Eyeing Nuclear Excellence

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Eyeing Nuclear Excellence

Hu Jintao and Barack Obama have announced a new joint nuclear centre. Is this a major breakthrough?

Among the many highlights of this week’s visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao to Washington was the declaration of the plan to establish a joint Centre of Excellence for Nuclear Security in Beijing.

Securing nuclear materials around the world has been a major preoccupation of the Barack Obama administration, and the most recent US Nuclear Posture Review, which was released in April 2010, identified ‘preventing nuclear terrorism and nuclear proliferation’ as the most important objective. (This even took precedence over maintaining strategic deterrence, including of the extended variety meant to reassure its allies).

Acutely aware of the growing capabilities, reach and networks of terrorists, the US has sought to counter this threat by securing the nuclear material available in individual nations. It was with this in mind that Obama called the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington last March. And it was back then that Hu made the offer to set up a joint nuclear security centre in Beijing, a promise that appears to have materialized during his visit.

So how important is this announcement? Is it the opening that the United States has long sought to allow it to expand nuclear cooperation with China and to seek greater transparency over the Chinese nuclear arsenal, doctrine and strategy? As the strategic modernization of China has steadily progressed, and with the US arsenal having been substantively reduced as a result of a rationalization of its capabilities due to changing threat perceptions, the shadow of the Chinese nuclear capability has loomed larger.

The Chinese, meanwhile, have always brushed aside US and others’ concerns over their nuclear capability by suggesting a merely defensive role for its nuclear weapons.  With the establishment of the joint centre, it’s being assumed that the United States would be in a position to know more about the Chinese weapons programme. But if this is the real objective of the exercise, then the Americans will be sorely disappointed, since it shouldn’t be expected that the Chinese will allow the US to know more about their nuclear arsenal than they want them to.

The other more obvious aim of the centre appears to be to provide training to improve security at nuclear facilities and the accounting of nuclear materials. While the Chinese are going to fund the centre, the US will provide the technology and expertise, including holding joint exercises on responding to nuclear disasters and terrorism and sharing nuclear detection technology. American officials have even hinted at the possibility of opening up the centre to other Asian nations with the hope that China will use its influence with other countries to foster greater nuclear security.

While this objective appears laudable, the actual likely benefits are worth considering. China has been the major source of nuclear proliferation in the region, having been the primary supplier of nuclear material, technology and even weapons designs to Pakistan, from where nuclear capabilities have travelled to Iran and North Korea. Most of this was undertaken with the knowledge of the United States, which thought it prudent to look the other way. Ironically, the threat has magnified into a global security concern today. So the US is now looking for solutions with the countries that have been party to the creation of the problems.

Will Washington be able to find greater success in assuring nuclear security through cooperation with China than it has been able to achieve in its Af-Pak policy through cooperation with Pakistan? The world will be watching.