Secretary General focuses on China threat at annual NATO arms control conference but ignores nuclear proliferation closer to home

Dr. Ian Davis, NATO Watch

9 September 2021

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg urged China to join international efforts to limit the spread of nuclear weapons in an opening speech at NATO’s annual arms control conference. NATO and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark jointly organized the 17th Annual NATO Conference on, Arms Control, Disarmament and Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Non-Proliferation, which took place on 6-7 September 2021 in Copenhagen, Denmark. This arms control conference has taken place annually since 2004, and it provides an opportunity for senior NATO and national officials to informally discuss WMD threats and regularly includes more than 100 officials from around 45 countries.

The Secretary General’s speech and the preceding welcoming remarks by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Denmark were streamed live on the NATO website. The rest of the event was closed to the public and only one of the other conference presentations appears to be publicly available online at this time (rather ironic, given the NATO Secretary General’s criticism of China’s lack of transparency, see below). The conference programme follows at the end of this article.

Stoltenberg set out three arms control priorities for NATO allies in his remarks: to work more together to preserve the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), to strengthen and modernise arms control and to respond to treaty violations. However, there were no new proposals as to how NATO might strengthen arms control. Despite “a long track record of doing its part on disarmament and non- proliferation”, as Adam Thomson, a former UK NATO ambassador and head of the European Leadership Network, has argued, in recent years NATO has been “missing in action on arms control” treating the issue as an afterthought rather than a guiding principle.

Part of the problem is a ‘groupthink’ mentality within NATO on this issue. For example, except for one unnamed Chinese speaker (who was still to be confirmed according to the programme), this latest conference was likely to have been largely an echo chamber for established ‘status quo’ thinking that has changed little over recent years. As studies show, diversity leads to innovation and prevents groupthink. So where were the experts from outside of government to challenge the NATO officials on their glacial approach to disarmament? NATO’s longstanding commitment to the full implementation of the NPT in all its aspects and support for “the ultimate goal of a world without nuclear weapons” (as most recently reiterated in the 2021 NATO Summit communique) continues to be undermined by the opposite commitment that “as long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance”. If the “strongest and most successful alliance in history” is unable to break this nuclear Catch 22 then the long-term prospects for the NPT are not promising.

The Secretary General’s speech also focused on the nuclear proliferation of Russia and China, warning that “Russia continues to ignore and bend” international arms control rules while China is rapidly expanding its nuclear arsenal, including by “building a large number of missile silos, which can significantly increase its nuclear capability. All of this is happening without any limitation or constraint. And with a complete lack of transparency”. He also accused Iran and North Korea of spreading dangerous missile technology.

The Secretary General is right to highlight these developments in China. At the end of July, the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) published a study on new construction work on a second nuclear missile silo field near Hami in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, while a few weeks earlier, The Washington Post reported about a similar new site with missile storage or launch facilities near Yumen in Gansu province. There could be more than 250 new missile silos in total, FAS experts estimated. That would be more than Russia and half as many as the United States has in operation for intercontinental missiles. Overall, China is currently estimated to have around 350 nuclear warheads, while the United States and Russia each have about 4,000 in their military stockpile. However, while this Chinese nuclear proliferation is undoubtedly a growing concern, it needs to be set in the context of wider nuclear proliferation, including by NATO’s own three nuclear-armed states. For example, US spending on nuclear weapons is expected to climb by $140 billion over the next ten years, while the UK has just lifted the ceiling on its nuclear weapons arsenal.

Stoltenberg also said that more countries must be included in future missile restriction talks, not just Russia: “As a global power, China has global responsibilities in arms control. And Beijing, too, would benefit from mutual limits on numbers, increased transparency, and more predictability” Stoltenberg said, adding “These are the foundations for international stability”. The assumption is presumably that these are foundations that should also apply to NATO. However, while NATO’s ‘nuclear three’ have previously made limited statements about the sizes of their nuclear arsenals, in recent years both the United States and United Kingdom have markedly reduced nuclear transparency.

Finally, Stoltenberg welcomed the agreement between the United States and Russia to extend for another five years the New START treaty limiting their strategic nuclear weapons. But he said that more kinds of arms should be added to non-proliferation talks, including new technologies like Artificial Intelligence. Again, this would be very welcome, and NATO could and should be doing more to revive and expand the arms control agenda.


17th Annual NATO Conference on, Arms Control, Disarmament and Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Non-Proliferation



Monday, 6 September 2021

HIGH LEVEL PUBLIC EVENT organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark on "Nuclear Arms Control: A New Era?"

Opening remarks by Jeppe Kofod, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Denmark (see tweet)

Moderator: Henrik Breitenbauch, Senior Researcher and Director of the Centre for Military Studies, Copenhagen University

Bonnie Jenkins, Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, USA - Remarks

James Appathurai, NATO Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges

Susanna Baumann, Federal Government Commissioner for Disarmament and Arms Control, Germany

Bruno Tertrais, Deputy Director of the Foundation pour la Recherche Stratégique



Welcome address by Jeppe Kofod, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Denmark

Keynote speech by Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary General, followed by the Q&A session (virtual)

Opening remarks by Bettina Cadenbach, NATO Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs and Security Policy

Organisational remarks by the Chair of the Conference, Eirini Lemos-Maniati, Acting Director of the Arms Control, Disarmament and WMD Non-Proliferation Centre at NATO


Panel 1: On the way to a successful Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and beyond
Moderator:Jacek Bylica, Chief of Cabinet, Director General's Office, International Atom Energy Agency


Gustavo Zlauvinen, President-designate for the NPT Review Conference (virtual)

Anthony Wier, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, USA

Philippe Bertoux, Director for Strategic Affairs, Security and Disarmament, Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs, France

Aidan Liddle, UK Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament

Chinese speaker (TBC)


Tuesday, 7 September 2021

Panel 2: Addressing the threat of chemical weapons: rebuilding international norm and enforcing accountability

Moderator: Vidmantas Purlys, Vice-Chair of the OPCW Executive Council and Permanent Representative of Lithuania to the OPCW


Yvonne Mensah, Acting Director of External Affairs Division and Head of the Political Affairs and Protocol Branch, OPCW

Adam Bugajski, Director of the Security Policy Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Poland

Marjolijn van Deelen, Special Envoy for Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, European External Action Service

Matthew Neuhaus, Permanent Representative of Australia to the OPCW (see tweet)

Zameer Akram, Director General for Arms Control and Disarmament at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Pakistan (virtual)


Panel 3: Addressing the broader missile challenge: what's next?

Moderator: Radoslava Stefanova, Head of Integrated Air and Missile Defence Section, NATO Defence Investment Division


Bruce Turner, Senior Bureau Official for the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, US Department of State (virtual)

Mihaela Stefanescu, Director for the OSCE, Nonproliferation and Arms Control, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Romania

Anna Hammarlund Blixt, Director and Deputy Head of the Department for Disarmament, Non-proliferation and Export Control at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Sweden

John-Mikal Størdal, Director at the Collaboration Support Office NATO Science and Technology Organization (STO)

Rose Gottemoeller, Distinguished Lecturer at Stanford University, former Deputy Secretary General of NATO (virtual)


Panel 4: NATO's contribution to arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation in the framework of NATO 2030 agenda
Moderator: Eirini Lemos-Maniati, Acting Director of the Arms Control, Disarmament and WMD Non-proliferation Centre at NATO

Susanne Baumann, Federal Government Commissioner for Disarmament and Arms Control and Head of the Directorate-General for International Order, the United Nations and Arms Control at the Federal Foreign Office, Germany

Kyllike Sillaste-Elling, Ambassador, Director General of the Security Policy and Transatlantic Relations Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Estonia

Klaus Korhonen, Ambassador, Mission of Finland to NATO

Wouter Jurgens, Deputy Director for Security Policy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands



Jesper Møller Sørensen, State Secretary for Foreign Policy, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark

Eirini Lemos-Maniati, Acting Director of the Arms Control, Disarmament and WMD