ISSN 2330-717X

China: How Is Nuclear Security Understood? – Analysis


By Chao Xie*

China is situated in a nuclear neighborhood, with Russia, India, and Pakistan in possession of nuclear weapons, the DPRK a potential owner, and several others with nuclear materials. Just as some of these states are confronted with eminent threats of political instability, terrorism and homegrown insurgencies, China is not immune from terrorist threats, and it has to tackle both domestic terrorism and the penetration of outside terror into its own territory. Thanks to the greater importance attached to nuclear security and safety, China has maintained a good record for more than 60 years, which is a remarkable achievement considering the volume of nuclear materials involved in its nuclear power capacity generation, and the threat level it has faced and is now facing.

According to the latest statistics, the Chinese mainland has installed 30 nuclear power generating units with a total capacity of 28.31 GW, and another 24 units of a total installed capacity of 26.72 GW have been planned or under construction. There are also plans to build offshore floating nuclear power stations. China is on the way to assure the world that more than enough measures have been taken to ensure security and safety. In order to make these achievements better known to the world, it published its first ever nuclear white paper in January 2016 – an unprecedented gesture – to show that its nuclear emergency responses have adopted “the most advanced technology and most stringent standards.”

However, its efforts in the nuclear security arena are not fairly recognised by the world: for instance it only ranked 19th, near the bottom in the latest theft ranking, in the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s (NTI) Nuclear Security Index. There is recent reportage to securitise China’s plans on nuclear power unit construction. The negative assessment embodied in such reports may partially be the result of a deep-rooted bias in some Western countries against a rising China, while in fact the latter has successfully developed effective systems to secure its nuclear material and facilities. As a matter of fact, greater concerns about the security of atomic energy establishments in the West only gained prominence after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and China’s emphasis on nuclear security predated even its Western counterparts. To some observers, the importance China has attached to nuclear security for decades is out of the ordinary.

Nevertheless, besides the hardware part of physical protection, there is an increasing awareness that it is up to individuals to ensure security by complying with rules and establishing best practices. This means a security culture should be able to permeate to all levels for people to understand the threats and the need to remain alert. Even though nuclear security culture is a relatively new topic in China, this does not mean it is lacking one. On the contrary, a deeper look into Chinese culture and way of thinking indicates that its perception about security and threat can better fulfill these needs.

In China, Anquan (安全) as a Chinese translation can be applied to both security and safety, while in English the two expressions – security and safety – have clear and specific meanings. When applied to the nuclear arena, as defined by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), nuclear safety is related to undue accidents and nuclear security – “the prevention and detection of and response to, theft, sabotage, unauthorised access, illegal transfer or other malicious acts involving nuclear material, other radioactive substances or their associated facilities.” In order to distinguish these two, nuclear experts in China are now translating security as Anbao (安保) in Chinese. The domestic debates on understanding security and safety, especially the enthusiastic discussions between nuclear technicians and strategists, help consolidate a typical culture emphasising both external and internal threats of nuclear establishments.

Chinese people have their way to understand the threat too. Compared with other states, especially the US, nuances in security paradigms can be found in China’s security culture and thus its out-of-ordinary emphasis on curbing nuclear threat can be understood. For US’ decision-makers and strategists, the threat is measured by the capability and intention of an outside power. In China, the threat is in parallel defined as a scenario in which its national security is threatened. With such a paradigm, the threat is not limited to that from a foreign power but also from within, and it embodies both military and non-military threats. This is why international analysts find that in China’s defence white papers, most security challenges come from various scenarios, rather than one specific enemy.

Compared to US’ rhetoric that nuclear terrorism is “the single most important threat” to its national security, nuclear security in general is prioritised to the level of national security in China, because a scenario of a possible nuclear theft or accident can threaten national security. This philosophy tends to raise domestic consciousness on nuclear security and safety and a security culture such as this can also help reduce “insider threats,” which are increasingly critical to safeguard a state’s nuclear security. This is as understood in a Chinese saying, Jia Zei Nan Fang (家贼难防), which literally means “a thief from within is hard to guard against.” The underlying logic is that an insider has the access, knows the vulnerable points and should he get the chance, is more likely to succeed in penetrating the system. Such emphasis on a greater sense of security goes in line with the increasing international awareness on nuclear security reflected in the four Summits.

Even as China has instituted effective security measures and is equipped with an active sense to safeguard nuclear security, it must remain alert and engage in more international conversations to review the rapidly changing threat scenarios, and share and learn best practices from each other. New ways are needed to tackle new threats and vulnerabilities; for instance, cyber security requirements at nuclear facilities should be reviewed and renewed on a regular basis.

A recent project undertaken by China can meet such ends. The establishment of the Nuclear Security Center of Excellence in Beijing was first discussed and agreed between China and the US at the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) in Washington, DC, in 2010. The center opened in March 2016, on the occasion of the fourth Summit. According to sources, it is the largest of its kind in the Asia Pacific region, boasting a capacity to train up to 2,000 nuclear security staff each year and hence making itself a center for international exchanges and cooperation on nuclear security. Furthermore, China’s position on safeguarding nuclear materials could be better understood by the world through hosting international peer reviews, and publishing nuclear security-related annual reports.

* Chao Xie
PhD candidate, Department of International Relations, Tsinghua University, Beijing

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IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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