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Chickens Talking With Ducks: The U.S.-Chinese Nuclear Dialogue

Gregory Kulacki

Talks between China and the United States on the countries’ respective nuclear weapons programs are going nowhere. Each side expresses frustration and disappointment with the other. The problem could be that the two sides are talking past each other, like chickens talking with ducks, as the Chinese say.

After more than a decade of discussion, the two parties cannot seem to move past the first item on their agenda: declaratory policy. U.S. security analysts and military planners discount China’s pledge not to be the first to use nuclear weapons. Their Chinese counterparts resent this derision of the nuclear taboo. Moreover, they see U.S. incredulity as a way to deflect attention from Chinese questions about why the United States is unwilling to provide the same assurance.[1]

The U.S. participants in these talks do not appear to respect anyone, from either country, who takes a no-first-use pledge seriously.[2] To them, the pledge is an expression of naïveté or mendacity. They suspect, therefore, that the Chinese individuals participating in bilateral talks either cannot or will not speak truthfully about China’s “actual” nuclear weapons policy.[3]

The Chinese participants do not understand U.S. suspicions. They mistakenly ascribe U.S. mistrust to a hegemonic arrogance that has led the United States to use nuclear threats as part of a broader U.S. policy intended to intimidate and contain China. It is difficult for Chinese analysts to appreciate why a country with overwhelming conventional military superiority is unable to make a basic confidence-building commitment that a much weaker China finds acceptable.

The U.S. response to this impasse is to search for a different set of Chinese interlocutors. U.S. security analysts and military planners scour Chinese military literature to look for kindred Chinese authors who view China’s commitment to a no-first-use policy as they do. Some U.S. analysts believe they located strong candidates in authors from the Second Artillery, the branch of the Chinese military that operates China’s land-based nuclear missile forces.[4] Obama administration officials responsible for the U.S.-Chinese nuclear dialogue are pressing to talk directly with the leadership of the Second Artillery in the belief that they will speak with a different and more authoritative voice than the officials sent previously by the Chinese government.[5]

However, the most authoritative Second Artillery source on China’s nuclear operations cited in U.S. publications—a classified textbook used to train China’s nuclear missile forces[6]—suggests U.S. analysts and administration officials are mistaken. The Second Artillery, like its civilian counterparts at the negotiating table, carries out its respective responsibilities under the assumption that China will continue for the foreseeable future to operate a small nuclear arsenal that is kept off alert and is to be launched only in retaliation after a nuclear attack. Contrary to the speculation of some U.S. analysts, there is no discernible departure from China’s declared nuclear policy in the classified operational procedures of the Second Artillery.

U.S. participants in the bilateral dialogue on nuclear weapons should accept that China’s nuclear weapons policy is fundamentally different from that of the United States and that the Chinese policy deserves U.S. attention and respect, despite understandable U.S. doubts about its viability. If the U.S. side would stop trying to choose whom China sends to the table, Chinese participants in the bilateral dialogue may come to see that U.S. doubts about Chinese nuclear weapons policy reflect legitimate differences in beliefs about what is necessary to prevent a nuclear war. Genuine mutual respect, which seems to be in short supply on both sides of the table, could break the impasse.

The Second Artillery’s Textbook

The Second Artillery is sometimes called China’s strategic rocket forces. Created in 1966 to operate China’s nuclear missiles, the Second Artillery added conventionally armed missiles in the late 1980s at the beginning of an accelerating conventional military buildup that continues today. The link between this conventional buildup and the Second Artillery’s role in imagined conventional conflicts precipitated discussions within the Second Artillery about fighting those conflicts under conditions of nuclear coercion.

The U.S. refusal to provide China with an assurance that the United States would not be the first to use nuclear weapons in a military conflict with China weighed heavily on Second Artillery deliberations.[7] Language in the 2002 U.S. “Nuclear Posture Review Report” suggesting possible U.S. first use of nuclear weapons against China in a military conflict over Taiwan aggravated the Second Artillery’s anxieties about its ability to manage such a conflict successfully.[8]

As these developments unfolded, the Second Artillery prepared to publish updated new teaching and training materials for the officers and soldiers who operate China’s strategic rocket forces. A series of books entitled The Science of Operations, consisting of a general text and more specialized texts for each branch of the Chinese armed forces, was produced at the request of the Chinese leadership as part of a decades-old process to expand and standardize all professional military education and training.[9] A classified textbook that recently attracted the attention of U.S. analysts,[10] entitled The Science of Operations of the Second Artillery, was a product of this process.

Contrary to many U.S. analyses of open-source Chinese military publications, the authors of this classified textbook do not debate or call into question China’s current nuclear weapons policy. Moreover, the text repeatedly emphasizes that nuclear weapons policy is a political decision that lies with the Chinese leadership, not with the Second Artillery. As the title suggests, the textbook discusses how the Second Artillery will operate China’s nuclear weapons under the conditions set by China’s nuclear weapons policy as determined by the Chinese leadership, including China’s no-first-use commitment.

“Deterrence” Versus “Coercion”

The vocabulary of nuclear weapons policy was created and developed in the context of the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. U.S. and Russian arms control negotiators and defense analysts continue to dominate its usage. Chinese arms controllers imported this foreign vocabulary to interact with their peers from abroad.

In 2006, after decades of interaction, U.S. and Chinese arms control experts realized they needed a mutually agreed-on bilingual glossary to help minimize misunderstandings created by “the never-simple translation of one language into the other” and “differing interpretations of terms.”[11] Over the course of 18 months, the two sides were able to reach agreement on approximately 1,000 terms related to nuclear security. Despite extensive efforts, they were unable to reach consensus on some key concepts.

The most important concept lacking a mutually acceptable definition in the glossary is “limited deterrence.” U.S. analysts who argue that the Second Artillery may pursue a different Chinese nuclear weapons policy claim it embraces a policy of limited deterrence as opposed to the policy of “minimal deterrence” supposedly articulated by the Chinese participants in bilateral discussions. The difference, according to U.S. analysts, centers on Chinese preparations to fight and win a nuclear war. Limited deterrence imagines pre-emptive or retaliatory nuclear strikes against enemy forces and victory on the battlefield using “counterforce” targeting. Minimal deterrence imagines retaliatory strikes against enemy population centers, the political leadership, or critical economic infrastructure, otherwise known as “countervalue” targeting.

The etymology of the term “limited deterrence” makes it especially difficult to discuss in a U.S.-Chinese dialogue. Limited deterrence is not part of the traditional vocabulary developed by U.S. and Soviet arms control experts. A member of the U.S. team for the glossary project discovered the term in Chinese military texts.[12] He developed an interpretation of Chinese nuclear weapons policy based on how he believed the term “limited deterrence” was used in these texts. The Chinese participants in the glossary project rejected limited deterrence as a definition of Chinese nuclear weapons policy. Although the term does appear in some Chinese military texts, the Chinese participants informed their U.S. counterparts that it was not authoritative and that the U.S. definition of the term did not accurately describe Chinese nuclear weapons policy.

The assimilation of foreign vocabulary on arms control and nuclear weapons policy by Chinese civilian analysts, officials, and negotiators occurred at the same time the Second Artillery was developing its teaching and training materials on nuclear operations. However, the two groups never engaged in purposeful collaboration on terminology.[13] The Second Artillery materials naturally included descriptions and interpretations of the policy that guided its operations, but it did not use the same vocabulary that the Chinese participants in bilateral and international discussions did. For example, the Second Artillery uses a different Chinese word (ezhi) to describe deterrence. The Chinese word for deterrence used by Chinese nuclear policy experts and included in the glossary (weishe) is used by the Second Artillery to describe coercion. Outside observers, unaware of the difference, could easily become confused, especially if they read the materials in translation, where, depending on the word choices made by the translator, the difference might not appear.

The existence of different Chinese vocabularies does not necessarily mean that China is engaged in an internal debate about its nuclear weapons policy, especially considering the discrete circumstances, motivations, and requirements that precipitated their separate development. It is easy to understand how U.S. analysts could imagine that they were observing such a debate, unaware that the two Chinese groups rarely if ever communicated with each other. Yet, suspicions by some in the United States that the mere existence of these two vocabularies exposes a conscious Chinese effort to project a public policy for diplomatic purposes and keep a different policy secret for military purposes seem unjustified.[14] The following analysis of the classified text the Second Artillery uses to train its officers and soldiers shows that although they may use a different vocabulary, the Second Artillery and the Chinese participants in the U.S.-Chinese nuclear dialogue are describing the same nuclear weapons policy, which assumes a small nuclear force, kept off alert, to be launched only in retaliation.

One Policy, Three Characteristics

The textual evidence that China has one nuclear weapons policy and that the Chinese military relies on that policy to train and operate its nuclear forces is overwhelming. There are scores of references to the three essential characteristics of China’s declared nuclear weapons policy scattered throughout the 409 pages of The Science of Operations of the Second Artillery: a small force kept off alert and used only for retaliation.

A small nuclear force. There are multiple references to the size of China’s nuclear arsenal in the Second Artillery text, and that arsenal is consistently described as “very small” relative to likely nuclear-armed adversaries. The Second Artillery’s awareness of the limited numbers, accuracy, and capabilities of China’s nuclear weapons is articulated in the textbook’s descriptions of China’s “nuclear retaliation strike operations.” The purpose of these strikes is “to create a great feeling of terror in the enemy’s mind that causes the enemy to lose its determination for war.” This is imagined to be accomplished through “centralized retaliatory strikes” against a careful selection of “strategic targets” at a “critical moment” the enemy could not anticipate. Despite its limited arsenal and the presumption of considerable losses after China absorbs a first strike, the Second Artillery assumes an ability to launch multiple retaliatory strikes. This suggests that the authors presume that their relatively small nuclear force is sufficient to accomplish their mission.

The Second Artillery instructs its officers that, in the “glorious tradition” of the People’s Liberation Army, China’s superior command and strategy, not the enemy’s superior weapons, will be the key to the success of its “retaliatory nuclear operations,” with success being defined as a cessation of the enemy’s attack. Throughout the text, the authors emphasize the political and psychological characteristics of nuclear weapons and that the objective of the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons by China is “the creation of a psychological effect” on the enemy that “abates its willingness to continue or start a war.” This suggests that the size and composition of Chinese nuclear forces are calibrated to preserve the ability to inflict enough punishment to force an imagined enemy from continuing a nuclear attack against China, not to deny an enemy the physical means of carrying out such an attack.

There is no discussion in the text of specific strikes and targets presumed to create this psychological effect. Targets are described in general terms and the list includes “command centers, communications hubs, transportation junctions, military bases, political centers, economic centers, industrial bases, etc.”[15] Moreover, targeting is repeatedly described as a product of an “overall strategy” determined by China’s “high leadership,” not the Second Artillery. This suggests that decisions about the size and composition of China’s nuclear arsenal are not within the purview of the Second Artillery, whose responsibility is to operate the weapons, not to develop targeting plans or nuclear strategy.

Kept off alert. The Second Artillery’s organizational structure[16] and operational practices suggest that China’s nuclear warheads are stored separately and not mated to their missiles until they are prepared for launch. The textbook also notes that radiation dangers associated with installing the warheads on the missiles dictate that this should be done as close as possible to an anticipated launch.[17]

The Second Artillery’s nuclear forces are divided into a number of separate units with different responsibilities, including warhead bases at some distance from the missile bases, warhead inspection and installation teams, and missile brigades. The text indicates that a limited number of warheads are co-located at some launch sites but that concentrated retaliatory strikes would require warheads to be transferred from the warhead bases to the missile brigades prior to launch.[18] Separation and scattering of the Second Artillery’s nuclear assets is viewed as having the advantage of increasing survivability, even though it slows their response time.

Timing is a factor in Chinese preparations for a retaliatory nuclear strike, and the text instructs the officers and soldiers of the Second Artillery on the importance of being able to respond quickly to commands to prepare to launch and to a launch order from the “high leadership.” The text makes clear, however, that speed is less strategically important than the ability to strike at a carefully chosen moment. The preparations for launch are described as occurring over an extended period of time and intending to be a coercive or deterrent gesture, meant to compel a cessation of conventional attacks or to demonstrate the will and capability to retaliate after a nuclear attack.

Launched only in retaliation. There are no first-use scenarios for the Second Artillery’s nuclear forces discussed in the text. Specific operations and training for what are consistently referenced as “retaliatory nuclear attacks” are premised on the assumption that the forces of the Second Artillery have been struck first and will need to be able to carry out their “retaliatory nuclear attack operations” under severely degraded, dangerous, and unpredictable conditions. Indeed, the modifier “retaliatory” precedes every instance—and there are many—in which the words for a possible Chinese nuclear weapons strike appear in the text.

Even in a section of the text discussing an intentional “lowering of the nuclear coercion threshold,” the “lowest possible threshold” is not an actual strike. It is merely a public announcement of intended enemy targets.[19] The text dictates that if this final threat to use nuclear weapons fails to stop the enemy from further military activity, in order to maintain credibility—specifically, that “China’s words can be believed and that it will do what it says”—the Second Artillery must “in the midst of high-level nuclear coercion, complete preparations for a retaliatory nuclear attack.”[20] Crossing the threshold is demonstrating they are preparing a retaliatory strike, not, as widely reported, threatening to strike first.[21]

Most importantly, the text specifically states, “In accord with our national principle not to be the first to use nuclear weapons under any circumstances, the Second Artillery’s strategic nuclear forces can carry out a retaliatory nuclear attack against the enemy, following the command of the ‘high leadership,’ only after the enemy has first attacked us with nuclear weapons.”[22] Discussion of the implications of China’s no-first-use pledge appears in several places in the text; one example is a discussion of the requirements of China’s “active defense” strategy, which some U.S. analysts interpret as an expression of China’s intent to strike first. The text makes clear that “active defense” dictates that the Second Artillery’s nuclear forces are to be launched only in retaliation after a nuclear attack.[23]

This classified military textbook was not intended for external audiences, but for the officers and soldiers of the Second Artillery who operate China’s nuclear forces. These internal instructions could not be more explicit or more consistent with Chinese statements to the United States over the past 50 years.

Parsing the Differences

Russian and U.S. arms control experts are birds of a feather who can talk for hours and with great enthusiasm about nuclear arms control. The recent negotiations over the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty showed that although it still is very difficult for them to reach a binding agreement, discussions, at least, proceed with a high degree of mutual appreciation and respect. This is largely because the two sides have a common language, common assumptions, and a common objective that emerged from their shared experience as nuclear rivals during the Cold War.

U.S.-Soviet arms control talks proceeded from the assumption that left unimpeded by negotiated limitations, both sides would continue to be highly motivated to seek the ability to launch a disarming first strike against the other. The two sides also shared the belief that the nuclear arms race created by these motivations continually generated new and intolerable uncertainties that could precipitate a large-scale nuclear exchange. The purpose of bilateral arms control negotiations was to establish an assurance that neither side could obtain a decisive first-strike capability.

The principal means to establish this assurance were agreements that fixed the number of deployed weapons, limited the deployment of defenses, and provided reliable verification that these obligations were met. The substance and art of the negotiations was deciding which weapons and defenses to limit and to what degree. There was intense disagreement over these questions, which continues between the United States and Russia today, but the objective for both sides remains the same: diminishing mutual fear of a disarming first strike.

China does not have a first-strike capability that could disarm the United States, and there is no evidence that Beijing is seeking such a capability. The goals of the U.S.-Chinese bilateral nuclear dialogue, therefore, are as different as the size of their respective nuclear arsenals. China’s goals are clear: it seeks assurances that the United States will not be the first to use nuclear weapons or attempt to launch a disarming first strike, conventional or nuclear, against China’s nuclear forces. The United States is unwilling to provide China with the assurances it seeks.

The United States, on the other hand, continues to request greater Chinese transparency about its capabilities and its intentions. Unfortunately, this is a request China finds difficult to oblige. The Second Artillery text makes clear that the objective of its nuclear operations is to create uncertainty and confuse the United States. According to this logic, providing more detailed information about its nuclear arsenal would only leave less to chance and thereby increase the U.S. incentive to launch a pre-emptive first strike in a moment of crisis. China’s nuclear forces are small enough to make such a strike a tempting choice. Moreover, some Chinese worry that advances in U.S. conventional capabilities make it conceivable that such a strike could succeed without resorting to nuclear weapons. U.S. faith in ballistic missile defenses, however misplaced, creates an additional worry.

Presumably, one shared goal of the participants in the bilateral dialogue is to find a way to prevent the other from crossing the nuclear threshold in the event of a conflict. China’s assurance that it will not cross it first, under any circumstances, appears to be genuine, based on the guidance given to the officers and soldiers of the Second Artillery in its text on nuclear operations. Moreover, China’s adamant insistence on a similar assurance from the United States suggests it believes it would be a genuine constraint on U.S. behavior. U.S. negotiators might make more progress with China if they used the talks to explore why China places such a high value on a no-first-use assurance and believes it contributes to stability.

Chinese negotiators should make a better effort to understand why the United States places so little trust in a no-first-use assurance, instead of assuming the U.S. refusal to discuss it is an expression of a hegemonic ambition to dominate and contain China. They might make more progress with the United States if they acknowledged the difficulty U.S. participants have in setting aside their own experience with the Soviet Union’s no-first-use pledge, particularly when discussing a Chinese nuclear strategy that relies on secrecy and deception to maintain an effective deterrent.

Both sides should be more aware that miscommunication and misunderstanding are subtle, persistent, and nontrivial issues that should not be overlooked and cannot be easily addressed. ACT




Gregory Kulacki is a senior analyst and the China project manager in the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). Since joining the UCS in 2002, he has focused on promoting and conducting dialogue between Chinese and U.S. experts on nuclear arms control and space security.





1. For a Chinese characterization of U.S. attitudes about China’s no-first-use declaration from a Chinese participant in the bilateral nuclear dialogue, see Li Bin and Nie Hongyi, “Zhong-Mei zhanlüe wendingxing de kaocha” [An investigation of Chinese-U.S. strategic stability], Shijie jingji yu zhengzhi (2008), pp. 13-19. For an English language translation, see www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/nwgs/Li-and-Nie-translation-final-5-22-09.pdf.


2. Jeffrey Lewis and Gregory Kulacki, “Meiguo jujue ‘bu shouxian shiyong’ zhi yuanyin ji Zhonguo de yingdui” [Why the United States objects to the phrase “no first use” and how China might respond], Meiguo Yanjiu [American Studies Quarterly] (forthcoming).


3. For U.S. doubts about China’s no-first-use assurance from a U.S. participant in the bilateral nuclear dialogue, see Brad Roberts, “China-U.S. Nuclear Relations: What Relationship Best Serves U.S. Interests,” Institute for Defense Analyses, Defense Threat Reduction Agency, August 2001.


4. For one of the earliest and most influential analyses, see Alastair Iain Johnston, “China’s New ‘Old Thinking’: The Concept of Limited Deterrence,” International Security, Vol. 20, No. 3 (1995-1996): 5-42. For a more recent articulation of the same argument, see Michael S. Chase, Andrew S. Erickson, and Christopher Yeaw, “Chinese Theater and Strategic Missile Force Modernization and Its Implications for the United States,” Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 32, No. 1 (February 2009): 67-114.


5. In March 2011, Chinese participants in semiofficial bilateral nuclear talks complained that the Obama administration was preventing U.S. officials from participating in future semiofficial talks, even though U.S. officials had regularly participated in past talks. Moreover, the Obama administration rejected official talks led by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, insisting instead on talks with the Second Artillery. Chinese officials, interviews with author, Beijing, March 2011.


6. Yu Jixun, ed., Dier paobing zhanyixue [Second Artillery operational studies], (Beijing: People’s Liberation Army Press, 2004). The author was given the opportunity to review this text extensively, and the analysis in this paper is based on that examination.


7. Yu, Dier paobing zhanyixue, p. 59.


8. Shen Dingli, “China’s Evaluation of the Adjustment to U.S. Security Policy Since September 11, 2001,” Defense & Security Analysis, Vol. 19, No. 4 (December 2003): 319–326.


9. Yu, Dier paobing zhanyixue, pp. 15-28.


10. “China Shifting Nuclear Rules of Engagement: Report,” Defense News, January 5, 2011.


11. Committee on the U.S.-Chinese Glossary of Nuclear Security Terms, National Research Council, English-Chinese, Chinese-English Nuclear Security Glossary (Washington: National Academies Press, 2008).


12. Johnston, “China’s New ‘Old Thinking.’”


13. Chinese participants, interviews with author, Beijing, September 2010, March 2011, and June 2011.


14. Michael Mazza and Dan Blumenthal, “China’s Strategic Forces in the 21st Century: The PLA’s Changing Nuclear Doctrine and Force Posture,” Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, April 6, 2011.


15. Yu, Dier paobing zhanyixue, p. 300.


16. Ibid., p. 162 (organizational chart).


17. Ibid., p. 202.


18. Ibid.


19. Ibid., p. 295.


20. Ibid., pp. 295-296.


21. “China Shifting Nuclear Rules.” The news story, originally published by Kyodo News but now removed from its website, was based on an analysis of the Second Artillery text examined in this article. See Jeffrey Lewis, “China and No First Use,” Arms Control Wonk, January 14, 2011, http://lewis.armscontrolwonk.com/archive/3446/china-and-no-first-use-3.


22. Yu, Dier paobing zhanyixue, p. 59.


23. Ibid., p. 93.

Talks between China and the United States on the countries’ respective nuclear weapons programs are going nowhere. Each side expresses frustration and disappointment with the other. The problem could be that the two sides are talking past each other, like chickens talking with ducks, as the Chinese say.

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Wang Qun is Chinese ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary for disarmament affairs and permanent representative to the Conference on Disarmament (CD), a position he has held since 2007. He was president of the CD from March 21 to May 29, 2011. He agreed to answer written questions from Arms Control Today on the CD’s current stalemate, which is preventing progress on the negotiation of a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT) and on other disarmament issues.

ACT: In your March 17 address to the CD, you said, “In my view, [the] CD’s deadlock is attributable first and foremost to political factors. The CD’s work is like a barometer of the evolving international security situation.” From China’s perspective, what are the political and security factors that are leading some states to block the implementation of formal talks on a verifiable FMCT and other elements of the CD work plan?

Wang: The CD deadlock is indeed attributable primarily to political and security factors. This is presumably self-evident as the relevant countries already have been most forthcoming and explicit, on the record, as to what difficulties they see in embarking on a process of negotiating an FMCT at the CD. However, it should be noted that different countries sought or have sought, at different points over the past 12 years, to block the CD negotiation of an FMCT out of various political or security considerations.

Countries may differ in terms of their size or position; their security concerns could, nevertheless, equally be relevant at the CD and subsequently bear on its work. This is a fact of life before us, and such concerns should be duly addressed.

ACT: Some countries have suggested that the consensus rule should not be applied to procedural matters at the CD and should instead be restricted to substantive work in order to prevent a single state from using procedure to prevent the start of negotiations. What is China’s position on this matter? From your position as CD president, are there any other procedural adjustments that can help make the CD a more efficient and effective part of the UN disarmament machinery?

Wang: From China's perspective, what needs to be sorted out in the first place is whether the current CD deadlock stems from the machinery per se. Although it is true that some dislike the CD because they find its consensus rule detestable, others like the CD precisely for this reason. If the CD is a body with inherent flaws, then why, within the same mechanism and under the same rules of procedure, was it able to negotiate and conclude treaties such as the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), Chemical Weapons Convention, and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty? This question merits our reflection.

As CD president, I am open to any suggestions and stand to be guided by member states as to whether or how procedural adjustments should be made so as to help make the CD a more efficient and effective part of the UN disarmament machinery. That, I believe, is not only the right of member states, but also provided for in explicit terms in the existing Rules of Procedure of the Conference on Disarmament.

ACT: What steps is your government taking to persuade Pakistan to allow the CD to begin the long process of negotiations on the fissile material production issue? What steps could other countries undertake to address Pakistan’s stated concerns about an FMCT?

Wang: Beijing believes that a negotiated FMCT at the CD is in everyone’s interests and wishes to see those negotiations commence as soon as possible. We thus have been doing our very best to make the case to all relevant interlocutors, including Pakistan. For an FMCT to be meaningful, it is essential that all countries with the capability of producing fissile materials be on board.

Pakistan has its concerns about an FMCT, but exerting pressure on Pakistan at every turn, for fear of Islamabad’s blocking of the CD, is undesirable if not counterproductive. To make it worse, such fears may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What is desirable is to give equal weight to the legitimate security concerns of various countries in pursuit of a win-win situation based on security for all. In the meantime, the dialogue between the countries concerned is also crucial if the issues related to the CD deadlock are to be put behind us.

ACT: In your view, how can the current CD impasse be broken, so that the CD can commence its negotiation of an FMCT? Is there any specific formula to that end?

Wang: As the current CD deadlock is primarily attributable to political factors, the solution lies in political will and political wisdom, coupled with the right perception and working methods. In this context, we should work to detect and identify any evolving consensus even in the embryonic stages, especially by proceeding from the actual effects, with an FMCT as the objective.

The CD is now bogged down in a debate about how to define or characterize, in the context of the CD’s program of work, its ongoing exercise, i.e., “negotiation“ or “discussion“ of a treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons. In the meantime, we should not fail to recognize the following basic common understanding, i.e., no delegation has hitherto sought to dispute the early commencement, on the basis of the CD’s balanced and comprehensive program of work, of its substantive work, which naturally covers the subject of the above treaty on the basis of the Shannon mandate (CD/1299 of March 24, 1995). Moreover, there has been, in fact, constructive and serious work at the CD, inter alia, on such a treaty, especially since the beginning of this year.

Although some may see the above common understanding as insignificant, it should not be belittled. On the other hand, the current CD debate on “negotiation“ versus “discussion,” no matter how significant, should not be unduly emphasized, especially with the caveat that the CD exercise is not linguistic in nature. Further, it is axiomatic that, if a treaty is reached, the process leading up to its conclusion can only be negotiation whereas, even if no one seeks to dispute embarking on a “negotiating process,” there could be considerable skepticism about whether it may produce something to that effect as long as a treaty remains elusive.

So, what do we want, “negotiation” or an FMCT? This question merits our serious reflection, on the basis of the 2009 program of work (CD/1864 of May 29, 2009), if an FMCT is really the aim.

ACT: The CD has long been considered to be the sole multilateral negotiating body on disarmament. Given the availability of other forums for discussing disarmament issues, how can the CD maintain its distinct role if it cannot begin substantive talks on issues of interest to many countries, including a fissile material cutoff, weapons in space, and negative nuclear security assurances? If the CD remains deadlocked, are there other ways and other forums through which progress on these matters might be achieved? Some countries have initiated informal expert-level discussions on an FMCT to discuss issues such as definitions and verification. How does China view these discussions, and what role does China play in them?

Wang: The CD is a good body. While it is true that it has not concluded any new treaties since 1998, its achievements or failures should nevertheless be viewed from a historical perspective.

Certain countries are, to my knowledge, thinking of setting up a “new kitchen” so as to move FMCT negotiations out of the CD. If the purpose of such a move is to reach a negotiated FMCT, we should be clear, if not clearer, about what the objective of the prospective treaty is in the first place. What is the relevance of such a treaty reached outside the CD in the absence of the participation of key countries with the capability of producing fissile materials, and how, under such circumstances, do we achieve the objective of nonproliferation of nuclear materials?

Although it presumably is not difficult at all for the FMCT negotiations to be moved out of the CD, it is nevertheless difficult for any new or alternative mechanism to replace the role and have the same effect as the CD, a nonexclusive disarmament and nonproliferation body with members from all regions and groups, both developed and developing. It includes, in particular, the five NPT nuclear-weapon states and other countries with nuclear weapons or certain nuclear capabilities. This, I believe, merits our careful reflection.

As for the “informal expert-level discussions on an FMCT” you referred to, I think such discussions per se are useful, though they would be truly meaningful only if channeled into the CD process on the treaty with the participation of all relevant countries.

Beijing, for its part, would like to see “a good treaty” through “good negotiation” at the CD. By “good negotiation,” we mean open and transparent intergovernmental negotiation conducted on the basis of the rules of procedure of the CD and with the participation of all countries with the capability of producing fissile materials. By “a good treaty,” we mean an FMCT that brings on board all relevant countries.

ACT: China repeatedly has expressed its support for an FMCT as an important nonproliferation instrument. China also is widely believed to have halted fissile material production for weapons, yet it is the only country among the five NPT nuclear-weapon states that has not formally declared a halt to fissile material production for weapons. Can you clarify whether China is producing fissile material for weapons purposes? If not, under what circumstances would China consider joining France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States in declaring that it has halted such production?

Wang: You’re right to look at this issue in the context of Beijing’s support for an FMCT as an important nonproliferation instrument. Beijing, for its part, has many misgivings about the notion of a “moratorium on fissile material production for weapons.” The rationales behind this are, firstly, that it will very much undercut international efforts to activate the FMCT negotiation process at the CD, and secondly, that it is neither legally binding nor verifiable. Moreover, it is not clear which fissile material is supposed to be subject to the moratorium. So, I do think that an FMCT at the CD is what international efforts should be focused on.


Wang Qun is Chinese ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary for disarmament affairs and permanent representative to the Conference on Disarmament (CD), a position he has held since 2007. He was president of the CD from March 21 to May 29, 2011. He agreed to answer written questions from Arms Control Today on the CD’s current stalemate, which is preventing progress on the negotiation of a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT) and on other disarmament issues.

China Proposes Steps to N. Korea Talks

Peter Crail

China last month proposed a three-step process to revive multilateral talks addressing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Chinese Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Affairs Wu Dawei outlined the proposed process to reporters in Beijing April 18, following a meeting with North Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan, who also serves as Pyongyang’s nuclear envoy. Wu said the process would begin with discussions on the nuclear issue between North and South Korea, followed by similar discussions between North Korea and the United States, which would lead to the resumption of the so-called six-party talks.

The talks have been held intermittently since 2003 to address North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. China serves as the chair for the talks, which also involve Japan, the two Koreas, Russia, and the United States. Pyongyang backed out of the negotiations in April 2009 in response to the UN Security Council’s censure of its rocket launch earlier that month.

North Korea rebuffed a South Korean proposal this January to hold bilateral denuclearization talks prior to resuming multilateral negotiations. Diplomatic sources said in April that North Korea preferred to discuss the nuclear issue with the United States.

The new Chinese proposal is a slight variation on a three-step process Beijing proposed in late 2009 that would have begun with talks between the United States and North Korea and followed with preliminary discussions among the six parties leading to the formal resumption of the multilateral talks. The countries were unable to agree on that formula, particularly after the sinking of a South Korean patrol ship in March 2010, which an international investigation determined was caused by a North Korean torpedo. Last November, North Korea also shelled the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, killing two South Korean soldiers and two civilians.

South Korea has demanded that North Korea apologize for the two attacks prior to reviving the six-party talks, a step the North has refused to take. Working-level military talks in February between the two countries broke down over the issue of the two attacks, with the North Korean delegation walking out during the second day of the meeting. (See ACT, March 2011.)

The United States has backed South Korea’s position, with Department of State spokesman Mark Toner telling reporters April 18 that “a successful rapprochement between North and South Korea is an essential first step before we can consider getting involved diplomatically again or even talk about six-party talks.”

South Korea and the United States also have maintained that North Korea must take steps to demonstrate its commitment to making progress on denuclearization.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates provided the first public indication of what such steps may entail during a Jan. 11 press briefing in Beijing when he called on North Korea to adopt a moratorium on further nuclear and missile tests. The UN Security Council has required that North Korea halt such testing since 2006.

In addition, U.S. national security adviser Tom Donilon told a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace audience March 29, “Those [denuclearization] steps must include monitored suspension of their newly declared uranium-enrichment program.”

Last November, North Korea revealed that it had built a uranium-enrichment plant it said was intended to provide fuel for a light-water nuclear power reactor it would construct. (See ACT, December 2010.) The United States and its allies have long expressed concern that North Korea was working to develop a uranium-enrichment capability in secret, allowing Pyongyang to make weapons from highly enriched uranium as well as plutonium.

North Korea denied pursuing an enrichment capability for years, admitting such work publicly for the first time in 2009 after it left the six-party talks.

Although Seoul and Washington have maintained that North Korea must take steps toward North-South rapprochement and denuclearization prior to the formal resumption of six-party talks, the two countries also have suggested that bilateral discussions could happen before such steps are taken. The Korea Times quoted South Korean Unification Minister Hyun In-taek April 18 as stating, “I’m not saying those things are necessarily preconditions for North-South dialogue, but without them it would be very difficult to produce results.”

The last formal negotiations on the nuclear issue between North and South Korea, which took place in January 2009, were aimed at the removal of about 12,000 fresh nuclear fuel rods from North Korea. If used to operate North Korea’s five-megawatt nuclear reactor, the rods could yield enough plutonium for several additional nuclear weapons if North Korea reprocessed the spent fuel.

Diplomatic sources said at that time that North Korea asked for an exorbitant amount of energy assistance in return, making the talks inconclusive.

Former U.S Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson said at a Dec. 21 press briefing in Beijing that North Korean officials told him during his visit to Pyongyang earlier that month that the country would be willing to discuss the removal of the fresh fuel.

Richardson is one of several former U.S. diplomats that have held unofficial meetings with North Korean officials in recent months to discuss the nuclear issue informally. Former President Jimmy Carter also traveled to North Korea at the end of April in an effort to restart negotiations and discuss humanitarian issues in the country.

Efforts to resume negotiations with North Korea come amid warnings that the country might take steps to enhance its nuclear and missile capabilities if talks do not resume. The Korea Times reported April 19 that National Intelligence Service Director Won Sei-hoon told a parliamentary intelligence panel that North Korea is seeking dialogue now, but may carry out nuclear or missile tests or other military provocations if no progress is made. Parliamentary member Hwang Jin-ha, who attended the closed session, told reporters the same day that Won said there was only “a slim possibility” of a nuclear test in the near future, although North Korea could conduct one “at any time.”

Gates said in January that Pyongyang’s continuing development of nuclear weapons and missile capabilities “is becoming a direct threat to the United States,” adding, “We consider this a situation of real concern, and we think there is some urgency to proceeding down the track of negotiations and engagement.”


China has proposed a three-step process to revive multilateral negotiations on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. The United States and South Korea, however, say that North Korea must meet certain conditions before talks can restart.


China Releases Defense White Paper

Peter Crail and Nik Gebben

China formally released its seventh defense white paper March 30, providing an overview of China’s military strategy, its security threats, and its arms control policies.

During a press briefing that day on the release of the report, entitled “China’s National Defense in 2010,” Chinese military officials highlighted the document as part of Beijing’s efforts at greater military openness. However, it is unclear if the document addresses U.S. concerns about China’s lack of military transparency. An April 5 Congressional Research Service memorandum says that the white paper “did not provide a picture to assess whether China poses a threat [to the United States], because the White Paper is heavy on intentions rather than details on military capabilities.”

For example, the report does not mention China’s development of an anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) capability, believed to be geared toward countering U.S. aircraft carriers. An annual Pentagon report on China’s military released last year said that “when integrated with appropriate command and control systems,” China’s ASBM capability “is intended to provide the [Chinese military] the capability to attack ships, including aircraft carriers, in the western Pacific Ocean.”

Much of the white paper’s discussion of China’s strategic nuclear forces and arms control efforts reiterates the policies described in previous versions. Beijing repeated its pledge not to use nuclear weapons first in any conflict and described its adherence to multilateral nonproliferation agreements.

It expanded its criticism of what it calls “the global missile defense program.” Apparently referring to U.S. missile defense cooperation efforts, it said that “China holds that no state should deploy overseas missile defense systems that have strategic missile defense capabilities or potential, or engage in any such international collaboration.”


China formally released its seventh defense white paper March 30, providing an overview of China’s military strategy, its security threats, and its arms control policies.

Chinese-Pakistani Reactor Deal Moves Ahead

Daniel Horner

A planned civilian nuclear deal between China and Pakistan moved a step closer to completion, as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors on March 8 approved safeguards agreements for the two power reactors that would be involved.

The units would be built at Pakistan’s Chashma site, which already houses two Chinese-built power reactors.

The deal is controversial because the guidelines of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), which China joined in 2004, allow members to export nuclear goods such as reactors and fuel only to countries that accept IAEA safeguards on all their nuclear facilities. Pakistan does not apply these so-called full-scope safeguards.

When China joined the NSG, it had already built a power reactor at the Chashma site. It claimed at the time that, under the NSG’s “grandfather” provisions, it was entitled to build a second reactor, on the grounds that the second project was covered in its existing agreement with Pakistan. According to several accounts, the NSG agreed that the second reactor would be allowable under the grandfather provision but that subsequent power reactor sales would not.

The 46-member NSG is not a formal organization; its export guidelines are nonbinding.

Reiterating the position the United States has held since mid-2010 (see ACT, June 2010), Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert Blake told reporters in Beijing March 18, “We expect China to abide by the commitments that it made when it joined the Nuclear Suppliers Group in 2004, and in particular we think the construction of new nuclear reactors such as the Chasma 3 and 4 would be inconsistent with those commitments,” according to a Department of State transcript.

“We’ve been very clear in the Nuclear Suppliers Group context about that position, but we’ve also been very clear on the need to support Pakistan’s energy development,” Blake said. “[T]here’s a lot that can be done in non-nuclear areas that help do that,” he said.

In a March 23 e-mail to Arms Control Today, another State Department official drew a distinction between the IAEA and the NSG in the context of the deal. The United States supported approval of the safeguards pact because such agreements “play the key role of providing greater assurance and transparency that civilian activities are not diverted to other purposes,” the official said. “We believe the Nuclear Suppliers Group is the appropriate venue to discuss concerns about this transfer, not the IAEA,” the official said.

Waiting for Information

According to the official, the United States has “asked China to present the scope and details of its intended nuclear cooperation with Pakistan to the NSG,” but “China has yet to provide such details.”

The NSG discussed the matter last year during its plenary meeting in New Zealand. (See ACT, July/August 2010.) In recent interviews, diplomats said it is not on the agenda for this year’s plenary meeting, which is scheduled for June in the Netherlands, but could be discussed there.

Some observers have said the United States needs to raise the issue in venues other than the NSG. State Department officials declined to say whether Washington has done so.

In a March 14 interview, a European diplomat said many countries are “uneasy” about the situation, as they do not believe the planned reactor is covered by the grandfathering agreement. As the diplomat noted, China could request an exemption from NSG guidelines to allow nuclear trade with a country that does not accept full-scope safeguards. In response to a U.S.-led initiative, the NSG granted such an exemption in 2008 for sales to India. (See ACT, October 2008.)

“We would be very interested in the Chinese arguments,” the diplomat said, adding that Beijing probably will not request an exemption.

“We are really struggling with this issue,” the diplomat said.

In a March 29 interview, a State Department official said, “Everything [the Chinese] have said would indicate that [the deal] is going forward.”

Extracting Benefits

Some current and former diplomats have begun thinking about how to salvage from the deal “an outcome that would be kind of positive,” as the European diplomat put it. For example, the diplomat said, the NSG could press for a Chinese commitment that was “more explicit” than the one in 2004 in stating that Beijing would not conduct additional trade that fell outside the NSG guidelines.

In March 29 remarks at a nuclear policy conference in Washington, John Carlson, the former director-general of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office, said NSG members could try to convince China to insist on high standards of safety and physical protection for the reactors. Appearing on the same panel, Henk Cor van der Kwast, head of the Non-Proliferation, Disarmament, Arms Control and Export Control Policy Division in the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said, “We don’t know how this question will go.” If the sale does take place, one possibility is a Chinese declaration making certain commitments, along the lines of the one that India made as part of the process of obtaining the exemption in 2008, he said. In a brief interview after the panel, van der Kwast said he was not suggesting that he thought China would seek an exemption for the sale to Pakistan.

The third panelist, Richard Goorevich, a senior policy adviser in the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, commented, “When it comes to building nuclear reactors, it’s really not a done deal until it’s actually done.”

After the panel, he said he was not referring to a particular current obstacle. Reactor construction is a “laborious, complicated thing” and could be stalled by issues such as financing or, in Pakistan’s specific case, rebuilding from last year’s devastating floods, he said.

In his panel comments, he also said that, in the NSG, there is an “aspect of transparency with regards to each other’s nuclear cooperation,” and that is what would be discussed with China if the deal went ahead.



A planned civilian nuclear deal between China and Pakistan is moving to completion although it has prompted concerns within the Nuclear Suppliers Group.


N. Korea Judged to Have More Enrichment Sites

Peter Crail

North Korea likely is maintaining uranium-enrichment facilities beyond the one revealed to a U.S. nuclear weapons expert last year, U.S. intelligence officials told a Senate panel Feb. 16.

In testimony to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said that the scale and level of development of the enrichment facility at North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear complex suggest that the country probably has pursued uranium-enrichment capabilities for some time.

“If so, there is a clear prospect that [North Korea] has built other uranium-enrichment-related facilities in its territory, including likely [research and development] and centrifuge-fabrication facilities and other enrichment facilities,” he added.

Last November, Pyongyang showed former Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Siegfried Hecker a newly constructed enrichment plant containing about 2,000 centrifuges after announcing that it intended to build and fuel a small light-water nuclear power reactor. (See ACT, December 2010.)

Such a plant can be used to enrich uranium to the low levels commonly used to fuel nuclear power plants or the high levels used in nuclear weapons. Many enrichment plants, including those in development by North Korea and Iran, use gas centrifuges to separate uranium isotopes, increasing the concentration of the fissile isotope uranium-235.

The U.S. intelligence assessment appears consistent with a recent UN panel report that reportedly concluded that North Korea must have additional enrichment facilities. Last December, the UN Security Council tasked a panel of experts responsible for assessing the implementation of UN sanctions against North Korea with examining Hecker’s claims regarding North Korea’s enrichment efforts. International inspectors have not had access to North Korean nuclear facilities since May 2009. North Korea ejected International Atomic Energy Agency monitors when it withdrew from multilateral denuclearization talks that same month. Diplomatic sources said that China blocked the council’s formal adoption and release of the report, which included recommendations for additional sanctions on North Korea. One diplomat said that China prefers to address North Korea’s enrichment program in multilateral negotiations.

The United States long has suspected North Korea of developing an enrichment program to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) for nuclear weapons, but intelligence assessments appear to have varied over the scale of the North Korean effort. A 1994 U.S.-North Korean denuclearization agreement collapsed in 2002 after U.S. officials accused Pyongyang of violating that accord by developing a uranium-enrichment capability, a claim North Korea rejected.

For years, Pyongyang denied pursuing uranium-enrichment capabilities despite widespread suspicions and public claims by Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf that North Korea received gas centrifuge technology from a nuclear smuggling network run by Pakistani nuclear official Abdul Qadeer Khan. North Korea first publicly admitted to an enrichment program in June 2009, after leaving multilateral disarmament negotiations. (See ACT, July/August 2009.)

Japan and South Korea last month declared that North Korea’s enrichment program violates Security Council resolutions as well as North Korea’s previous denuclearization commitments. “We agreed that the international community’s concerns over uranium enrichment should be taken up at an appropriate forum like the UN Security Council,” Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara said during a Feb. 16 joint press conference in Tokyo with his South Korean counterpart, Kim Sung-hwan.

After speaking with Chinese officials in Beijing, however, Wi Sung-lac, South Korean special representative for Korean peninsula peace and security affairs, told reporters in Seoul Feb. 11, “China does not agree with taking the issue to the UN Security Council.”

Beijing has called for a resumption of the six-party talks to address the North Korean nuclear issue. The talks involve the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia, and the United States.

The United States, South Korea, and Japan maintain that before those denuclearization talks can resume, Pyongyang must work to improve relations with Seoul following two military incidents last year and that it must demonstrate a willingness to abide by its prior denuclearization obligations.

North-South relations deteriorated sharply last year following the torpedoing of a South Korean naval vessel in March and a North Korean artillery attack on a South Korean island in November. Although a multilateral investigation concluded that North Korea carried out the torpedo attack, Pyongyang has denied it. With regard to the November incident, Pyongyang says it fired artillery in response to South Korean military exercises. Seoul has insisted that North Korea take responsibility for both actions.

For the first time since those two incidents, North and South Korea held military talks at the truce village of Panmunjom Feb. 8-9, but those discussions ended without agreement on an agenda for future, higher-level talks.


North Korea probably has multiple uranium enrichment-related facilities, U.S. intelligence officials said, following North Korea’s decision to reveal one such facility last year.


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