US-China Nonproliferation and Nuclear Security Dialogue

June 26-27, 2014
Washington, DC

Conference Report

The Pacific Forum CSIS, with the support of the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, held the first round of the US-China Nonproliferation and Nuclear Security Dialogue in Washington, DC, on June 26-27, 2014. The two-day track-1.5 meeting brought together approximately 25 US and Chinese nuclear experts, scholars, and policymakers, all attending in their private capacity. The meeting compared US and Chinese perspectives on current nuclear dangers, the review process of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), nonproliferation noncompliance, crisis management and nuclear-use prevention, nuclear security, and opportunities and challenges to US-China cooperation in these domains. Key findings include: 

The best prospects for successful US-China cooperation, both at the bilateral and regional/global levels, are in nuclear security.

Americans and Chinese also view nonproliferation, and crisis management as important areas for US-China cooperation. Cooperation in these areas could form the basis for the nuclear dimension of the “new type” of relations between the United States and China.

To Americans and Chinese, the most serious nuclear dangers come from Pakistan, North Korea, and Iran. Americans regard the possibility of nuclear escalation between India and Pakistan with deep concern; Chinese are less worried. Unlike Americans, Chinese fear Japan’s alleged new military activism and worry that it could go nuclear, without much difficulty, given its large stockpiles of nuclear materials.

While most Americans and Chinese focus on “situational” nuclear dangers, some on both sides stress the need to also emphasize “technological” dangers, such as the spread of enrichment and reprocessing technologies.

While Americans generally appear to be more worried than Chinese about nuclear terrorism, the gap in threat perceptions has narrowed in recent years. Since the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, in particular, China has paid much greater attention to nuclear security.

China’s new Center of Excellence on Nuclear Security is an important platform to promote cooperation. Conducting table-top exercises with China on nuclear security could also offer opportunities to enhance mutual understanding of threats and responses and develop an agenda for cooperation. The Cox Report continues to be seen by many Chinese as a significant hurdle to stronger cooperation, however.

Americans and Chinese agree on the goal of nonproliferation, but do not give it the same priority. While Americans afford it high priority, Chinese describe it as “important, but not urgent.” That is why Chinese favor diplomacy to deal with noncompliance, while Americans are more readily prepared to use other tools, including sanctions or force.

Nonproliferation and geopolitics are intimately connected. Like US concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, Chinese concerns about Japan’s nuclearization potential are rooted in geopolitical dimensions.

The United States and China have a mutual interest in a successful 2015 Review Conference. Both sides view P-5 unity as critical for this, and stress the importance of enhancing relations between the P-5 and the NPT non-nuclear-weapon states (NNWS).

Different types of nuclear crises can emerge in the Asia-Pacific, including nuclear accidents, nuclear terrorist attacks, nuclear proliferation cascades, and nuclear escalation between two nuclear-armed states.

US-China cooperation to prevent and manage a nuclear crisis cannot be discussed out of context. Specific scenarios need to be played out and lessons identified as a first step to help strengthen cooperation. Given the difficulties of doing so at the official level, track-1.5 engagement is seen as particularly well-suited for this exercise.

Approaches matter. While Chinese tend to focus on the probability or likelihood of nuclear crises emerging, Americans focus equal importance on risks and implications, believing that even low probability events must be seriously addressed if the associated consequences are unacceptably high.

Nuclear escalation between the United States and China is unlikely because bilateral relations are stable and the two countries’ leaderships mature and cautious. It is not impossible, however, particularly if core interests become involved. This calls for official and sustained dialogue in this area, and the development of confidence-building measures, new communication channels, and greater transparency.

Next steps. Categorization of sub-issue areas is important: developing a typology of nuclear dangers would be useful, as would a typology of nuclear crises in the Asia Pacific. As a first step to encourage both sides to promote a nondiscriminatory nonproliferation regime, it is essential to compare and contrast US and Chinese proliferation threat assessments. Work is also needed to enhance mutual understanding of and approach to nonproliferation noncompliance.

Feeding dialogue results into existing track-1.5 US-China strategic nuclear discussions is critical to facilitate mutual understanding and broader cooperation. It is also important to feed dialogue results into relevant multilateral processes such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP), which supports multilateral cooperation on countering the spread of weapons of mass destruction, export controls, and nuclear energy safety and security.