"I learned so much about arms control and disarmament at ACA! I learned more about arms control here in four months than I had in all three years at my college."

– Alicia Sanders-Zakre
Intern, Fall 2016
December 16, 2016
The ‘Pursuit of a Win-Win Situation’ at the Conference on Disarmament: Questions and Answers With Wang Qun

Wang Qun is Chinese ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary for disarmament affairs and permanent representative to the Conference on Disarmament (CD), a position he has held since 2007. He was president of the CD from March 21 to May 29, 2011. He agreed to answer written questions from Arms Control Today on the CD’s current stalemate, which is preventing progress on the negotiation of a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT) and on other disarmament issues.

ACT: In your March 17 address to the CD, you said, “In my view, [the] CD’s deadlock is attributable first and foremost to political factors. The CD’s work is like a barometer of the evolving international security situation.” From China’s perspective, what are the political and security factors that are leading some states to block the implementation of formal talks on a verifiable FMCT and other elements of the CD work plan?

Wang: The CD deadlock is indeed attributable primarily to political and security factors. This is presumably self-evident as the relevant countries already have been most forthcoming and explicit, on the record, as to what difficulties they see in embarking on a process of negotiating an FMCT at the CD. However, it should be noted that different countries sought or have sought, at different points over the past 12 years, to block the CD negotiation of an FMCT out of various political or security considerations.

Countries may differ in terms of their size or position; their security concerns could, nevertheless, equally be relevant at the CD and subsequently bear on its work. This is a fact of life before us, and such concerns should be duly addressed.

ACT: Some countries have suggested that the consensus rule should not be applied to procedural matters at the CD and should instead be restricted to substantive work in order to prevent a single state from using procedure to prevent the start of negotiations. What is China’s position on this matter? From your position as CD president, are there any other procedural adjustments that can help make the CD a more efficient and effective part of the UN disarmament machinery?

Wang: From China's perspective, what needs to be sorted out in the first place is whether the current CD deadlock stems from the machinery per se. Although it is true that some dislike the CD because they find its consensus rule detestable, others like the CD precisely for this reason. If the CD is a body with inherent flaws, then why, within the same mechanism and under the same rules of procedure, was it able to negotiate and conclude treaties such as the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), Chemical Weapons Convention, and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty? This question merits our reflection.

As CD president, I am open to any suggestions and stand to be guided by member states as to whether or how procedural adjustments should be made so as to help make the CD a more efficient and effective part of the UN disarmament machinery. That, I believe, is not only the right of member states, but also provided for in explicit terms in the existing Rules of Procedure of the Conference on Disarmament.

ACT: What steps is your government taking to persuade Pakistan to allow the CD to begin the long process of negotiations on the fissile material production issue? What steps could other countries undertake to address Pakistan’s stated concerns about an FMCT?

Wang: Beijing believes that a negotiated FMCT at the CD is in everyone’s interests and wishes to see those negotiations commence as soon as possible. We thus have been doing our very best to make the case to all relevant interlocutors, including Pakistan. For an FMCT to be meaningful, it is essential that all countries with the capability of producing fissile materials be on board.

Pakistan has its concerns about an FMCT, but exerting pressure on Pakistan at every turn, for fear of Islamabad’s blocking of the CD, is undesirable if not counterproductive. To make it worse, such fears may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What is desirable is to give equal weight to the legitimate security concerns of various countries in pursuit of a win-win situation based on security for all. In the meantime, the dialogue between the countries concerned is also crucial if the issues related to the CD deadlock are to be put behind us.

ACT: In your view, how can the current CD impasse be broken, so that the CD can commence its negotiation of an FMCT? Is there any specific formula to that end?

Wang: As the current CD deadlock is primarily attributable to political factors, the solution lies in political will and political wisdom, coupled with the right perception and working methods. In this context, we should work to detect and identify any evolving consensus even in the embryonic stages, especially by proceeding from the actual effects, with an FMCT as the objective.

The CD is now bogged down in a debate about how to define or characterize, in the context of the CD’s program of work, its ongoing exercise, i.e., “negotiation“ or “discussion“ of a treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons. In the meantime, we should not fail to recognize the following basic common understanding, i.e., no delegation has hitherto sought to dispute the early commencement, on the basis of the CD’s balanced and comprehensive program of work, of its substantive work, which naturally covers the subject of the above treaty on the basis of the Shannon mandate (CD/1299 of March 24, 1995). Moreover, there has been, in fact, constructive and serious work at the CD, inter alia, on such a treaty, especially since the beginning of this year.

Although some may see the above common understanding as insignificant, it should not be belittled. On the other hand, the current CD debate on “negotiation“ versus “discussion,” no matter how significant, should not be unduly emphasized, especially with the caveat that the CD exercise is not linguistic in nature. Further, it is axiomatic that, if a treaty is reached, the process leading up to its conclusion can only be negotiation whereas, even if no one seeks to dispute embarking on a “negotiating process,” there could be considerable skepticism about whether it may produce something to that effect as long as a treaty remains elusive.

So, what do we want, “negotiation” or an FMCT? This question merits our serious reflection, on the basis of the 2009 program of work (CD/1864 of May 29, 2009), if an FMCT is really the aim.

ACT: The CD has long been considered to be the sole multilateral negotiating body on disarmament. Given the availability of other forums for discussing disarmament issues, how can the CD maintain its distinct role if it cannot begin substantive talks on issues of interest to many countries, including a fissile material cutoff, weapons in space, and negative nuclear security assurances? If the CD remains deadlocked, are there other ways and other forums through which progress on these matters might be achieved? Some countries have initiated informal expert-level discussions on an FMCT to discuss issues such as definitions and verification. How does China view these discussions, and what role does China play in them?

Wang: The CD is a good body. While it is true that it has not concluded any new treaties since 1998, its achievements or failures should nevertheless be viewed from a historical perspective.

Certain countries are, to my knowledge, thinking of setting up a “new kitchen” so as to move FMCT negotiations out of the CD. If the purpose of such a move is to reach a negotiated FMCT, we should be clear, if not clearer, about what the objective of the prospective treaty is in the first place. What is the relevance of such a treaty reached outside the CD in the absence of the participation of key countries with the capability of producing fissile materials, and how, under such circumstances, do we achieve the objective of nonproliferation of nuclear materials?

Although it presumably is not difficult at all for the FMCT negotiations to be moved out of the CD, it is nevertheless difficult for any new or alternative mechanism to replace the role and have the same effect as the CD, a nonexclusive disarmament and nonproliferation body with members from all regions and groups, both developed and developing. It includes, in particular, the five NPT nuclear-weapon states and other countries with nuclear weapons or certain nuclear capabilities. This, I believe, merits our careful reflection.

As for the “informal expert-level discussions on an FMCT” you referred to, I think such discussions per se are useful, though they would be truly meaningful only if channeled into the CD process on the treaty with the participation of all relevant countries.

Beijing, for its part, would like to see “a good treaty” through “good negotiation” at the CD. By “good negotiation,” we mean open and transparent intergovernmental negotiation conducted on the basis of the rules of procedure of the CD and with the participation of all countries with the capability of producing fissile materials. By “a good treaty,” we mean an FMCT that brings on board all relevant countries.

ACT: China repeatedly has expressed its support for an FMCT as an important nonproliferation instrument. China also is widely believed to have halted fissile material production for weapons, yet it is the only country among the five NPT nuclear-weapon states that has not formally declared a halt to fissile material production for weapons. Can you clarify whether China is producing fissile material for weapons purposes? If not, under what circumstances would China consider joining France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States in declaring that it has halted such production?

Wang: You’re right to look at this issue in the context of Beijing’s support for an FMCT as an important nonproliferation instrument. Beijing, for its part, has many misgivings about the notion of a “moratorium on fissile material production for weapons.” The rationales behind this are, firstly, that it will very much undercut international efforts to activate the FMCT negotiation process at the CD, and secondly, that it is neither legally binding nor verifiable. Moreover, it is not clear which fissile material is supposed to be subject to the moratorium. So, I do think that an FMCT at the CD is what international efforts should be focused on.