The following interview with Li Bin [1] was carried out on June 25, 2013 in Beijing, China, by Patrick Renz and Frauke Heidemann. The three main topics of the interview were nuclear energy, nuclear weapons and missile defense. All footnotes are remarks by Patrick Renz and Frauke Heidemann, aimed at giving some additional background knowledge and especially giving the links to the cited documents so that the reader can follow up on these issues easily.

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Nuclear Energy

Do you see the possibility that nuclear energy could decrease the Chinese reliance on coal? What are the chances and risk that come with the use of nuclear energy in China?

In recent years air pollution has become very bad. It is my belief that most of the pollution comes from burning coal for heating. Some people disagree — they believe that the reason is the the growing number of cars. My belief is that cars contribute some to the pollution but not most. Most pollution comes from burning coal for heating in the countryside. Supporting that argument is the fact, that right after the winter the pollution became much better, even though wind was much stronger in winter. Therefore, the explanation that the pollution comes solely from cars makes no sense. Again, my argument is that most pollution comes from burning coal. In China you can criticize the government but not the people. The living standard of Chinese people has been raised significantly in the last couple of decades, leading to more and more farmers using a lot more heating. I am happy to see that but the problem is they use whatever coal they can buy and prefer to buy cheap coal, which is bad for the environment. This is a big reason for today’s air pollution. We need non-fossil fuels to generate clean energy. Hydro energy is a choice but we do not have that available everywhere. Wind energy is another choice. Right now the capacity of wind energy in China is even larger than that of nuclear energy. I was surprised when I first saw that since I do not see the mills around here, because they are deployed in remote areas. In general wind energy is good but the problem is that it is not always available. The same goes for hydro energy. So nuclear energy is one choice. Another incentive for nuclear energy is that China has committed itself to reduce the release of carbon dioxide. For all these reasons I believe that China will have to choose nuclear energy. The only question will be how fast and how much. But I cannot say what pace and size would be best. It is important that we have a safe nuclear energy industry focusing on nuclear security and safety regulations and a safe design of nuclear reactors.

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Nuclear Weapons and Missile Defense

Recently SIPRI reported that China is increasing the number of nuclear warheads in their inventory. We were wondering, what is reason for this?

When you read SIPRI’s report [2] you see that they have two numbers about the Chinese nuclear warheads. The first number is about nuclear warheads that are available for delivery systems. That number has been increased a little bit, but not much. The other number counts nuclear warheads on delivery systems. That number is still zero. All the papers pay attention to the first number, not to the second number. So today when the U.S. and Russia talk about their nuclear reductions, they talk about their numbers of nuclear warheads on delivery systems, that number is around 1500. So for that number is zero for China. If they invite China to join the nuclear reductions program [3] China should be very happy because China already has a number of zero according to the U.S. and Russian counting rule. My government is not yet ready to do so but I like to see it if China is happy to join in.

China is still working on survivable delivery systems. The idea is to shift from silo-based, fix-based nuclear weapons to more mobile nuclear weapon systems. This should raise the survivability of nuclear weapons by adding more mobility to them. Therefore the number of delivery systems may change. I believe that the number will be increased not too much. This is mainly because before you know that the new system can work you cannot get rid of the older system. As I said, China used to have fix-based nuclear weapons and wants to have more survivable nuclear weapons (meaning mobile ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles). In the transition it will need both – fix-based and mobile systems, leading to a temporary larger number of delivery systems. This increase so far is mostly for internal technical reasons and not a response to U.S. missile defense or for other international reasons. I do not mean that China should not respond to foreign factors but not yet. The capabilities of U.S. missile defense are growing. I believe that China is working on missile defense technology to understand how useful missile defense is. If missile defense is very effective then China might have to increase the number of its nuclear weapons to respond to that. If missile defense technology is not so effective then China does not have to waste money on more nuclear weapons.

One topic discussed in this context is the nuclear weapon free world. [4] Do you think that this is achievable medium- or long-term?

Since the first day China acquired nuclear weapon capabilities, it declared that a nuclear weapon free world is a goal of China. This is very different from the positions of other countries, especially other nuclear weapon states. They did not believe that a nuclear weapon free world is a real possibility until recent years. For China however, this has been a goal for several decades. We should know that the Obama version of a nuclear weapon free world does not focus on a nuclear weapon free world but nuclear arms control. It does not exclude a nuclear weapon free world but a nuclear weapon free world in Obama’s version is a very remote goal. The U.S. government focuses their work on some immediate steps e.g. nuclear non-proliferation, nuclear disarmament and nuclear arms control and nuclear security. When President Obama gave his speech in Berlin [5] he talked about the Nuclear Security Summit [6], he talked about CTBT [7] and FMCT [8]. I am not sure whether he discussed the issue of a nuclear weapon free world but it is very obvious that President Obama and his government do not pay much attention to the idea of a nuclear weapon free world and pay much more attention to some immediate steps. China was much more serious in the past about the idea of a nuclear weapon free world than it is today. In the past China did not feel that it was a nuclear weapon state despite it having nuclear weapons. It saw its identity closer to non-nuclear weapon states and therefore was always on the side of non-nuclear weapon states. The other nuclear weapon states always tried to convince China that it should support their side. Today, China acts more and more like the other nuclear weapon states. At the same time you can see that China does not talk about a nuclear weapon free world as much as before. I would say China still likes the idea of a nuclear weapon free world but is not as active as before 1995 when it felt as part of the non-nuclear weapon states.

Especially the U.S. is very concerned about nuclear terrorism and sees it as a huge threat to Western countries due to terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda. Does China also see this as a threat?

There are two dimensions: one is what you do, the other is what you say. The U.S. says that nuclear terrorism is a threat to the U.S. and the U.S. does things to stop that. China does not say it as much as the U.S. does but I believe that China does more than the U.S. in this regard. For example, China signed all international agreements on nuclear security and counter nuclear terrorism. The U.S. has not yet done so. Domestically, China has been very serious about that issue. There is a strategy called “外松内紧” [9] (be soft from the outside and tough on the inside), on nuclear security China takes that strategy. When China organizes large activities it always follows that strategy to counter nuclear terrorism. You see the activities and never see anything related to nuclear security. In fact internally there are a lot of arrangements to stop nuclear terrorism. For example there are some sensors to detect radioactive materials but the government does not say that. They believe that once they say that people might get frightened or the terrorists may bypass the control. But internally the control is very strict. So I believe that this strategy is somewhat different from the strategy followed by other countries. China might not seem to be in control but it has a lot of control over this. In the last few years my colleagues and I compiled a book about nuclear security and we tried to get information about China’s arrangements to counter nuclear terrorism. It was not so successful because the arrangements follow the strategy外松内紧. If you don’t discuss it you cannot say how strict the arrangements are. For example Tsinghua University has another campus and on that campus the nuclear energy institute runs its nuclear reactors. It also follows the strategy of 外松内紧. The control is strictest during major holidays and special events but they won’t tell you how their control works. I joined some discussions on nuclear security and the question always goes to where the loopholes are. But the answer to this should be that if we know where the loopholes are, we would have fixed them. China regards nuclear terrorism as a major threat to national security. A lot of resources are spent on countering that threat, but in accordance with the before mentioned special strategy.

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Missile Defense

Concerning the issue of missile defense we talked about the U.S. missile defense systems in East Asia, specifically in Japan. How do you evaluate this from a Chinese perspective?

Technically there are two kinds of missile defense. One is to counter strategic nuclear weapons, the other is to counter conventional weapons. They are technically somewhat different. Concerning strategic nuclear weapons we have a theory called strategic stability. In the recent U.S. Nuclear Posture Review the U.S. said that it respects strategic stability with Russia and China. That provides some basis for the U.S. and China to discuss missile defense capable of countering strategic nuclear weapons but it is still difficult. When the U.S. talks with Russia it explains why the U.S. missile defense does not weaken the Russian strategic defense capability. The U.S. explains the capability dimension to Russia but when the U.S. talks with China it never explains why the U.S. capability does not weaken or threaten China’s defensive nuclear capability. Additionally, the U.S. does not have a definition of strategic stability. Traditionally, strategic stability was well defined. Today, the U.S. strategy is not to define strategic stability. When we have track 1.5 dialogues they simply do not define that. I don’t know why, you need to ask American scholars. I do not believe that the U.S. government is as frank as a couple of decades ago. If they respected the traditionally defined strategic stability, that would be a good basis for the two countries to discuss the role of missile defense at a strategic level.

So the problem on the U.S. side is that it first never discusses the capability dimension with China, only the intention, and secondly they do not define strategic stability. These two problems are on the U.S. side. The problem on the Chinese side is that we do not have a very good pool of experts who understand arms control diplomacy. The Chinese nuclear weapon laboratory has a very good pool of experts who are good at arms control diplomacy but the PLA does not yet. They have some experts but not as many as we need. So for this reason the PLA is not that active and that is a problem on the Chinese side. The PLA is always very cautious. The reason it is that cautious is not because of national security but more because they do not have as many good experts as they need. I can see the difference between the lab and the PLA. Any time and at any level of dialogues the lab is always ready to send experts to the dialogue but the PLA sometimes can and sometimes cannot and they are always worried. They have a lot of experts on other things but not so much on arms control diplomacy. Unfortunately we do not have a very effective dialogue between the U.S. and China on strategic nuclear issues. We are making efforts but I hope we can have a much more effective strategic nuclear dialogue in the future.

In February you wrote an article about the missile interceptor test of China [10] and stated that it is to understand the technology and mentioned that possibly point-defense could be a good option to defend silo-based missiles. How did the debate on this issue in China develop?

What sometimes disappoints me is that if policy practitioners at home like my idea, they take it but never tell me. Thereby I can never take credit for that. In case they dislike my idea, they will not engage in a debate with me and instead simply ignore it. In China my department (Tsinghua University’s Department of International Relations) is very different from most other international relations departments and schools. Many of them do not like to make very explicit statements on policy. For example if you ask them whether or not it will rain in the afternoon they will say maybe, maybe not. So they are always correct. The professors in my department always give very explicit predictions, so sometimes we are wrong, sometimes we are correct. But we always want to give very sharp predictions and suggestions. We do not mind if people can see that we are wrong. Unfortunately, no matter whether people in the government like or dislike our predictions and suggestions, they don’t tell us. Still, there is much improvement, a few decades ago we could not say that much. If you said something different from the official opinion, they would stop you. Today, the government is not stopping us from talking. What we hope is that if they like our ideas they come to us and give us credit as well as research funding to support our research and if they disagree they come to have a debate with us. Currently I don’t know how they think about my ideas on missile defense, I simply do not know. Sometimes I do know but I cannot tell you. Sometimes my friends in the government tell me if they agree with my ideas but there is no person officially telling me this. For this particular paper I do not yet know. Maybe some day officials in the government will tell me that they liked my point so much they took my suggestions and did not deploy national missile defense but instead deploy point defense. I would be very happy.

Thank you very much for the interview.

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[1] More on Prof. Li can be found at: http://carnegieendowment.org/experts/?fa=604.
[2] The report of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) can be found here: http://www.sipri.org/media/pressreleases/2013/YBlaunch_2013.
[3] More information about the New START, the current nuclear arms treaty between the U.S. and Russia can be found at: http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2011/02/02/new-start-treaty-signed.
[4] The concept of a nuclear-weapon free world was elaborated on in the speech of the IAEA Chief in 2011: http://www.iaea.org/newscenter/news/2011/kazakhstan121011.html.
[5] More on the speech of Obama in Berlin in June 2013 can be found at: http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/up-front/posts/2013/06/19-nuclear-arms-reductions-obama-berlin-pifer.
[6] The last Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) was held in 2012 in Seoul and was the second summit of this kind after the 2010 NSS in Washington. More information on the NSS can be taken from the official website: https://www.nss2014.com/en/nss-2014/about-the-nss.
[7] The CTBT is the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which aims at banning nuclear explosions by everyone, everywhere: on the surface, in the atmosphere, underwater and underground. There are however still several countries that need to sign and ratify CTBT before it can enter into force. More on the status of the CTBT at: http://www.ctbto.org/specials/who-we-are/.
[8] The Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) is another international proposal that aims at prohibiting the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other explosive devices.
[9] 外松内紧(wai song, nei jin).
[10] Li Bin, “What China’s Missile Intercept Test Means”, February 4, 2013, at: http://carnegieendowment.org/2013/02/04/what-china-s-missile-intercept-test-means/fa45 – comments.

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