China as Nuclear Power and its UN Security Council Membership

The Dilemma of Non-Proliferation Policies and Veto Power

Seminar Paper, 2011

21 Pages, Grade: 1,0 (CH: 6,0)



1 Introduction

2 Theory and History

3 Chinese Nuclear and Veto Power
3.1 Chinese Multilateralism
3.2 Nuclear Weapons and Non-Proliferation Policies
3.3 Organisational Matters in the UNSC

4 Conclusion

5 Bibliography
5.1 Printed Sources
5.2 Internet Sources
5.3 Secondary Literature

6 Appendix
6.1 Index of Abbreviations
6.2 Index of Figures and Tables

1 Introduction

At the end of the Second World War (1939-1945), a cruel incidence had irreversibly changed the conditions of negotiation in international relations (IR). It was on 6 August 1945, when the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima introduced a new dimension of de- struction to modern warfare. Only a few years later, Hannah Arendt wrote that the forces which are inherent to this type of weapon are no longer natural ones: For the first time in his- tory, humans achieved to handle forces which are situated outside of the earthly realms and therefore are universal, supernatural forces (Arendt 2007: 85). In her book On Revolution (1963), Arendt additionally pointed out that the kind of technology which is dealing with nu- clear energy allows the use of coercion as a substitute for warfare: Today, a potential war has not even to be carried out as “soft” and non-technical factors like military strategy, compe- tence, efficiency, and morale do no longer play any role on the battle field. This means that the outcome of a potential war can be predicted even before it brakes out. The bare knowledge of one country’s arsenal can easily be enough evidence for this purpose and moreover, it can deter an adversary at the same time (Arendt 1968: 17). It was exactly this logic that was in- herent to the Cold War (1949-1989) and with regard to the weapons capacity of the two nu- clear superpowers - the United States of America (USA) and the Union of the Socialist Soviet Republics (USSR) - the doctrine of mutual deterrence was called mutually assured destruction (MAD). Though one important restriction within this system has to be stressed: Only few states had the means and the opportunity to acquire the knowledge and technology necessary to build nuclear weapons. China, the state we will focus on in this paper, had both.

On 16 October 1964, when China successfully conducted its first atomic test (NTI 2010a), the country became the fifth member of the world’s club of nuclear powers. Besides China, this club then also consisted of France, the United Kingdom (UK), the USA, and the USSR. Within the United ,ations (U,), these countries became known as the five permanent members (P5) of the U, Security Council (U,SC). At the time the UN was founded, the P5 were seen as the politically most influential powers in the world and after the negative experi- ence with the League of Nations, the UN had to include those powers permanently so as not to fail again (Taylor/Curtis 2008: 314f.). But it was not until 25 October 1971 that the U, General Assembly (U,GA) Resolution 2758 officially recognised the government of the Peo- ple’s Republic of China (PRC) as “the only legitimate representatives of China to the United Nations” (UNGA 1971) and expelled the Republic of China (ROC) as former title bearer. Ac- cording to Article 27(3) of the UN-Charter, decisions of the UNSC require the consent of the P5 that is “the rule of ‘great Power unanimity’, often referred to as the ‘veto power’” (UNSC 2010b). Although the UN-Charter does not refer to the P5 as nuclear powers, the congruency of permanent UNSC membership and the availability of nuclear technology is a fact that can- not be dismissed - at least since 1971. Apart from the P5, many more countries now - offi- cially and unofficially - possess nuclear weapons without the permanent UNSC membership being extended. On the contrary, the attractiveness of owning nuclear weapons should not be fostered by such an incentive and numerous attempts to abandon these weapons of mass de- struction (WMD) have been made in recent years. Nevertheless, the result is ambivalent: On the one hand, thanks to the end of the Cold War and an increasingly changing logic in IR that has moved away from mutual deterrence, China was the last country to conduct an atomic test explosion on 29 July 1996 before it joined other countries in a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear testing (NTI 2010). Moreover, China became a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1984, and signed a number of important treaties1 in the following decade (Chan 2006: 127f.). In this way, the nuclear threat should be diminished by interna- tional cooperation. So far, these developments are the positive side of the coin. On the other hand, again in 1996, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague missed a unique opportunity to label nuclear weapons as an illegal means of warfare in International Humani- tarian Law (IHL). It was the UNGA that requested an advisory opinion from the ICJ about the legality of producing, developing, stockpiling, and using nuclear weapons. Although the ICJ did not explicitly declare the use of nuclear weapons legal, it also did not strictly deny the use of WMD in some particular circumstances. These findings can be considered dangerous be- cause from a humanitarian point of view, the case is clear: Nuclear weapons cannot discrimi- nate between combatants and civilians and should therefore be banned. Still, states holding nuclear weapons resist any explicit ban and as a result, there is no international treaty that fully prohibits WMD from production to usage (Thürer 2010: 78f., 81f.). This is the downside of a world where nuclear weapons still play a role in national security. With regard to China (and the P5), it seems to be rather difficult to completely abandon nuclear weapons as their UNSC veto power is at stake. In order to analyse this issue, the following research question is of interest: In what way is the Chinese nuclear weapons and non-proliferation policy nega- tively influenced by their own U,SC-membership and its associated advantages as a P5 veto player?

The following chapter deals with theoretical approaches and history, respectively. Chap- ter three then is divided into three subchapters which cover aspects of (1) Chinese multilateralism, (2) nuclear weapons and non-proliferation policies, and (3) a re-organisation of the UNSC. Finally, a conclusion is drawn and the research question is answered according to the insight provided by this paper.

2 Theory and History

In the past fifty years, many considerations have been made about how armed conflicts could develop with the help of nuclear weapons. Herman Kahn’s “escalation ladder” in his seminal work On Escalation (1965) is a prominent example that is very much focused on nu- clear warfare. In fact, the last twenty-four out of forty-four rungs on his ladder deal with dif- ferent stages in a nuclear war, the American atomic bombs which were dropped in Japan are tantamount to the first of these twenty-four rungs (Kahn 1965: 39). Fortunately, no single act of war equal to or worse than these bombings has ever occurred since. This is why Daniel L. Byman and Mathew C. Waxman developed another theory in their book The Dynamics of Co- ercion (2002) that is based on Kahn’s notion. Based on empirical observations, it is less de- terministic and deals with coercive mechanisms below the threshold of nuclear warfare (By- man/Waxman 2002: 40). These kinds of theories, however, are not helpful for our purpose because they focus too much on the effects of mutual threat. In our context, nuclear weapons are considered to provide security not because of deterrence, but because their possession prevents the loss of veto power in the UNSC. What we therefore need is a more institutional approach which is provided by George Tsebelis’ work Veto Players (2002).

According to Tsebelis (2002: 283), his theory introduces “a new framework for the analysis of political institutions” and traces four basic questions: (1) Who are the actors whose agreement is necessary to change the status quo? (2) How do these veto players decide? (3) How do they interact? And (4) is an agenda-setter identifiable? In order to answer these ques- tions, Tsebelis starts with the distinction between collective and individual veto players (i.e. the meaning of coalition building). Since unanimity among the P5 is demanded to pass a reso- lution draft in the UNSC, China can be identified as an individual veto player: Their single negative vote can block a resolution draft no matter whether the remaining members form a coalition of interest. Another distinction can be made between institutional and partisan veto players: Institutional veto players are created by the constitution or else the founding treaty that has a constitutional character. On the contrary, partisan veto players are formed through political interaction, e.g. different majority rules within the same institution (Tsebelis 2002: 19, 79). As the country is a designated permanent member by Article 23(1) of the UN- Charter, China is an institutional UNSC veto player. Even though China is an individual and institutional veto player, this is not true for all of the UNSC members. In mere theory, the ten non-permanent members could form a coalition of seven or more in order to decline a resolu- tion draft. This is due to Article 27(3) of the UN-Charter where majority rule is defined as the “affirmative vote of nine members including the concurring votes of the permanent members” (UN 2010) that is needed to pass a resolution draft. Since such a coalition of non-permanent members has never become effective, this case can be neglected. One reason why this kind of coalitions never played a role is the annual rotation of the non-permanent members: Every year, five of the ten seats are to be occupied by newly elected UN member states. This means that every constellation lasts for only one year and will never again be the same as the waiting period for a country to regain a UNSC seat lies between five to twenty years on average (UNSC 2010b).2 Another reason for the absence of coalitions among non-permanent members up to date is that all of the P5 have played a leading role vis-à-vis certain other UN member states. Strikingly, the system of allied blocs during the Cold War reflects this notion. It was either upon the USA or the USSR to oppose a resolution as leaders of their respective blocs. Non-aligned countries - members of the so-called Third World - were outnumbered and had no advocates within the UNSC veto powers. Furthermore, to avoid a political affront at home and to prevent tensions with one of the P5-countries, non-permanent members could abstain from voting. As a result, the outcome is not influenced in either direction.

This leads us to the questions of interaction and agenda-setting in the UNSC. Veto play- ers, as seen, are those actors whose agreement is needed to change the status quo (Tsebelis 2002: 37). While this is an important insight, the relations among veto players are crucial to Tsebelis’ theory. He defines two concepts to explain the relations among veto players and how difficult it is to change the status quo: One concept is the winset of the status quo, whereas the second is the core (Tsebelis 2002: 21). A winset is the space where political solu- tions can be found that go beyond the status quo. This could be imagined as follows: If three supposed veto players have different political positions but none of them have any specific preferences between the issues in question, then they could be depicted as centre points of concentric circles. Therefore, the veto players have circular indifference curves which in cer- tain circumstances are overlapping. These intersections are the winsets where two or more actors can agree on a policy change. Figure 1 on the next page shows a hashed intersection as a winset of three veto players considering the largest circle as B’s indifference curve.


1 The ,uclear ,on-Proliferation Treaty (,PT), signed by China in 1992, and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), signed in 1996, were among these treaties (Chan 2006: 115f.).

2 The numbers concerning the waiting periods is a rough estimation only. Apart from that, 73 UN member states have never been elected to represent one of the five regional groups in the UNSC up to date (see UNSC 2010b).

Excerpt out of 21 pages


China as Nuclear Power and its UN Security Council Membership
The Dilemma of Non-Proliferation Policies and Veto Power
University of Zurich  (Institut für Politikwissenschaft)
Seminar "International Politics of East Asia"
1,0 (CH: 6,0)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
597 KB
China, United Nations, UN Security Council, UN General Assembly, Veto Power, Veto Players, Nuclear Weapons, Cold War, Disarmament, Non-proliferation, P5, USA, USSR, Russia, United Kingdom, France, George Tsebelis, Winset, Core, PRC, ROC, International Relations, International Organizations, Agenda-setter, Multilateralism, Tit-for-tat, PLA, UNSC Reform, WMD
Quote paper
M.A. Manuel Irman (Author), 2011, China as Nuclear Power and its UN Security Council Membership, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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