In the premier of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy’s “Arms Control’s Future” (ACF) Seminar Series, China’s future arms control experts debated the issues that surround and shape Chinese reactions to the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, Ballistic Missile Defense Review Report, and the Nuclear Security Summit.

The seminar marked the first in a series intended to give China's next arms control generation a platform to assemble, present their research, and engage in discussion. Under this initiative, top students from China and around the world will come together on a regular basis to debate the issues and broaden the spectrum of voices on traditional and new arms control topics.

This event brought together current and recently graduated students from Tsinghua University’s Department of International Relations to discuss their research with fellow scholars from Tsinghua University, Beijing University, China Foreign Affairs University, Beijing Normal University, Beijing Languages University, and Nanjing University. The seminar was moderated by Carnegie's Lora Saalman.

Taboo and Arms Control

Dai Ying, a PhD Candidate at Tsinghua University, noted in her talk that the concept of a “nuclear winter” and the strong political aversion to chemical warfare are both prominent examples of taboos forming as a result of basic fears around a weapon’s destructive capacity. Dai asserted that there are instances in which taboo has contributed to constraining countries’ actions, as in the non-use of nuclear weapons since the Second World War. She stated that taboo ultimately extends beyond the mere calculation of material interests on the part of decision-makers to moral concerns.

  • The factors behind taboo: Dai noted that taboos have a strong social aspect, such as the moral and ethical concerns shaped by media and public opinion. In particular, she suggested that the media serves as a crucial element in strengthening public aversion to certain weapons. Wu Wenbing, a Tsinghua University PhD Candidate, suggested that technological factors and the role of the scientific community factored into calculations on taboo to a greater extent than socio-cultural ones. 
  • Contradictions in international taboo: Lora Saalman, Associate at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, inquired as to whether or not taboo should be differentiated, as biological and chemical weapons face a strong stigma on possession, while nuclear weapons possess a greater taboo on use. Chen Qi, an Assistant Professor at Tsinghua University, responded that taboo in the nuclear realm is a matter of degree. In his view, taboo has played a weak role in the reluctance of the global community to condemn the United States for its possession and use of nuclear weapons against Japan, while conversely has undertaken a strong role in the international condemnation of countries like Iran and North Korea for pursuing or possessing nuclear weapons.
  • The failure of taboo: Dai explored instances in which taboo has failed to emerge, such as in the case of small arms and light weapons. Several students expanded on this concept, expressing concern that the U.S. non-nuclear prompt-global strike capabilities, mentioned in the April 2010 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, lack the taboo associated with nuclear weapons, thereby creating a lower threshold on their use. When Saalman asked how these concerns might be impacted by the inclusion of such weapons under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), one expert noted the technical differences between such systems, citing the long-term destabilizing potential associated with advanced conventional weapons replacing strategic ones.

U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense and China’s Security

In February 2010, the U.S. Department of Defense released a Ballistic Missile Defense Review Report. The report advocates a Phased Adaptive Approach (PAA), global missile defense architecture of “mobile, relocatable and scalable” assets that, according to Tsinghua PhD candidate Wu Riqiang, “blurs the distinction” between U.S. tactical and strategic missile defenses:

  • Tactical missile defenses: Wu argued that the United States justifies its tactical defenses by citing the threat of China’s conventional ballistic missile force to its neighbors.
  • Strategic missile defenses: Under PAA, Wu suggested that tactical missile defense serves as a stepping-stone for justification of U.S. strategic ballistic missile defenses, which threaten to negate China’s strategic ballistic missile capabilities. In particular, he cited concerns over the impact of U.S. SM-3 Block IIA missile defense capabilities and their impact on China’s Julang-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile.
  • From conventional to global: Wu stressed that the phased development of missile defense capabilities from the regional conventional level to the global strategic level poses a significant challenge to strategic stability and nuclear disarmament.
  • Missile defense without end: Saalman inquired as to how Wu viewed the stance of the Obama administration towards missile defense as compared with the Bush administration. Wu responded that given the more positive international response towards U.S. President Obama, U.S. ballistic missile programs have a greater potential to continuously advance without significant opposition. Wu emphasized that U.S. strategic advantages provide it with the power of “coercion” over China in a crisis situation and could provoke destabilizing misunderstandings and escalation.

Nuclear Energy and Nuclear Security   

Dr. Wang Haibin, an assistant professor at Tsinghua University's School of Public Policy and Management, began his talk by hailing the Nuclear Security Summit held in April 2010 in Washington, D.C. as a major advance in nuclear security because of its emphasis on governmental cooperation in securing nuclear materials. He argued that while at this stage the security risks of nuclear power development are not large, such risks are likely to increase in the future.

  • New nuclear reactors: Wang warned that while current nuclear power technology focuses on light-water reactor production, which is more proliferation resistant, by 2050, nuclear power technology is likely to utilize fast breeder reactors posing a much greater threat to nuclear security.
  • Terrorist threats: The possibility of terrorist incidents using nuclear materials obtained from nuclear power plants was a greater risk than the possibility of a terrorist attack on nuclear facilities, Wang argued, largely due to multi-layered security measures undertaken to guard against attack.
  • Chinese nuclear facilities: Wang was strongly optimistic regarding China’s ability to manage and control its nuclear facilities and to engage in nuclear security management. He noted that China's nuclear power industry had its origins in China’s military nuclear program, thereby establishing a tradition and culture of strict management and nuclear security. As such, he suggested that newer entrants into the category of nuclear energy states merit greater attention for nuclear security compliance and assistance.