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Spectators wave Chinese flags as military vehicles carrying DF-41 ballistic missiles roll during a parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of Communist China in Beijing, Oct. 1, 2019.Mark Schiefelbein/The Associated Press

An Austrian diplomat who was one of the architects of a new UN treaty aimed at banning nuclear weapons says the world is in the midst of a new arms race which includes a dramatic expansion of China’s arsenal.

Alexander Kmentt helped bring about the creation of the UN Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons, or Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty, which was adopted in 2017 and entered into force in January, 2021. More than 120 countries voted for the treaty’s adoption and more than 55 states have ratified, or acceding to, the treaty so far. All nine countries with nuclear arsenals, including the United States, Russia, Britain and France, have refused to sign.

Even members of the NATO military alliance without nuclear weapons, including Canada, have opted to stay out of the treaty. Last week, Jens Stoltenberg, secretary-general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, said, “The world where we get rid of our nuclear weapons but where China, Russia and countries like North Korea continue to have nuclear weapons is not a safer world.”

Mr. Kmentt met with officials at Canada’s Department of Global Affairs on Monday, urging Canada to come as an observer to the first meeting of states that are parties to the nuclear ban treaty in Vienna in March, 2022. The diplomat, who was elected chair of the meeting, said two other NATO member countries, Norway and Germany, have indicated they plan to participate as observers.

He noted in 2020 that the Doomsday Clock measurement maintained by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which estimates how close the world is to a nuclear war, was set at 100 seconds to midnight. That is the closest to midnight it’s been set.

“We in the West tend to think this is a topic of the past but it isn’t,” said Mr. Kmentt, director of the disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation department of the Austrian Foreign Ministry.

The diplomat, who is also attending a two-day conference in Ottawa held in part by the Simons Foundation, said the premise of the treaty is that the theory of nuclear deterrence will not be sufficient to avert a nuclear conflict. Deterrence holds that nuclear weapons discourage other countries from attacking with their nuclear arsenal because of the risk of retaliation and mutually assured destruction.

He said countries are in the midst of massive upgrades to their nuclear arsenals as they replace obsolescent technology, and so even if Russia and the United States reduce deployed missiles under the New Start nuclear arms control treaty, the improvements will leave states with more powerful weapons.

“We are in the middle of an arms race unfortunately. It’s still being denied by some actors but I think the signs are all there. We have all the nuclear weapons states massively investing into their programs. And projecting programs to run until the end of the century. China is doing that as well at a very significant pace.”

He said new technology, including hypersonic missiles and artificial intelligence, add further layers of risks.

Plus, the diplomat said, new predictive modelling demonstrates the huge consequences that even a limited nuclear exchange would have for the rest of the world as soot from an explosion would block out sunlight, causing famines. “A nuclear war between India and Pakistan, for instance, could lead to 10 years of food insecurity globally,” Mr. Kmentt said.

Mr. Kmentt urged Canada to send an observer to the March talks. “We know the current position of the Canadian government is opposed to the treaty but Canada has a reputation as a humanitarian disarmament country [and leading the push to ban] landmines,” he said. “I understand for political reasons you may not want to sign the treaty but you need to have a discussion with us about the arguments upon which the treaty is based.”

Neither Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly’s office nor her department could immediately be reached for comment on the request.

There are more than 13,000 nuclear warheads in the world with about 90 per cent in the hands of Russia and the United States.

Attention has turned to China this year after satellite images appeared to show the construction of big new missile silo fields. The Federation of American Scientists, a research group that tracks nuclear arsenals, said it had spotted as many as 230 missile silos that could one day be capable of launching long-range nuclear missiles. “For China, this is an unprecedented nuclear buildup,” the group wrote in Nov. 2 report.

This fall the Pentagon sharply increased its estimate of China’s projected nuclear weapons arsenal over the coming years, saying Beijing could have 700 warheads by 2027 and possibly 1,000 by 2030.

This month a senior U.S. general told the Halifax International Security Forum that China and Russia have surpassed the United States in the development of cutting-edge hypersonic missiles – regarded by some as first strike weapons. General David Thompson, vice-chief of space operations in the U.S. Space Force, said the world has become a “much more complicated place” with the advent of hypersonic missiles that can fly five times the speed of sound and change course midflight.

With a report from Reuters

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