US, France, Russia, China and Britain unite in rare anti-nuclear message

Many non-nuclear states say the five world leaders are not scrapping their stockpiles fast enough

A US military intercontinental ballistic missile test conducted at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, in 2019. US Air Force via AP

The US, China, France, Russia and Britain on Monday vowed to stop the spread of atomic weapons and the possibility of nuclear war in a rare joint statement that comes amid growing global fears over superpower rivalries.

The five permanent members of the UN Security Council, who are also the only nations allowed to possess nuclear weapons under international law, said in a statement that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”.

“As nuclear use would have far-reaching consequences, we also affirm that nuclear weapons — for as long as they continue to exist — should serve defensive purposes, deter aggression and prevent war,” said the joint statement.

“We believe strongly that the further spread of such weapons must be prevented.”

The statement came before the planned start of the five-year review of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which was pushed back to August due to Covid-19, and amid deepening military tension between Russia, China and the US.

In the statement, the countries voiced support for the NPT, which first came into force in 1970 and formally recognised the US, Russia, Britain, France and China as nuclear states while banning any more countries from developing their own doomsday weapons.

The treaty has 191 signatories. India, Pakistan and North Korea have developed nuclear weapons but are not members of the NPT, with Pyongyang exiting the pact in 2003. Israel also never signed the treaty and is widely believed to possess nuclear arms, but has never formally acknowledged this.

Under the treaty, the five nuclear states pledged to allow peaceful development of atomic energy technology and to pursue talks on nuclear disarmament.

Non-nuclear states frequently complain that progress on scrapping nuclear stockpiles is far too slow, pointing to a ramp-up in military testing and the development of hypersonic missiles by the US, China and others.

“We remain committed to our Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations”, including the obligation to agree to a “general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control”, said the statement.

“We underline our desire to work with all states to create a security environment more conducive to progress on disarmament with the ultimate goal of a world without nuclear weapons with undiminished security for all.”

The statement comes as strains grow between the five nuclear powers, including a Russian military build-up near the Ukrainian border that has brought relations between Moscow, the US and its European allies to their lowest point since the Cold War.

Moscow says it will not tolerate the expansion of Nato to encompass pro-western Ukraine. US President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin discussed the crisis last Thursday and further talks are set to take place in Geneva on January 10.

Meanwhile, the rise of China under President Xi Jinping has stoked economic and territorial tension between Beijing and Washington.

US military chiefs in November raised their estimate of China’s nuclear weapons arsenal in the coming years, saying Beijing could possess 700 warheads by 2027 and as many as 1,000 by 2030.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres voiced support for the statement and urged the five nations to live up to their "binding obligations" to scrap their stockpiles, a spokesman said.

"He is encouraged by the nuclear-weapon states’ commitment to pursue measures to prevent nuclear war," said the spokesman.

"The only way to eliminate all nuclear risks is to eliminate all nuclear weapons."

Updated: January 4th 2022, 8:27 AM