China.

Finally, in 1960, the Soviet government not only withdrew its support for China’s nuclear weapons program, but also took steps that brought the Soviet Union into conflict with the Chinese leadership. Key to these moves was the drafting of a nuclear test-ban treaty agreement with the governments of the United States and Britain – an agreement aimed in part at blocking China’s ability to become a nuclear power.

This Soviet move toward a nuclear arms control and disarmament treaty with the West was bitterly opposed by China’s rulers, who were determined to develop nuclear weapons, and by 1964 they were succeeding. Meanwhile, the Sino-Soviet rift grew heated as the Chinese withdrew from the Soviet-dominated World Peace Council and competed bitterly with the Russians for leadership of the world communist movement.

There are some lessons to be learned from these incidents, in which major powers showed signs of heading towards nuclear war. The obvious is that even military allies might sometimes recoil when they see an international confrontation headed for nuclear catastrophe.

Another, less obvious reason is that nations with access to nuclear weapons are not necessarily deterred from threatening or fighting nuclear war by the prospect of nuclear retaliation from other nuclear powers. In other words, nuclear deterrence is unreliable. Most importantly, these and other events underscore the fact that, despite the existence of nuclear weapons, the world remains in peril.

Fortunately, getting rid of nuclear weapons before they destroy the world is not an entirely utopian prospect. Thanks to popular pressure and disarmament treaties, the number of nuclear weapons worldwide has been reduced from around 70,000 to 12,700 since 1986. Additionally, in January 2021, a UN treaty banning nuclear weapons came into effect, drafted and endorsed by an overwhelming majority of the world’s nations.

Unfortunately, none of the world’s nine nuclear powers have signed or ratified this treaty to abolish nuclear weapons. Until they do so, stopping the production, stockpiling and distribution of nuclear weapons to other countries, the world will continue to live in a state of nuclear danger, subject only to occasional flashes of genius from the same nuclear-armed nations.

Surely, people around the world deserve a brighter future.

dr Lawrence Wittnersyndicated from peace voiceis Professor Emeritus of History at SUNY/Albany and author of confrontation with the bomb (Stanford University Press).