China’s Call for a No-First-Use Agreement

Reuters reported from Beijing on 28 February that the director general of the arms control department in the PRC foreign ministry had called for States with the largest nuclear arsenals to negotiate a treaty on no-first-use of nuclear weapons against each other, or to make political statements to that effect. The call was made during a meeting of the UN Conference on Disarmament.

On 12 March, according to RIA Novosti, Russia’s deputy foreign minister for nuclear arms control told reporters that Russia was studying China’s idea of agreeing not to be the first to use nuclear weapons; Russia believed that there was a grain of common sense in it. It was questionable, however, whether “Western countries” were ready seriously to consider such an initiative.

NATO’s 2022 Strategic Concept appears to leave open the option of making first use of nuclear weapons by not ruling it out (but stressing that nuclear weapons are unique and that the circumstances in which NATO might have to use them are “extremely remote”).

In September 2021 British Pugwash commissioned an opinion survey which suggested that two thirds of the British public would not wish NATO to resort to nuclear weapons if, for example, Russia were to initiate a conventional attack on one or more of the Baltic States. It can be argued that it has been irresponsible of many of NATO’s Non-Nuclear-Weapon States to under-invest in non-nuclear deterrence and rely, rather, for their security on the nuclear first-use option.

If the five Nuclear Weapon States (NWS)- United States, Russia, China, France, United Kingdom- were to agree not to be the first to use nuclear weapons against each other, this would lower the risk of nuclear weapon use significantly.

If NWS renunciation of first-use were coupled with an agreement to reduce the size of NWS nuclear arsenals to a level consistent with their sole purpose being to retaliate against a nuclear attack, a large step towards a world free of nuclear weapons would have been taken.