Since the late 1980s, the United States and China have pursued strategic nuclear dialogues at various levels, ranging from track I government-to-government negotiations to track II exchanges among non-governmental security experts. Strategic nuclear dialogues between the two countries are important for stabilizing nuclear relations as they help clarify suspicions and build cooperation. The importance of these exchanges has been demonstrated several times, including during the negotiation of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1994-1996 and at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in 1995. Despite this positive record, the two countries have evolving and diversified interests in the agendas and formats of these dialogues, a situation which requires careful management.
Currently, U.S. officials want more frequent and direct high-level military-to-military strategic nuclear dialogue between the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and the Chinese Second Artillery (SA), the branch of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) responsible for operating land-based nuclear and conventional missiles. But the SA has not been as active or forthcoming in strategic nuclear dialogues as DoD has wished even though the two have exchanged visits a few times in the last several years. It is important for the United States to consider why the SA has been a reluctant participant and how to promote a more effective dialogue with the Second Artillery.
To help answer these questions, it is useful to compare the experiences of China’s nuclear scientific establishment and the SA, which shows that building expertise is the key to shaping the attitude of these organizations toward such dialogues. For this reason, it is important to cultivate experts in the SA and other nuclear branches of the PLA (the nuclear navy and nuclear air force) in order to improve military-to-military strategic nuclear dialogue between Beijing and Washington. By the same token, placing pressure on China to move faster than it is ready to will not work in this case and may make the situation worse.
China’s Nuclear Establishment
One prevalent American hypothesis is that the SA is reluctant to participate in strategic nuclear dialogues because it worries about possible U.S. pressure and follow-on demands for much broader transparency. But comparing the evolving attitude of the SA toward nuclear dialogue with that of the Chinese nuclear establishment shows this hypothesis to be false. Historically, the attitudes of these two institutions toward international dialogue have been quite different, but neither national security sensitivities nor international pressure can explain the difference. Both institutions work on equally sensitive and important national security programs and could use the same arguments of national secrecy to avoid international dialogues if they were skeptical about the purpose or consequences of such exchanges. Both have also been subjected to similar international pressure to participate in the past. Thus, the only reasonable explanation for the differences in their patterns of participation is that the Chinese nuclear establishment and the SA had very different levels of expertise and institutional culture and experience when it came to international dialogue.
In the late 1980s, the Chinese nuclear establishment, including the Beijing Institute of Applied Physics and Computational Mathematics (IAPCM) and China Academy of Engineering Physics (CAEP), began to send its scientists to international dialogues involving scientists from around the world. The tradition and expertise in exchanges in the science community encouraged the Chinese scientists to engage with their peers from other countries on strategic nuclear issues. At the beginning, the Chinese scientists chose to join discussions only on topics of a more technical nature, for example, the consequences of nuclear war and verification of nuclear reductions. The Chinese scientists utilized the common tools of scientific exchange, such as graphs and formulas, to engage with their counterparts. In this process, they developed friendship with and trust in scientists from other countries. They gained experience and confidence in dialogue on nuclear policy issues and came to understand the importance and benefits of these dialogues. They also realized that some special expertise is needed to engage on strategic issues.
With the assistance of scientists from Italy and the United States, among others, Chinese nuclear institutions began to apply for funding from international foundations to organize their own international nuclear dialogues and to train their students on strategic nuclear issues. They also sent their young scientists to receive training on nuclear arms control and nonproliferation at American universities such as Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and the University of Maryland, at non-governmental organizations like the Union of Concerned Scientists, and at the U.S. national labs, in particular the Cooperative Monitoring Center at the Sandia National Laboratories. These trainees are now mid-career and most of them play important roles in strategic nuclear dialogue between China and other countries. The expertise in strategic dialogues built in the Chinese nuclear establishment gives their leaders the confidence to encourage participation in such dialogues at all levels and in different formats. The 1999 U.S. Cox Commission Report, which accused Chinese nuclear scientists of spying, among other charges, interrupted the nascent U.S.-Chinese lab-to-lab dialogue. The Chinese nuclear establishment has set as a precondition to resume the dialogue that the U.S. government formally acknowledge the benefits of the prior U.S.-China lab-to-lab exchange. Although the United States has yet to meet this precondition, scientists from the Chinese nuclear establishment never mind talking with and hosting scientists from U.S. national labs at various nuclear dialogues.
The active posture of the Chinese nuclear establishment on international nuclear dialogues comes from its confidence in the ability of its experts to participate effectively in these discussions. These institutions are always prepared to send their experts to strategic nuclear dialogues no matter whether the dialogues are multilateral or bilateral, track I or track II, or on contentious or agreeable topics. Such confidence does not arise from international pressure. Instead, foreign assistance in cultivating experience and expertise in international dialogue was very useful in shaping the long-term active posture of the Chinese nuclear establishment.
The Second Artillery
Unlike the Chinese nuclear establishment, which is made up of scientists who have become accustomed to international scientific exchanges, the SA’s major cadres are professional military officers who do not have the same level of experience in international nuclear exchanges, and therefore less expertise to draw on when called to participate in these exchanges. This has even led to a divergence in the nuclear lexicons used by the SA and nuclear establishment. For instance, whereas the SA and most parts of the PLA (for example, PLA’s National Defense University and Academy of Military Science) use native words to describe strategic nuclear issues, the nuclear establishment uses words directly translated from Western literature and United Nations documents. This results in serious confusion about the meaning of some terms, with perhaps the best example being the term “deterrence.” The nuclear establishment uses the term “weishe” (威慑) for the meaning of “deterrence.” However, for the PLA, “weishe” means “coercion.”
This situation began to improve in the late 1990s with the initiation of some new track “1.5” strategic dialogues between China and the United States. These meetings take the format of an academic meeting, but participants include both governmental officials and non-governmental experts on strategic nuclear policy issues. The Chinese-U.S. track 1.5 dialogues allowed the SA to send its officers to observe how people from different countries discuss sensitive strategic nuclear issues. The early observers from the SA, who were mostly officials in charge of foreign affairs, returned with important and useful experiences. After SA leaders became more familiar with and confident in strategic nuclear dialogues, the SA made two significant changes in its approach to the track 1.5 dialogues.
The first change was to send the nuclear strategy experts who teach strategic issues at the colleges under the SA to the track 1.5 dialogues. The second change was to upgrade these military professors from backbenchers to formal participants of the dialogues with permission to join discussions with their American counterparts. Besides enhancing the SA’s nuclear policy expertise, these professors started to publicly publish articles discussing nuclear strategy and the role of these international dialogues. For example, following one of these dialogues a Chinese participant from the SA published an article encouraging China to increase its transparency about its nuclear strategy, arguing that “seclusion and excessive secrecy are but an expression of a lack of self-confidence.”1
Besides these military professors who sit on the front row of the dialogues, young scholars from the SA were in the back row observing the discussion and learning from the experience. This process has been invaluable in building the SA’s expertise. It is wrong-headed to think, which some Americans probably do, that these track 1.5 dialogues are responsible for the SA’s reluctance to participate in formal, government-to-government or military-to-military exchanges.
It is worth noting that the track 1.5 dialogues also serve another important function: to promote interagency discussion in China between the SA and other Chinese organizations and individual experts on nuclear strategy. Prior to each track 1.5 meeting, experts from the SA and other organizations hold preparatory meetings to better understand their respective positions and hold frank discussions. This is another way in which the SA has accumulated expertise.
Building on these experiences, the SA is quickly developing its expertise in strategic dialogue. It sends its officers to various international forums on strategic nuclear issues. It invites military and civilian experts on strategic dialogues to give briefings to its officers who may work on strategic dialogue. It hosts workshops on nuclear strategy and opens them to non-governmental scholars. It sends its younger officers to Ph.D. programs at civilian universities to study international security. All these efforts are aimed at gaining expertise in strategic dialogue.
Toward Effective Dialogue
The experiences of the Chinese nuclear establishment and the PLA Second Artillery in strategic nuclear dialogue suggest that expertise is a key variable shaping their attitudes toward dialogue. Foreign pressure, on the other hand, cannot explain the evolution of their attitudes. To encourage the SA to be more active in strategic nuclear dialogues at both track 1.5 and track I levels, it is important to help the SA and other PLA nuclear branches develop their expertise and build a culture that embraces such dialogues. The track 1.5 dialogues were very useful places for the SA to gain relevant experience and should continue to serve this function.
The United States might consider some ideas for cooperating with its Chinese partners to cultivate the expertise of the SA and other PLA nuclear branches in strategic nuclear dialogue. First, American universities and non-governmental organizations might invite young officials from the SA as visiting scholars to help them develop their personal expertise in strategic issues, similar to opportunities created for the Chinese nuclear establishment in the 1990s. The U.S. government could help facilitate the visas of these Chinese visiting scholars. Second, the Pentagon could invite the PLA to develop a glossary on nuclear strategy terminology similar to the one completed by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Scientists Group on Arms Control.2
The glossary offers Chinese translation of nuclear terms used by the Chinese nuclear establishment, but it is not fully accepted by the Second Artillery. And third, the United States could acknowledge publicly the importance it places on track 1.5 nuclear dialogue in cultivating expertise in nuclear dialogue in the SA and continue to give full support to these exchanges.
The growth of expertise of the SA in nuclear dialogues should give its leaders great confidence and lays a solid foundation for the two militaries to develop effective and high-level strategic dialogue in the near future. Enhancing the partnership through ideas like those proposed here may speed up the process.
1. Yang Chengjun, “More Transparency Will Benefit the PLA,” China Daily, September 27, 2007. p. 10.
About the Nuclear Policy Program
Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Program works to strengthen international security by diagnosing acute nuclear risks, informing debates on solutions, and engaging international actors to effect change. The program’s work spans deterrence, disarmament, nonproliferation, nuclear security, and nuclear energy.