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China and the Nuclear Debate

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China Power

China and the Nuclear Debate

China’s nuclear energy sector is expanding amid the glow of positive public opinion.

China and the Nuclear Debate
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz

Tobi Du, a Yenching Scholar at the Yenching Academy at Peking University, specializes in East Asian security politics and nuclear issues. She has extensively studied nonproliferation issues, interned at a national laboratory in the United States, and will be researching nuclear policy at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy this summer. The Diplomat sat down with Tobi to discuss nuclear issues in East Asia, how Chinese view nuclear threats, and the development of nuclear energy.

How did you first get interested in researching nuclear issues?

My original interest was focused on East Asian security politics. I took a class on the politics of the Korean Peninsula at the same time that North Korea’s nuclear program became more prominent in international news. In 2017, I studied abroad at Waseda University in Tokyo when North Korea conducted a ballistic missile test that flew over Japan. The U.S. Center for Disease Control also began publishing information on how to protect yourself from nuclear blasts, which was highly unusual. I began to research the North Korean nuclear dilemma following these incidents, exploring both domestic, political factors such as party-military competition, and external security factors to explain why North Korea’s nuclear and missile program development accelerated under Kim Jong Un.

How have you seen this topic develop during your time in East Asia?

The North Korean nuclear issue has become very prominent in the last few years since Kim Jong Un came to power and started to conduct many more nuclear and missile tests than his predecessors. These tests pose significant threats to the United States and Japan.

When I arrived in China for my Master’s degree, I realized China is a different story. Although China is one of the five official nuclear weapons states as designated by the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons, China has historically supported North Korea. While China does facilitate denuclearization talks, it definitely does not feel threatened in the same way that the U.S. and Japan do considering North Korea has explicitly stated that its nuclear weapons program is intended to deter the U.S. and its allies. Because of this, people in China are not currently as sensitive to nuclear threats as they are in other countries.

If Chinese are not necessarily sensitive to the discussions around nuclear threats, is there a general consensus regarding nuclear energy in China?

Despite the lack of public support for development of the nuclear energy industry in most other countries, research shows that the Chinese public is not strongly against nuclear power.

For example, the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan affected attitudes about nuclear energy all across the globe, and many people lost confidence in nuclear energy. Many countries decided to phase out or halt plans for nuclear energy programs. Following the crisis, one study conducted in Shandong province showed that despite a negative outlook for nuclear energy globally, China is unique in that the public did not become as opposed to the development of nuclear energy.

Trust in the government has a lot to do with this. Since Chinese citizens generally possess a low level of knowledge about nuclear energy and related issues, the public places a significant amount of trust in the government to conduct its own assessments and accepts the results. Generally, the Fukushima nuclear accident did not affect the direction of Chinese policy for nuclear energy but prompted a more careful and measured attitude towards implementation.

Does public opinion then play a role in implementation of nuclear energy programs and development?

Considering China’s unique ability to interact with and shape public discourse around sensitive topics, public input in decision-making is minimal because of this control. The central government is able to implement the nuclear energy industry in China as it sees fit.

In contrast to China’s more receptive public opinion, most countries are keenly cognizant of issues related to nuclear weapons, and mostly focus on these issues and their accompanying negative connotations. The U.S. and Japan also hold extremely unique positions on nuclear issues, as the U.S. is the only country to have ever used nuclear weapons in combat and Japan is the only country to have ever suffered a nuclear attack. In addition, the Soviet Union was embroiled in the Cold War with the United States for decades, in which nuclear weapons and superiority was a core issue.

So while it is true that Chinese people generally have a more positive opinion of nuclear energy in China than in other countries after Fukushima, it is China’s political governance that allows the country to push forward with nuclear power.

Why is the Chinese government focusing on nuclear energy?

Nuclear power is an ideal source of energy for guaranteeing China’s national security through increased energy security. China has a comprehensive view of national security beyond the traditional military and political issues that also encompasses nontraditional security issues such as energy security and social stability. One of China’s biggest challenges today is a combination of its dependence on energy imports and quickly growing demand for energy.

The increased demand for energy extends beyond China. Energy consumption in Asia is “projected to double from 2010 to 2035” when taking into account the most optimistic scenario for improvement in energy intensity. In China, continued growth and an increasingly affluent population will drive demand for energy, especially given the Chinese Communist Party’s professed goal of creating a “moderately prosperous society.”

What role will nuclear energy then play in meeting the growing energy demand?

While China does currently utilize more prominent and popular green energy sources such as solar and wind energy, these renewables are relatively unreliable and intermittent.The production of domestic nuclear energy could allow China to reduce dependency on energy imports while still meeting energy demand. Nuclear energy is a particularly good option to meet base-load demand. According to the Carnegie Endowment, the Chinese nuclear energy program aims to reduce China’s reliance on fossil fuels and reduce unequal distribution of energy resources within the country.

Moving forward, what do you expect to see in terms of China and public opinion around nuclear issues, including both security and energy?

I don’t anticipate any changes in attitudes toward nuclear weapons barring any significant shifts in the current security landscape, but Chinese public opinion toward nuclear energy may remain positive given the country’s energy requirements and environmental concerns. China’s nuclear energy industry has continued to expand against the backdrop of a decline in global interest because the country stands to reap major benefits from the further expansion of nuclear energy and that the unique features of its political governance are ideal for further development.

To learn more about nuclear issues in East Asia, contact Tobi Du via her LinkedIn.