Can China lead the world on reducing the threat of nuclear war?

Tom Plate says while Obama’s visit to Hiroshima is welcome, Xi Jinping has a real opportunity to steer the world away from the use of nuclear arms as a defence option

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 May, 2016, 5:47pm
UPDATED : Monday, 23 May, 2016, 5:47pm

Way back when, rather long ago, a youngish, greenish post-graduate student, obsessing about nuclear war, devoted his first book to it. “Doomsday,” I declaimed in Understanding Doomsday: A Guide to the Arms Race for Hawks, Doves and People, “the moment when all the energies of all the nuclear bombs are released over the heads of the inhabitants of the earth. Not a pleasant thought, and, to be sure, there’s nothing to be gained by dwelling on it; but a lot might be lost by ignoring it.”

No one in power should. In 2010, the far-sighted Ban Ki-moon, barely into his first term, pointedly chose to become the first UN secretary general to attend the annual peace memorial ceremony in Hiroshima. The fact that he was from Korea, with all its issues with Japan, didn’t stop him. It was a simple matter of conscience, he said. Now, in 2016, “leading” yet again from behind, President Barack Obama this week is to become the first active US president to visit the Hiroshima memorial. Better late than never…

For their demonstrations of remembrance and concern, we applaud both, while devoutly wishing that President Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ) would choose to do the same some day soon. It would be so impactful for the world to see China’s president free himself from the familiar chain of enmity with Japan by visiting Hiroshima. In all-out nuclear war, after all, China could lose more people than anyone.

Japan, once Asia’s No 1, will always have hanging in its closet the brutal ghost of having served as the first target of an atomic bombing: Will history record Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the last ones? The war-ending consequences of the A-bomb decisions by US president Harry S. Truman still reverberate. Among other things, politically, they include helping breed a populace that rates among the world’s most consistently pacifist; and, paradoxically, supporting a political and military elite that at times seems to suggest Japan was somehow innocent for what preceded its nuclear nightmare. But please do note sympathetically the patient endurance of the largely pacifist Japanese people with a political system (engineered by conquering America) that has produced too many moral dwarfs and politically deaf figures.

In his 2014 novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, Haruki Murakami might have been speaking for many Japanese with these words spoken by one of the characters: “You can hide memories, but you can’t erase the history that produced them ... If nothing else, you need to remember that. You can’t erase history, or change it. It would be like destroying yourself.”

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This would seem an implicit rebuke of his countrymen for memory loss. To the rest of us, the passage might also serve to recall the disturbing fact that not only were atomic bombs actually dropped on the heads of human beings, but that the delivery of the atomic attack was by America, the reputed ultra-good nation always and forever on the side of God.

The very fact that America still sincerely believes it did the right thing (by ending the war without further major cost) suggests it is not inconceivable for another nuclear power to seek some day to similarly justify the nuclear option. What’s more, the Obama administration itself, notwithstanding its laudable Hiroshima symbolism, has allocated colossal lumps of additional funds to “improving” and “modernising” its nuclear arsenal. Talk about “leading from behind” by stockpiling!

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What an opportunity for China, which should fear not to lead from ahead. Russia and the US are the nuclear-armament leaders with roughly the same high piles of nuclear stock. By contrast, China holds far fewer – in the same comparatively modest league as Britain’s bomb pile; and, to its credit, has trumpeted an official policy of forgoing the option of ever being the first to use one, claiming deterrence of evil enemies as the sole motive for possession.

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But the deterrence argument is bogus and should be buried deep underground, along with all the world’s defused bombs: if the reason for deterrence is that others have them, logically it follows that a far less costly and far less risky way of “deterring” nuclear warfare would be if no nation has them at all. Whatever is the world thinking?

Nothing would show China’s ‘peaceful rising’ DNA better than helping lead a nuclear downsizing

Master Murakami again, this time on the topic of human brain lock: “Like a man who has lost his sense of direction, Tsukuru’s thoughts endlessly circled the same place. By the time he became aware of what his mind was doing, he found himself back where he started. Finally, his thinking process got stuck, as if the folds of his brain were a broken screw.”

Can we cease circling the same deadly dangerous place, as if targeting ourselves for future nuclear war? This is the issue for someone of Xi’s high position in the global pecking order to consider. In Paris, Beijing worked out a noteworthy climate deal with Washington. Why not a noteworthy nuclear deal? China is currently the target of international fire for its pushy policies and aggressive actions in and around its South and East China seas neighbourhoods. Nothing would show its “peaceful rising” DNA better than helping lead a nuclear downsizing, trending towards eventual nuclear disarmament.

But is Xi up to it? Time will tell, of course – but maybe time is not on the world’s side. Just consider the consequences of non-state terrorists getting their paws on these evil instruments of doomsday.

Columnist Tom Plate, working on book No 5 in the Giants of Asia series – Waiting for Xi Jinping – is on the faculty of Loyola Marymount University and founder of Asia Media International (