Seizing the Momentum

Li Hong

As initiatives for nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation have been emerging in rapid succession, the 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference is approaching. The review conference is a unique forum for evaluating the operations of the NPT “with a view to assuring that the purposes of the Preamble and the provisions of the Treaty are being realized,” as the treaty puts it.

The new momentum on nuclear disarmament brings a distinct opportunity for the review process. The UN Security Council summit last September on nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation laid a very strong foundation for the review. It is in the world’s security interests to seize this valuable opportunity and make good use of the common understanding to promote the objectives and spirit of the NPT. The NPT parties must work together in goodwill and a spirit of compromise to reach concrete steps for strengthening the treaty regime.

Envisioning a Successful Conference

The NPT regime is multifaceted. Nuclear disarmament, nonproliferation, and peaceful uses of nuclear technology are its three pillars, with each one linked to the others. Over the past 40 years, the NPT has been an important barrier against nuclear weapons proliferation and has played an important role in stabilizing international relations. Recognition of the NPT’s indispensable role in international peace and stability and reaffirmation of the unequivocal commitment of member states to the treaty would be a basic success for the review conference. In addition, it should be possible to reinforce the conviction of all member states on the need to bring current efforts to their ultimate objective by eliminating all nuclear weapons.

Strengthening the enforcement mechanism of the NPT, including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards system, would always be an important task for a review conference. Achieving universality for the full-scope safeguards system is an undertaking that is still far from completion. Building some common ground on the significance and added value of the Model Additional Protocol could be accepted as encouraging progress if consensus could not be reached on setting it as the new verification standard. In addition, any progress on the following long-discussed issues would make the conference more productive.

FMCT and CTBT. Steps or new commitments for the commencement of negotiations on a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT) and entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) are likely to be central to any agreement at the review conference. The two issues remain the focus of attention of the international community and constitute critical substantive measures to push nuclear disarmament forward. Either setting a time frame or getting new commitments from the key countries would be accepted as substantive progress and would bring credit to the conference.

Multilateral nuclear fuel supply mechanism. Uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing have been considered a key proliferation concern. It is not necessary and not economically feasible for all countries that plan to have nuclear power to develop their own independent enrichment or reprocessing capability. Substantive discussion on this topic is under way, and different proposals are already on the table. Because the new norms in this regard would involve rights for the peaceful use of nuclear technology, it would be appropriate for the review conference to develop a common understanding of the interpretation of the treaty provisions in this regard and pave the way for any new arrangement. It should be possible for the NPT parties to agree on recognizing the legitimate right of member states to peaceful uses of nuclear energy, emphasizing the common understanding on the proliferation risk of enrichment and reprocessing, and further exploring possible paths for collective fuel supply mechanisms or international joint efforts for the development of proliferation-resistant reactors, or something of that nature.

Treaty withdrawal. Article X of the NPT clearly recognizes the basic right of a sovereign state to join or withdraw from an international treaty. However, the NPT itself did not provide any measures for handling noncompliance. It should be a logical step that a state found to be cheating on its treaty obligation should pay a price. Any party found to be in noncompliance should not be exempted from international indictment by announcing its withdrawal from the treaty. This is important to maintain the credibility of the collective security regime. But any punishment should not undermine the basic rights of a sovereign state. Overemphasizing the punishment for treaty withdrawal would make states more hesitant about joining the treaty, and this could have a profound influence on the negotiation and entry into force of new arms control treaties. A balanced solution taking both of the above aspects into consideration is expected from the review conference.

Realistic Expectations

Although, as noted above, optimism about progress in some areas might be justified, the discouraging aspects should never be underestimated. Such aspects include the still-large number of nuclear weapons; the military doctrine of pre-emptive strike, including the use of nuclear weapons; the development and deployment of missile defense systems globally; the trend toward weaponization of outer space; and regional nuclear proliferation issues. These issues are linked to the nuclear posture of the world. They might create a sense of insecurity in some countries and give rise to regional instability or even cause an international-security chain reaction. These issues are major obstacles to nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation.

In light of the above, the international community should not be too ambitious and should not burden the conference with too many expectations.

Certain hot-button issues, such as Iran and North Korea, have figured prominently in past review conferences. The way the parties handle these issues will bear heavily on the outcome of the conference. NPT member states must realize that they should take into consideration the big picture and address the root causes, as well as problems and difficulties on the surface.

The UN Security Council has adopted a number of resolutions on the Iranian and North Korean nuclear issues. Therefore, it will be difficult for the review conference to formulate new measures to be taken. The best way to handle these issues is by providing political support to the Security Council resolutions and expressing the determination of member states to continue to enforce them. It is also necessary and appropriate for the review conference to encourage relevant existing mechanisms, such as the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program and the “P5+1” talks on Iran’s program,[1] to continue their efforts for a peaceful solution through dialogue and cooperation. Such an approach might avoid political disputes on those issues and leave enough space for further measures.

With regard to other regional nuclear issues such as the Middle East and South Asia, the situation remains as it was, if not more complicated. Both these issues are closely related to the regional strategic balance and broad peace processes. It is risky to overemphasize one aspect while neglecting the other. Double standards should be avoided. For the sake of safeguarding the authority and the credibility of the international nonproliferation regime, those countries possessing de facto nuclear weapons should not be granted legal status in any form for their nuclear weapons.

The Need for a Balanced Approach

With close observation, the essence of the NPT can be easily found. Nuclear disarmament, nonproliferation, and the peaceful use of nuclear energy, the three equal pillars, are mutually complementary and inseparable from one another. This unique structure well explains how the treaty has withstood the test of time and become the global treaty with the widest participation. The three pillars not only summarize the goals of the treaty, but also constitute concerns of all member states. History repeatedly has showed that neglect of any of those three pillars undermines the others. The 2005 NPT Review Conference was an example. Its failure largely lay in lacking a balanced approach in advancing the conference’s work. The member states should draw lessons from the past and avoid repeating the mistake.

For quite a long period in international arms control, much emphasis had been placed on nonproliferation; the other two pillars were neglected to some extent. Perhaps the situation has improved for nuclear disarmament, as last year witnessed the commencement of the U.S.-Russian negotiation on a new nuclear arms control accord and an upgraded effort by the international community toward a nuclear-weapon-free world.

However, much work remains to be done with regard to the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Recent years have witnessed the renaissance of nuclear energy around the world, highlighting the need to strike a sophisticated balance between nonproliferation and peaceful use. On the one hand, nonproliferation efforts should not undermine the legitimate rights of countries; on the other hand, diversion of peaceful-use technology and material to nonpeaceful purposes should be prevented.

A balanced approach in advancing the work on the three goals of the NPT will win wide support from non-nuclear-weapon states and will facilitate a successful review conference.

In addition, nuclear security is not a new topic in the field of nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation. Because terrorism continues to be rampant, efforts against nuclear terrorism have a particular importance. Some initiatives in this regard have emerged. The review conference will provide an appropriate venue at the right time for all member states to consider seriously how they can effectively tighten the security of nuclear material and reduce the risk of terrorism or unauthorized access. In addition to reaffirming the existing international legal instruments on nuclear security, the parties could develop some new, tangible measures to ensure nuclear materials and nuclear facilities are being effectively protected. These measures could include concrete action plans to strengthen cooperation on fighting nuclear terrorism.

P-5 Leadership

In the cause of pursuing the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons, the five nuclear-weapon states recognized by the NPT—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—bear unique responsibility. The solidarity, coordination, and leadership of these five, which are also the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, are of great importance to guaranteeing a successful review. Taking the lead by meeting their disarmament commitments would greatly help to address proliferation and create a good atmosphere for the review process. Encouragingly, the P-5 issued a joint press release at the Third Preparatory Committee meeting for the review conference. Consultations among them have been going on since then. It is by all means a good sign, showing their willingness to work together to seek success at the review conference. Furthermore, in a best-case scenario, a substantive joint declaration by the P-5 at the review conference would undoubtedly be seen as an important component of the outcome. Key elements that such a declaration could cover are a pledge not to seek permanent possession of nuclear weapons, a willingness to redefine the role of nuclear weapons in military doctrine, a willingness to provide negative security guarantees, a commitment to bring the CTBT into force at an early date, and commitments by Russia and the United States to continue to make deep cuts in their nuclear arsenals.


The countdown to the review conference has begun. Political will has been emerging. The situation, however, is complicated. At this crossroads, NPT member states must realize their historic mission and opportunity. It is in the interests of all countries to take decisive actions to convert political will into practical steps so as to stabilize the NPT regime and to restore the parties’ faith in the value of the treaty.


Li Hong is secretary-general of the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, a nongovernmental organization. From 2001 to 2009, he worked on arms control and disarmament issues for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. From 2002 to 2006, he served in the Permanent Mission of China for International Organizations in Vienna and then was China’s deputy representative to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague.


1. P5+1 refers to the five permanent members of the Security Council—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—plus Germany.