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Russia, China, and the P5 Process

Earlier this month, delegates from five of the world’s most powerful nations converged in London for an annual two-day conference focused on one of the most historically pressing issues in international affairs — and no one reported on it.

The meeting — attended by the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China — was centered around reaching consensus on matters of non-proliferation and disarmament in a yearly forum now misleadingly referred to as the “P5 Process.” Having first started in 2009 as an informal, backroom institution for nuclear weapon states (NWS) to mitigate increasing pressure from non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS), the P5 Process has come to serve as a litmus test for the trajectory of the broader non-proliferation regime. However, these largely secretive meetings have since failed to garner headlines as a result of their repeated shortcomings and their opacity.

In particular, the Russian and Chinese delegations have often been the sources of disruption throughout these annual exercises in gridlock. While not pursuing any sort of collaborative effort, Beijing and Moscow have traditionally expressed similarly dismissive attitudes towards many of the issues addressed throughout the P5 Process for various reasons related to their respective strategic interests. Their tendency to halt P5 discussions on several issues is coincidental, not bilateral. And now, at the recent 2015 London P5 Conference, it would appear that that trend has persisted to the point of eliciting significant blowback on the broader non-proliferation regime.

The genesis of this uncooperative legacy began at 2010 NPT Review Conference, when NNWS — distraught with the general complacency of NWS at previous NPT gatherings and further perturbed by the hollow joint statement produced by the first P5 meeting in 2009 — laid down a series of guidelines from which the agenda of future P5 conferences would be set.

These guidelines were embodied in Article 5 of the 2010 NPT Action Plan, which contained several binding commitments to which the NWS were now to adhere, including “rapidly moving towards an overall reduction in the global stockpile of all types of nuclear weapons,” “reduc[ing] the risk of accidental use of nuclear weapons,” and “enhanc[ing] transparency and increase mutual confidence.”

From these commitments arose the five primary issues that have to varying degrees commanded the attention of all P5 Conferences since: verification of warhead dismantlement, nuclear transparency, the construction of a glossary on nuclear-related terms, the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT), and joint exercises on nuclear weapon accident response.

To the increasing frustration of the remaining NWS and NNWS alike, progress on the majority of these issues has been effectively stalled as a result of uncooperative and, at times, even hostile attitudes out of Beijing and Moscow.

Explorations of verification methods for nuclear warhead disarmament have been dead-on-arrival, with Russia stating its complete opposition to a P5 handling of such matters at the 2011 P5 Conference in Paris; China has expressed a similar view.

Likewise, efforts to foster greater transparency amongst NWS nuclear programs have similarly evaporated since 2011 with Beijing’s unwavering refusal to divulge meaningful quantitative information on its arsenal. The hindering effects of China’s arsenal-related insecurity have only been further compounded with Russia’s decision to cease cooperation on new transparency agreements until all nuclear states are on board.

The compilation of a nuclear glossary has shown promise in a sea of otherwise oppositional national interests, with the five NWS engaging in healthy and productive discussions that have pushed the project towards completion under Chinese leadership. But the glossary has unfortunately been an outlier, a fact attributed to the intrinsic political neutrality lent by its comparatively technical nature. Since the Paris Conference in 2011, China has refused to consider an FMCT — having viewed the small size of its arsenal as a justification for fissile material production — and the combined hostility from Moscow and Beijing regarding accident response exercises has been so severe that the item has ceased to even appear on recent agendas.

All of the traditional dysfunction has continued full-steam into the 2015 P5 Conference, where rising tensions between the West and Russia can be assumed to have only complicated matters further. However, the only information on what actually took place at the February 4th-5th event must be parsed from the notoriously ambiguous joint statements that follow each otherwise secretive deliberations, begging the question: what really happened at the 2015 P5 Conference?

For one, the nuclear verification and disarmament objective has been swept under the rug, going entirely unmentioned other than a short repetition of the well-known and, to NNWS, increasingly irrelevant fact that the NWS nuclear stockpile has declined in size since the Cold War. Russia’s recent statement at the previous P5 Conference in opposition to any further bilateral disarmament agreements with the United States until remaining NWS are involved appears to have remained in place, cementing a serious blow to the NPT regime and ensuring the immense disappointment of its non-nuclear signatories.

Second, the small remaining prospect of increasing nuclear transparency among participants in the P5 process was admittedly maintained, although not by any great measure. The group conceded the unsubstantive nature of their previously proposed monitoring infrastructure — a motion heavily criticized by NNWS as mere window dressing — and recommitted themselves to “improving and maintaining the International Monitoring System,” also vowing to supplant their regular technical meetings with “a workshop on data quality objectives… at on-site inspections.” Unfortunately, these meager concessions are likely to be deemed as “too little, too late” by critical NNWS with exceedingly high expectations on non-proliferation and disarmament.

Continuing the trend of failing where it counts and succeeding where it does not, the 2015 P5 Conference yet again procured favorable results on the one area of little urgency to NNWS: the nuclear glossary. To this end, the joint statement confirmed that the P5 will be moving forward as scheduled in presenting a first edition glossary at the 2015 NPT Review Committee. While the implications of this on the whole are surely that of progress, the victory is small in the context of much greater, crippling failures, leaving NNWS with little to celebrate and much to question.

Likely sensing the mounting animosity, the 2015 London Conference did in fact include something of an olive branch — a final measure that welcomed in “a number of non-nuclear-weapon states” to a briefing and discussion session at the conclusion of the meeting. According to Chatham House Research Director of International Security Patricia Lewis, the nations were pooled from a collective of NNWS called the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative and included Canada, Mexico, the Netherlands, the U.A.E., and Australia.*

It is unclear what kind of impression was left on the five NNWS that attended the briefing, although — given the vagueness of the Joint Statement and disappointing legacy already in place — it was likely an unsatisfactory affair. The stalemate presented by five years of the P5 Process is not one that can be written off as great powers doing as they please without consequence. Grumblings first expressed by NNWS at the 2010 NPT Review Conference have the potential to manifest themselves as cancerous to the non-proliferation regime unless a common understanding is achieved. There is a growing, albeit gradual, sense that, should the NWS not commit themselves more seriously to their obligations under the now half-decade old Non-Proliferation Treaty, NNWS have no reason not to violate their own obligations and pursue a nuclear arsenal.

The disharmony that has emanated from Beijing and Moscow throughout the P5 Process ultimately threatens to tip the scales unfavorably in this precarious and escalating environment, and while little specifics have yet to be disclosed, it is clear that the two nations have failed to sufficiently reconcile their attitudes with Western NWS.

Above all, the failure of the P5 Process presents a contentious forecast for the upcoming 2015 NPT Review Conference, one where the divide between NWS and NNWS signatories is likely to deepen. It is indeed unlikely that much will change in the months leading up to the Conference, which commences on April 27th and runs until May 22nd, though a quickly shifting climate is not wholly unimaginable. Regardless, only then will the true implications of the P5 Process — with all its unignorable shortcomings — be understood in their entirety.

For more information on the 2015 P5 Conference, view the official Joint Statement here.

*These countries were listed by Lewis during a live stream of the civil society colloquium between Chatham House and the P5 during the February 5th Conference.