Five global nuclear powers pledged Monday to prevent atomic weapons spreading and to avoid nuclear conflict, in a rare joint statement setting aside rising West-East tensions to reaffirm a goal of a nuke-free world.
“We believe strongly that the further spread of such weapons must be prevented,” said permanent U.N. Security Council members China, France, Russia, the U.K. and United States, adding: “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
The statement was issued after the latest review of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) — which first came into force in 1970 — was postponed from its scheduled date of Tuesday to later in the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite the major recent tensions between both China and Russia and their Western partners, the five world powers said they saw “the avoidance of war between nuclear-weapon states and the reduction of strategic risks as our foremost responsibilities.”
The powers added: “We each intend to maintain and further strengthen our national measures to prevent unauthorised or unintended use of nuclear weapons.”
The statement also pledged to abide by a key article in the NPT under which states committed to full future disarmament from nuclear weapons, which have only been used in conflict in the U.S. bombings of Japan at the end of World War II.
“We remain committed to our NPT obligations, including our Article 6 obligation” on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict control.
According to the U.N., a total of 191 states have joined the treaty. The provisions of the treaty call for a review of its operation every five years.
In Japan, the world’s sole country to have suffered atomic bombings, anti-nuclear campaigners welcomed the statement.
“I feel the long-held wishes of the people in the world, especially the atomic bomb survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the citizens there, have become a reality,” said Nobuto Hirano, a 75-year-old co-representative of a civic group involved in sending high school students to the United Nations to deliver peace messages.
While noting that the motivations behind the statement may vary among countries, Hirano said he would like to take the move “positively” and hopes the world will move toward eliminating nuclear weapons.
Miho Tanaka, a 27-year-old representative of a civic group calling on Japanese parliamentary members to act to abolish nuclear weapons, said the statement is “happy news” following the postponement of the NPT review conference, which has already been repeatedly delayed from its original date in the spring of 2020.
She expressed hope that Japan will play its role as a country aware of the realities of the catastrophic consequences of the use of nuclear weapons.
The U.S. atomic bombs that exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the final days of World War II killed an estimated 140,000 and 74,000 people, respectively, by the end of 1945.
While a U.N. treaty banning nuclear weapons entered into force in January last year, none of the five nuclear-weapon states — veto-wielding permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — have joined it.
Japan has also refrained from signing the pact in consideration of its security alliance with the United States, which provides protection to the Asian country through its nuclear arsenal.
The statement Monday by the nuclear powers comes as tensions between Russia and the U.S. have reached heights rarely seen since the Cold War over a Russian troop build-up close to the Ukrainian border.
That has raised fears that the Kremlin, worried by the possibility of further eastward expansion of NATO, is planning a new attack on its pro-Western neighbor. Crunch talks between Russia and the U.S. on European security are expected in Geneva on Jan. 10.
Meanwhile, the rise of China under President Xi Jinping has also raised concerns that tensions with Washington could lead to conflict, notably over the island of Taiwan.
Russia welcomed the declaration by the atomic powers and expressed hope it would reduce global tensions.
“We hope that, in the current difficult conditions of international security, the approval of such a political statement will help reduce the level of international tensions,” the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.
Ma Zhaoxu, China’s vice foreign minister, was quoted by the official Xinhua news agency as saying the pledge “will help increase mutual trust and replace competition among major powers with coordination and cooperation.”
The idea that any nuclear war would be unwinnable was evoked by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan in 1985, but this was the first time it had been raised by these five powers, said Marc Finaud, head of arms proliferation at the Geneva Center for Security Policy.
“They have taken the lead and returned to this doctrine” after demands from nonnuclear states and NGOs, he said.
The joint statement also came as the world powers seek to reach agreement with Iran on reviving the 2015 deal over its controversial nuclear drive, which was rendered moribund by the U.S. walking out of the accord in 2018. Washington has repeatedly warned that time is running out to agree on a deal. The latest round of talks got under way in Vienna on Monday. Iran foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said “we sense a retreat, or rather realism from the Western parties in the Vienna negotiations.”
In an op-ed in international media published late last year, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described the existence of 13,000 nuclear weapons worldwide as a growing threat, with the risk they could be used higher than at any time since the Cold War.
“Nuclear annihilation is just one misunderstanding or miscalculation away,” he said, describing nuclear weapons as a “sword of Damocles” over the planet.
On Monday, Guterres’ spokesman Stephane Dujarric said that the secretary-general welcomed the new joint statement.
“The Secretary-General takes the opportunity to restate what he has said repeatedly: the only way to eliminate all nuclear risks is to eliminate all nuclear weapons,” Dujarric said in a statement.
Jean-Marie Collin of the French branch of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), also welcomed the “positive” declaration.
But “the fact that everyone is modernizing and renewing their arsenals at the same time totally undermines it,” he said.
The NPT recognizes China, France, Russia, the U.K. and United States as nuclear weapons powers. India and Pakistan, however, have also developed nuclear weapons, while Israel is widely believed to possess nuclear arms but has never officially acknowledged this.
These three states are not signatories of the NPT. North Korea, which has also developed nuclear weapons, pulled out of the NPT in 2003.
Meanwhile, a race for hypersonic weapons technology seems to be intensifying between the United States and China. Additionally, the United States has been warning of China’s buildup of its nuclear arsenal, with a Pentagon report saying in November that Beijing is likely to possess at least 1,000 nuclear warheads by 2030.
As of mid-2021, nine countries — the five recognized nuclear-weapons states as well as India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan — possessed roughly 13,150 nuclear warheads, according to the website of the Federation of American Scientists.
The United States and Russia remain the dominant nuclear powers, accounting for about 91% of all nuclear warheads, or around 4,000 each, it said.
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