House Magazine

After reports that China conducted a low-yield underground nuclear test, it’s critical the international community works to universally ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

The world’s greatest powers have both a legal and moral obligation to pursue multilateral nuclear disarmament. Decades of summit diplomacy between the United States and Russia have given birth to internationally recognised treaties obliging those with nuclear stockpiles to reduce them and end their testing. Aside from the legal aspect, these weapons have the potential to kill millions – if not tens of millions – of innocent civilians and pose a realistic threat to human civilisation.

But, after reports that China has conducted a low-yield underground nuclear test, it’s clear that past agreements, and the valuable progress they have brought with them, face a new challenge. At this time of unprecedented uncertainty, it’s absolutely vital that the international community comes together to tackle the coronavirus outbreak rather than restart a nuclear arms race – one that has the potential to be more volatile and dangerous than ever before.

To meet these new challenges, Britain must play its part. This means using our position on the United Nations Security Council to promote dialogue and diplomacy over confrontation, leading the charge on multilateral disarmament issues on the world stage.

Britain has had historic success on multilateral disarmament, which should be both celebrated and should encourage us to take it further. The Labour government in Britain ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1998, joining with France and Russia to completely outlaw the testing of nuclear weapons. While the CTBT has the support of 168 UN member states, it has not yet been enshrined in international law because the United States and China have signed but failed to ratify the Treaty.

The fact that two of the largest nuclear weapon states in the world haven’t formally proscribed the testing of nuclear weapons in their own backyard is a huge obstacle to the end of nuclear tests becoming a reality. It also gives tacit encouragement to close allies to start their own nuclear programmes and conduct their own tests – as we have seen so evidently in North Korea.

Given the success of other nuclear weapons-limiting treaties, such as the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty (NPT) and Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), the geopolitical stability that a universally ratified Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty would bring to the world is huge.

So we must look to bring China with us – and not push it away – on nuclear disarmament. Engagement is the only way the international community can work with China to ensure that these destructive and abominable weapons are never used.

But there is also a need to be firm. Britain should make it clear that, as a signatory to the NPT, China has to refrain from these provocative and escalatory actions. The destructive power of nuclear weapons is far too great to be used as a reckless political bargaining chip, and Beijing should be pressured to ensure that it is genuinely working towards the longstanding and ultimate aim of the NPT – complete nuclear disarmament.

A further deeply troubling aspect of the tests is that they could potentially give the Trump administration a reason to retaliate by formally renouncing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The Foreign Secretary must therefore now pro-actively offer to facilitate dialogue between Washington and Beijing, both to ensure that US – China tensions are de-escalated, and that the US remains committed to the CTBT. The UK is perfectly placed to act as a diplomatic bridge between the White House and President Xi, but since 2010 there has been little evidence of Number 10 or the Foreign Secretary stepping up to this challenge.

Given the uncertain circumstances in which the world currently finds itself, Britain now needs do everything it can to promote multilateral disarmament initiatives. Working under the auspices of the United Nations, it’s absolutely vital that we look towards permanently removing the threat of any escalation into a future nuclear conflict, urging both China and the United States rapidly to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Co-written with Fabian Hamilton MP, Shadow Minister for Peace and Disarmament

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