Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 June 2012
On October 16, 1964, China became the fifth member of the nuclear weapon state club when it conducted a 22 kiloton nuclear test in its western desert. A successful nuclear weapons test is an impressive technological achievement for any state, but it was especially impressive for a state as economically and technologically backward as China was at that time.
The efficient success of the Chinese nuclear weapons project represents a crucial test for the theory introduced in this book for two main reasons.
First, to a great extent our interpretation of the whole history of proliferation since the mid 1960s hangs on how we make sense of the case of China. The birth of the Chinese bomb was a major shock to the US foreign policy community. As a result, as Moeed Yusuf finds in his historical survey of proliferation predictions, “the focus of the proliferation debate shifted abruptly to the developing world.” “It is as a portent of the future that the mushroom cloud over West China has crucial importance for the peace and security of the world,” Ralph L. Powell wrote in Foreign Affairs in 1965, “All previous testing has been carried out by industrial powers of the Occident; Communist China is non-Western, non-white and only semi-industrialized.” In the years that followed, scholars such as Thomas Schelling would take Powell’s points to their logical extreme, projecting nuclear weapons arsenals even in banana republics such as Panama. The intensive US and Soviet negotiations toward the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) were also a direct outgrowth of the China nuclear shock and the perception of potential runaway proliferation that it stimulated. The NPT’s widespread reputation as “the most successful arms control treaty in history” is largely based on the assumption that in the treaty’s absence, many more developing states would have quickly followed in China’s wake. In sum, China’s spectacular nuclear success is not just an important case in itself, but one that has colored our understanding of many other cases as well.