Nuclear Arms Control in China Today

October 31, 2014
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

Despite the recent proliferation of dire warnings about the security situation in East Asia, Chinese scientists and scholars continue working to provide Chinese policy-makers with constructive options for the region’s future. This is especially true when it comes to the future of China’s nuclear arsenal.

Participants gather for conversation and snacks after a plenary session.

Participants gather for conversation and snacks after a plenary session.

Chinese papers presented during a recent gathering of international arms control experts in the city of Hangzhou demonstrated a continuing Chinese commitment to engage in efforts to prevent the use, control the spread and reduce the number of nuclear weapons. The agenda for the Hangzhou conference was put together by China’s Institute for Applied Physics and Computational Mathematics (IAPCM) and the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI). There were participants from most of the other nuclear weapons states: the UK, France, Russia, India and Pakistan. The other countries represented were Japan, South Korea, Germany, Italy and Mongolia. But the majority of those attending were from China and the United States. In the wake of the collapse of lab to lab exchanges between the U.S. and China fifteen years ago, non-official venues like the Hangzhou conference provide U.S. and Chinese experts with an opportunity to work together on shared concerns.

China Preparing Verification Technologies for Deep Reductions

It may seem a long time off, but should the United States and Russia find the political will to enact deep cuts in their nuclear arsenals, multilateral negotiations with the other nuclear weapons states, including China, would be the next step on the slow path towards elimination. In anticipation of that possibility, technical experts from China and the United States presented preliminary work on technologies that would allow parties to keep track of each other’s nuclear warheads without revealing sensitive design information to other parties. Many U.S. analysts criticize China for a supposed lack of willingness to engage in official discussions about multilateral reductions, seemingly unaware that at the technical level there are personnel within the Chinese nuclear weapons laboratories who have been preparing for these discussions—in concert with their U.S. counterparts—for quite a long time.

China Puts The Breaks on Reprocessing

A more immediate problem discussed at the Hangzhou conference was the inescapable relationship between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. Experts from Japan presented lessons learned from Japan’s early commitment to reprocess spent nuclear fuel. Japan started reprocessing in the hope that the extracted plutonium could be used to power fast breeder reactors. Yet despite decades of research and development, efforts to create a useable breeder reactor failed and Japan accumulated an enormous stockpile of plutonium. Although originally envisioned as an economical and efficient means to utilize limited nuclear fuel supplies, the Japanese participants presented evidence the decision to reprocess was a colossal economic failure. Japan also suffers the political cost of suspicions, circulated both in China and in the United States, that its decision to reprocess is connected to a desire to produce its own nuclear weapons.

China, which had ambitious plans to follow in Japan’s footsteps with its own breeder program, now seems to be taking a second look. Presenters from the China Nuclear Energy Industry Corporation emphatically asserted, on multiple occasions, that for the foreseeable future China’s efforts to develop their reprocessing capacity and fast breeders will not move beyond the experimental facilities they already constructed. Plans for commercial reprocessing seem to have been put on hold.

Chinese Nuclear Strategists Still Comfortable with Asymmetry

Discussions of Chinese nuclear doctrine and strategy were also on the agenda in Hangzhou. Chinese presenters repeated their nation’s commitment to no first use of nuclear weapons and gave no indication of forthcoming changes to China’s nuclear weapons policy. There are persistent U.S. rumors that China is engaged in an effort to alter the strategic balance of nuclear forces, but the Chinese presenters argued that China’s efforts to modernize its delivery vehicles are aimed at increasing their ability to survive a first strike as well as to penetrate U.S. missile defenses. Chinese strategists appear content to maintain what one Chinese presenter described as an “asymmetric stability” between China and the United States predicated on the continued existence of a large imbalance between U.S. and Chinese nuclear forces.

Participants from both China and the United States agreed that the greatest source of potential instability is the development of conventional precision strike weapons. Both countries are focusing a great deal of attention and resources on these capabilities, which present a threat to U.S. conventional forces and to the survivability of China’s nuclear arsenal. Conference participants agreed that greater bilateral dialog on the development of these weapons is urgently needed to prevent a new arms race, not only between China and the United States, but also between other nations that are aggressively pursuing these technologies.

Foundation Support Made a Difference

The most encouraging development in Chinese nuclear arms control is the on-going commitment of the Chinese nuclear weapons laboratories to the research and study of arms-control issues and related technologies. A large contingent of young, technically-trained and highly enthusiastic Chinese arms controllers attended the conference. Back in the 1990s, U.S. foundations like Ford, Carnegie, MacArthur and Ploughshares invested relatively modest amounts of funding to provide learning opportunities for a small group of arms control specialists in the Chinese labs. As they have risen through the bureaucracy over the past several decades, the Chinese scientists who took advantage of those opportunities built on that foundation with their own funds. Although most of the technical work on nuclear arms control in the Chinese nuclear weapons labs is still conducted on a part-time basis, there is now a healthy contingent of young Chinese scientists and engineers preparing for the day when our respective political leaders summon the will to move towards deep nuclear reductions.

The International Summer Symposium on Science and World Affairs continues to play a role in delivering these types of learning opportunities to young scientists around the world, including young scientists from China. Many of the individuals who attended the Hangzhou conference, and not just those from the United States and China, have participated in the summer symposium in the past. Some Chinese participants carried the effort to cultivate an interest in international security among young scientists beyond the labs into China’s leading universities. Most of the top tier international relations programs in China now have courses in international arms control. Although the daily headlines may remind us of how difficult it is to maintain peace and security in East Asia, the long term trends in Chinese thinking about how to do it are more promising than those headlines suggest.

Posted in: China, Nuclear Weapons

About the author

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Gregory Kulacki is an expert on cross-cultural communication between the United States and China. Since joining UCS in 2002, he has promoted dialogue between experts from both countries on nuclear arms control and space security.