China-US WMD Cooperation: Progress within Limits

Publication: China Brief Volume: 14 Issue: 1

The Sino-American security tensions of recent years, including over WMD issues, has tended to overshadow the substantial if quiet cooperation between China and the United States in countering horizontal WMD proliferation to aspiring nuclear weapons states, preventing terrorists from gaining access to WMD material, and enhancing the safety of civilian nuclear power. The end of the year provides an opportunity to review recent progress as well as identify continuing challenges that should be addressed in 2014.

Countering Nuclear Proliferation

According to its landmark White Paper on Non-Proliferation, “China has always taken a responsible attitude toward international affairs, stood for the complete prohibition and thorough destruction of all kinds of WMD, including nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, and resolutely opposed the proliferation of such weapons and their means of delivery. China does not support, encourage or assist any country to develop WMD and their means of delivery (Information Office of China’s State Council, December 2003). A subsequent white paper insists that, “Proliferation of WMD and their means of delivery is conducive neither to world peace and stability nor to China’s security. China firmly opposes proliferation of WMD and their means of delivery.” The Chinese government regularly submits statements at UN and other meetings calling for more effective measures to curb nuclear proliferation (Information Office of China’s State Council, September 1, 2005).

While both cooperation and conflict regarding Iran and North Korea have been ongoing themes of the U.S.-China relationship, the Syrian chemical weapons issue has added a new element to their WMD exchanges. China and the United States differed regarding how to respond to the growing evidence of chemical weapons use in the Syrian Civil War. Chinese officials questioned the evidence that the Assad government, rather than the rebels, was responsible for the chemical incidents and strongly opposed foreign military intervention in the Syrian conflict.

But China and the United States set aside these differences to support the September 2013 Russia-U.S. framework agreement for eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons. China has joined other members of the international community in assisting this multinational effort. At an October 8 meeting of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the Chinese government pledged money and manpower to the Syrian elimination mission (Xinhua, October 28, 2013). Two PLA chemical weapons experts then went to Syria as part of the OPCW destruction and verification mission (Xinhua, November 4, 2013). On December 19, the Foreign Ministry announced that the Chinese Navy would send a vessel to help protect the specially-adapted U.S. ship on which some of Syria’s most dangerous chemical weapons will be eliminated.

Preventing Nuclear Terrorism

In September 2012, the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Principal Deputy Administrator called China “an invaluable partner in nuclear security” (NNSA, September 27, 2012). Chinese analysts recognize that, “Although no nuclear terrorist attack has been reported so far, nuclear and radioactive materials and related technologies are widely used and the possibility of a nuclear terrorist attack does exist” (China Daily, March 23, 2012). Li Wei, director of China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, has joined other Chinese and U.S. scholars, as well as Chinese official media, in expressing concern that terrorists will attack civilian nuclear power plants (CCTV, March 25, 2012; Xinhua, March 27, 2012).

The Chinese government has backed U.S. and other initiatives aimed at preventing terrorists or criminals from acquiring or using dangerous nuclear materials. For example, for several years China assumed a lead role in the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT), joining its leadership group and participating in its work plan. More recently, China has supported the Obama administration’s successful drive to convene multiple nuclear security summits to support measures aimed at denying terrorists’ access to fissile material. Since all states share with China a desire to avert such an outcome, supporting the objective has offered an easy way for Beijing to cooperate with the United States, Europe, Russia, and other countries on an important but uncontested objective.

Within the framework of these summits, China and the United States announced several joint initiatives. Implementing an idea originally proposed by Chinese President Hu Jintao at the 2010 Summit, in October 2013 China and the United States began constructing a Center of Excellence on Nuclear Security at the Changyang Science and Technology Park in Beijing. Designed to improve nuclear materials security throughout Asia, the regional center will have scientific, training, and testing facilities for physical protection technologies and practices (Xinhua, October 29). Furthermore, China and the United States are collaborating to convert a miniature research reactor in China from using highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel to low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel, which is harder to use for making nuclear weapons. China will apply the expertise and experience acquired through this program to assist other countries in the switch from HEU to LEU (Seoul Nuclear Security Summit Preparatory Secretariat, “Highlights of Achievements and Commitments by Participating States as stated in National Progress Reports and National Statements”).

As the world’s leading trading state, China has cooperated extensively with U.S.-led initiatives to prevent nuclear threats to international shipping. A major nuclear incident anywhere could inflict a crippling blow to the international economy, upon which China’s prosperity depends. If the weapon arrived on a Chinese ship or from a Chinese port, China’s trade would suffer catastrophic losses. Bans would likely be imposed on Chinese exports and imports due to doubts regarding Beijing’s ability to police its ports and thus ensure the safety and security of cargo.

For these reasons, China joined the U.S. Container Security Initiative (CSI), designed to prevent dangerous items from entering the United States via shipping containers, soon after it was launched. Through the program U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel operate in Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong (U.S. Customs and Border Protection, July 29, 2003). In July 2007, the Chinese port of Hong Kong agreed to allow the U.S. Departments of Energy and Homeland Security to implement its Secure Freight Initiative on a pilot basis (July 30, 2007). China also has partly joined the Department of Energy’s Megaports Initiative, which installs radiation detection equipment at major ports to detect material that could be used to make nuclear weapons or dirty bombs. Although Magaports-related disputes continue over data and cost sharing, China does allow U.S. scanning of its exports at the Yangshan Port and other coastal cities (“The Nuclear Security Summit: Progress Report,” Arms Control Association and Partnership for Global Security Report (July 2013), p. 21). At the July 2013 SED, the NNSA and the General Administration of Customs of China (GACC) signed an agreement to increase their cooperation to deter, detect, and interdict illicit nuclear smuggling. The envisaged measures included expanding the coverage of radiation detection stems to other Chinese ports of entry and providing more training to GCC personnel to operating these systems. In September 2012, with the support of the NNSA, the GACC opened the Qinhuangdao Radiation Detection Center, which aims to train Chinese customs officers to detect and interdict nuclear smuggling through Chinese ports and borders (NNSA, September 27, 2012).

Strengthening Nuclear Safety

The Chinese government’s strong commitment to developing nuclear energy has resulted in Beijing’s supporting international programs designed to improve the safety and security of civilian nuclear plants and reactor fuel. Chinese authorities are eager to press ahead with a massive expansion of the country’s nuclear power production despite security and safety concerns raised by foreign experts due to the use of outdated or questionable technologies, weak regulatory enforcement, pressure to cut costs by using cheaper components, corruption, inadequate training, and other problems that the Chinese government has been seeking to rectify. China is unique in the magnitude of its domestic nuclear energy expansion plans, which PRC officials see as essential for achieving their energy security, climate change, and other goals.

Despite the March 2011 disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant, China has kept 17 reactors in operation and is building 28 more, which account for two-fifths of all the reactors under construction in the world (Xinhua, December 9, 2013). The government still hopes to raise its capacity from 12.5 gigawatts (GW) today to 58 GW by the end of 2020 (Reuters, December 17, 2013). The 30 GW of new capacity now under construction in China represents more than 40 percent of the world’s total. In addition, China’s nuclear industry, which has been making substantial technical progress in designing more advanced nuclear reactors and related components, wants to expand its role in global nuclear exports. In addition to continuing controversial nuclear energy sales to Pakistan, which is not a member of the NPT and is under an NSG export ban, China recently reached a landmark deal to support a new nuclear power plant in the United Kingdom and aspires to sell nuclear technology to many developing countries that are now contemplating new nuclear power programs. China is even supplying components to several U.S. nuclear power plants in South Carolina and Georgia (Xinhua, December 9, 2013).

Another major nuclear accident anywhere in the world would threaten these domestic and foreign expansion plans, while a hypothetical catastrophic nuclear incident occur inside China, it could threaten the government’s hold on power (People’s Daily, April 2, 2012). Last July, demonstrators concerned about their safety forced the cancellation of a planned $6 billion uranium processing plant in Guangdong (Reuters, July 18, 2013).

In July 2013, China announced an updated national nuclear emergency plan that incorporates some of the lessons of the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. Compared with the previous 2005 draft, the new emergency response plan requires greater information transparency, employs a four-tiered nuclear emergency response mechanism, and applies to all China’s nuclear facilities and activities, including fuel transportation, as well as China’s operating nuclear power plants (Global Times, July 4, 2013).

China-U.S. cooperation in the area of nuclear safety and security is even more long standing, building on a landmark 1998 U.S.-China Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Technology (PUNT) Agreement. Through binational working groups and other means of bilateral technical cooperation, PUNT enables Chinese and American scientists to cooperate on developing civilian nuclear energy technologies; promoting nuclear safeguards and security; pursuing environment and waste management; facilitating nuclear emergency management; enhancing radioactive source security; and protecting nuclear operations from sabotage, theft, or unauthorized access (NNSA, April 17, 2013).

China has also been expanding its collaboration with other countries on nuclear safety. For example, despite their territorial dispute, China, Japan, and South Korea agreed in early December 2013 that they will establish a dedicated email and telephone communications network to provide for the rapid exchange of data in cases of a nuclear incident. The exchange would cover major nuclear emergencies, such as the 2011 Fukushima-Daiichi accident, but also minor mishaps and anomalies. Although the nuclear activities of the PLA are excluded from the exchange, the system could supply vital information in the case of nuclear terrorism, providing critical and timely information that could allow emergency responders and counterterrorist officials to take preventive measures against follow-on or copy-cat attacks (Wall Street Journal Online, December 4, 2013).


Preventing WMD proliferation, terrorism, and accidents is an obvious area for the “win-win” diplomacy favored by China. Chinese political analyst Xie Tao said that contributing a ship to support the Syrian chemical weapons elimination mission was “a kind of free riding” since other governments had already arranged the deal and the operation, which was also authorized by the UN, making Beijing’s involvement essentially cost-free (VOA, December 30, 2013). As another Chinese scholar notes, most security issues are zero-sum games, but increasing the security of nuclear materials benefits everybody (Li Bin, “Nuclear Security Cooperation,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 20, 2012).

Furthermore, Chinese support for U.S. nonproliferation initiatives help dampen Sino-American disputes over other proliferation issues. In addition to perennial U.S. complaints about China’s ties with Iran and North Korea, where other economic and other security goals appear to have more influence on Chinese policies than non-proliferation, U.S. officials consider much of China’s nuclear assistance to Pakistan as inappropriate since Pakistan has not signed the IAEA or joined to the NPT. In fact, while China and the United States have been making progress in reducing their differences over other important nuclear nonproliferation issues, many contemporary Sino-American WMD proliferation disputes concern China’s export of non-nuclear “dual-use” items—those having both potential civilian and military application—rather than sales clearly intended for military purposes. China is still one of the world’s largest sellers of dual-use technologies and materials, especially in the chemical, biological, and missile sectors, but, to Washington’s annoyance, its willingness to constrain its exports is still less than in the nuclear domain.

The author would like to thank the MacArthur Foundation of Chicago for supporting this research as well as Hudson interns Man Ching Lam and Su Wang for providing Chinese language research for this article.