China’s Awkward Presence at Seoul Nuclear Security Summit

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 8

Hu Jintao Presents His Four-Point Proposal at the Seoul Summit

President Hu Jintao joined 54 heads of state, deputy prime ministers and foreign ministers at the March 26-27 Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul. The main objective of the summit was to secure, reduce and eliminate global stockpiles of nuclear and radiological materials to keep them from terrorists and criminals. The major obstacle to nuclear terrorism is acquiring the material needed to make a nuclear explosive device. The summit strived to avert this disaster through encouraging cooperative action to prevent the theft of nuclear weapons or the fissile material that could be used to fuel a nuclear explosion.

Of course, all states share with China a desire to avert such an outcome. Thus, supporting the objective provided an easy way for Beijing to cooperate with the United States, Europe, Russia and other countries on an important but uncontested objective. China’s stance however was complicated by its close ties with North Korea, Iran and Pakistan—the three countries that could most plausibly transfer nuclear materials or technologies to terrorists. In addition, the Chinese government is eager to press ahead with a massive expansion of its domestic nuclear power production despite security and safety concerns (“Wenzhou Crash Shows the Dangers of China’s Nuclear Power Ambitions,” China Brief, July 29, 2011). Hu’s call at the summit for a "scientific and sensible" approach toward nuclear security and energy could also apply to China’s views regarding nuclear nonproliferation and other nuclear issues (China Daily, March 28).

Opposing Nuclear Terrorism

Preventing nuclear terrorism has to be the one of the best “win-win” issues for Chinese diplomacy around. As leading Chinese nonproliferation scholar Li Bin notes, most security issues are zero-sum games. When one country increases its security, it often hurts the security of another. In the domain of countering nuclear terrorism, however, when a country increases the security of its dangerous nuclear materials, everybody benefits except for would-be terrorists (“Nuclear Security Cooperation,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 20). Another Chinese commentary noted the growing global use of nuclear power was increasing the risk of nuclear terrorism and, therefore, the importance of strengthening nuclear security and safety (People’s Daily, March 28).

As the world’s leading trading state, China has a strong interest in avoiding an act of nuclear terrorism anywhere since it could inflict a major, perhaps crippling blow to the international economy. For example, if a nuclear device detonated in a major seaport or a major maritime choke point, then maritime traffic would be disrupted for months. If a nuclear device was smuggled into a country, then countries would close their borders pending guarantees that no further nuclear weapons smuggling would occur. It took months for global air traffic to recover from the 9/11 hijackings—and that was a conventional attack.

In addition to not wishing to disrupt international commerce, Chinese officials want to prevent yet another blow to the global nuclear industry, which is still reeling from the consequences of last year’s meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant and placed nuclear safety on the agenda of the Seoul summit. A nuclear detonation anywhere in the world would increase popular aversion to nuclear power, which the Chinese government is counting on to meet China’s growing energy needs. In addition, China’s nuclear industry wants to expand its role in global nuclear exports.

In his address to the summit, entitled "Toward Greater Nuclear Security through Cooperation," Hu reviewed the key measures that his government had taken in the last few years to strengthen China’s nuclear security. Hu then offered a four-point proposal on enhancing nuclear security:

·        One, follow a scientific and sensible approach to nuclear security and boost confidence in the development of nuclear energy. We should face up to the associated risks, making nuclear energy safer and more reliable.

·        Two, strengthen nuclear security capacity building and live up to national responsibility for ensuring nuclear security. We should establish and improve the regulatory system for nuclear security, building up a team for handling nuclear emergencies.

·        Three, deepen international exchanges and cooperation to improve nuclear security around the world. We need to promote nuclear security standards and norms, helping developing countries to raise their technical capabilities.

·        Four, take a comprehensive approach and address both the symptoms and root causes of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism while adhering to the principles of the UN Charter and China’s New Security Concept to resolve international disputes peacefully (Xinhua, March 27).

Meanwhile, Miao Wei, Chinese Minister of Industry and Information Technology, told the delegates that, with China’s having a large nuclear energy program, his government has always rigorously controlled his country’s nuclear materials through increasingly effective administrative measures against nuclear theft or terrorism (Xinhua, March 28).

Chinese government representatives subsequently praised the summit’s outcome and their government’s performance. Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang and Assistant Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu said the event had helpfully increased attention on nuclear security and safety issues, provided opportunities for the countries to exchange their experiences and encouraged states to make voluntary domestic and international commitments to strengthen their nuclear security (Xinhua, March 27). Qin claimed the points in Hu’s speech “have been well received by various parties” (Xinhua, March 28).

Chinese scholars and commentators offered similarly favorable assessments of the summit (China Daily, March 28). An article by Zhao Shixing praised Hu for setting out a distinctive "Chinese model" to nuclear security. Zhao added that Hu “demonstrated Chinese wisdom, promoted the image of China as a responsible power and produced so much favorable comment from the international community” (People’s Daily, April 2). Another commentary under the penname Zhong Sheng said Hu’s speech boosted the confidence of countries in developing nuclear power (People’s Daily, March 29).

Practical Measures

At the 2012 summit, Chinese officials took a number of steps to illustrate that Beijing shared its goals. Like the other summit participants, Beijing submitted a progress report, entitled "National Progress Report on Nuclear Security of the People’s Republic of China," describing how China had strengthened the security of its nuclear materials, especially since the 2010 summit. For example, the report related how China had inspected all its nuclear facilities and assessed how to improve their security. China also has enacted new laws and regulations to enhance the security of its nuclear and radioactive storage facilities. In August 2010, the Chinese government ratified the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism.

In addition, China has developed new high-tech devices to detect explosives and radioactive substances in vehicles. The Chinese authorities deployed these devices at several major international events, including the 2010 Shanghai World Expo and the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games. The report said that China was willing to share its experience with these devices with other countries.

The Seoul summit broadened the nuclear security agenda to encompass radioactive materials at less-secure civilian facilities, such as hospitals. Terrorists could use these sources to manufacture so-called dirty bombs in which conventional explosives are used to spread radioactive material. Making one requires only bomb-making expertise and radioactive isotopes suitable for the purpose are much easier to obtain than the weapons-grade fissile material needed for a nuclear explosive. China also upgraded storage facilities and issued new regulations to answer this potential challenge.

Beijing has devoted considerable resources to developing its nuclear security human resources through education and training. In conjunction with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and other countries, China conducted 20 training courses and seminars for more than 500 nuclear security workers since the April 2010 summit. In addition, China and the IAEA conducted nuclear security training courses and seminars for some 100 specialists from more than ten Asian-Pacific countries. Their subjects included physical protection, control of nuclear materials, countering illicit trafficking in nuclear materials and promoting a working culture for nuclear security. Chinese representatives also participated in various international nuclear security workshops and exercises so they could learn from foreign experience.

The report noted how China and the United States have been cooperating closely on several such projects. They are conducting a pilot project in Shanghai under the U.S.-led "Megaport Initiative," a program to detect the illicit nuclear material trafficking in the world’s major seaports. The two countries are creating a radiation detection training center for Asian and Chinese customs officers and are collaborating to raise the technical expertise of China’s export control staff. Finally, they are jointly constructing a Center of Excellence on Nuclear Security in Beijing that China will use to train nuclear security staff in other Asian countries.

Furthermore, China and the United States are collaborating to convert a miniature research reactor in China from using high-enrichment uranium (HEU) fuel to low-enrichment uranium (LEU) fuel. HEU can be dangerous, because, as fissile material, it can be used readily to make nuclear weapons. The report said China was “willing to assist other countries in converting their research reactors by utilizing the expertise and experience gained through cooperation with the [United States].”

Dampening Nuclear Safety Concerns

Last year’s nuclear disaster in Japan placed nuclear safety on the summit’s agenda—an unwelcome development for a Chinese government committed to the domestic development of nuclear energy. Even with the anticipated post-Fukushima reductions, China is unique in the magnitude of its nuclear energy expansion plans, which Chinese officials see as essential for achieving their energy security, climate change and other development goals. China, which currently has 15 operating nuclear power reactors, plans to resume building nuclear power plants (26 are under construction) by the end of this year (CNTV, March 28). Beijing still hopes to double the share of national energy produced by nuclear power, to four percent, by the end of this decade. Since this requires increasing the country’s domestic nuclear power production from 11 gigawatts in 2010 to 80 gigawatts by 2020, China’s political and energy leaders want to minimize any safety and security obstacles in its path (Xinhua, March 28). As Zhao Shixing’s article explained, “The serious nuclear accident that happened in Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in 2011 made the international community become jittery at the mention of nuclear. Some countries even suspended their nuclear development program. However, in the context of energy shortages, global warming, advocating low-carbon clean energy, the nuclear energy plays an irreplaceable role on ensuring energy security and dealing with climate change” (People’s Daily, April 2).

Immediately preceding the summit on March 22, South Korea organized a two-day nuclear industry conference to discuss how the nuclear industry plays on nuclear security. Emphasizing how a nuclear accident in one country could easily affect another, Sun Qin, president of the China National Nuclear Corporation, urged the importance of establishing an effective communications and mutual support arrangement among nuclear industries for issues related to nuclear safety—which should include sharing best practices and joint technology development—and called on the IAEA to play a larger role. He offered assistance to other Asian countries—such as handling nuclear fuel as well as nuclear security training—to ensure their safe development of nuclear power (Xinhua, March 24; China Radio International, March 23).

Nuclear Proliferation Tensions

Hu’s address at the summit reaffirmed China’s opposition to further nuclear proliferation and support for the eventual elimination of all nuclear weapons as well as the right of all countries to pursue nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. To further these goals, Hu said “China would work to prohibit and eliminate all nuclear weapons, continue its nuclear no-first-use policy, support nuclear nonproliferation efforts, support countries’ right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy and make its due contributions to building a harmonious world of enduring peace and common prosperity” (Xinhua, March 27). President Barack Obama delivered a speech a few days earlier detailing t the same three U.S. goals (White House Press Release, March 26).Beijing however has found it harder than most countries to balance among these three objectives since it does not participate in the Russian-U.S.-NATO arms reduction processes and has close ties the states of most proliferation concern.

A major drama at the first nuclear security summit in Washington in April 2010 was whether President Hu would even show up, much less eventually support sanctions on Iran. The Obama administration lobbied heavily for Hu to come and additional UN sanctions on Iran were the focus of the bilateral Obama-Hu meeting at that summit. After Western diplomatic initiatives with Iran were unsuccessful, the Chinese UN delegation voted in favor of the fourth round of economic sanctions on Iran, because of Obama’s lobbying.

Tensions over China’s ties with Iran persisted at the 2012 summit as China is one of Iran’s major oil buyers. Washington has led other countries in imposing additional sanctions on Iran to supplement those approved by China and the UN Security Council. China along with several other important countries, such as Russia and India, oppose these supplementary sanctions since they penalize foreign firms outside U.S. or EU jurisdiction for dealing with Iranian firms. Before the summit, an authoritative People’s Daily editorial attacked the latest U.S. supplementary sanctions, which penalize foreign banks involved in Iran’s oil trade , as counterproductive, unfair and a form of arrogant “unilateralism” that led to the U.S. setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan (People’s Daily, March 22).After the summit, China’s commerce minister, Chen Deming, insisted Chinese entities were "not obliged to follow any domestic laws and rules of any particular country" (The Telegraph [India], March 29).

North Korea’s nuclear antics also made its policies a subject of last month’s summit. The fact that the gathering was occurring in neighboring South Korea probably made its nuclear program an unavoidable subject. This focus put China in an awkward position, given Beijing’s unsought status as Pyongyang’s patron. The day before he met with Hu in Seoul, Obama called on Beijing to pressure Pyongyang to cancel its planned launch of rocket—which the United States and others consider a means of developing long-range ballistic missiles—and cease "rewarding bad behavior (and) turning a blind eye to deliberate provocations." "I believe that China is very sincere that it does not want to see North Korea with a nuclear weapon," Obama told a news conference. "But it is going to have to act on that interest in a sustained way" (Reuters, March 25).


Responding to China’s awkward position on nuclear issues, the People’s Daily editorialized post-summit that “the root cause” of the proliferation problem was that “that the United States and other nuclear powers implement the hegemonic policies,” including employing military force against weaker non-nuclear states, which leads some of them to seek nuclear weapons (People’s Daily, April 2). Fan Jishe, Deputy Director of the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation Studies at the China Academy of Social Sciences, said the summit made considerable progress, but that Russia and the United States “should assume a greater share of the responsibility for strengthening global nuclear security” by making further nuclear arms reductions, decreasing the role of nuclear weapons in their security policies and accelerating their fissile materials repatriation programs. Other countries with developed nuclear industries could join them to establish an international nuclear fuel bank, promote awareness of nuclear security and provide technology, training and money to developing countries launching civilian nuclear programs (, March 29).

China undoubtedly will remain one of the world’s most important nuclear players for decades to come. Beijing can easily cooperate on stopping nuclear terrorism—a development all governments oppose. China, however, is likely to clash further with other countries as long as it abstains from participating in nuclear arms control and has ties with some of the most troublesome emerging nuclear weapons states.