In this interview, Youth Fusion Member Accardo Hu had the honour to have conversation with Dr. Tong Zhao, senior fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, based in Beijing at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy. Dr. Zhao speaks about his personal experiences and China’s NFU and nuclear disarmament policy.
Accardo Hu: You hold a BS in physics, but then your research turned to international affairs as well as international relations. What motivates you to change the focus of research (interest, awareness of relevant issues)? How did your involvement in nuclear arms control and disarmament begin?
Dr. Tong Zhao: I was a physics student. I was studying physics when I was an undergraduate. I was fortunate to get enrolled in a class taught by Prof. Li Bin at Tsinghua. He’s one of the top Chinese experts on nuclear policy issues, arms control. He has this class on science, technology, and international security, and I was fortunate to register for this class. To me, a student of physics, he opened a new door for me. Nuclear weapons affect the well-being of humanity more than anything else. The topic is very interesting to me. So, I realized I could make use of my scientific and technical background and study international security issues especially arms control issues. That’s how I was introduced in this field and have been conducting research together with Prof. Li Bin for many years afterwards. I feel lucky for opportunity to study this area.
AH: What kind of unique perspective does the educational background of physics and international relations provide you with in the analysis of nuclear policy, e.g., deterrence, non-proliferation?
TZ: My education in physics provides me with the capacity to conduct the research through scientific methodology. I’m lucky to be equipped with the knowledge in physics, so I was able to conduct some technical analysis about security policy issues. In my research, I deal with nuclear weapons, missile defense, outer space technologies, hypersonic weapons. If one has some technical capacity to understand the technology behind these issues, and even better if one can conduct independent technical analysis about underlying technical issues, that will really help policy researchers to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the issue at hand. One example I would give you is about the dispute among US, China, and South Korea around 2016 over the deployment of a THAAD missile defense in South Korea. There was a lot of public debate about how the radar of the THAAD system could seriously undermine Chinese nuclear deterrence. It was a hypothesis, thrown out to public by someone. But no one deeply analyzed how accurate the hypothesis really is. If one has some technical background, then he/she can conduct independent analysis and really understand how much impact that weapon system could have on Chinese nuclear deterrence. Therefore, he/she wouldn’t be misled by all the wild accusations heard in the media and spread by nonexperts. In the case of many other countries, arms control experts often have developed a very deep understanding about technical issues throughout their career of conducting foreign policy/security research. Security experts need a comprehensive set of knowledge.
AH: China’s 1964 statement on its nuclear test said that “China is developing nuclear weapons not because it believes in their omnipotence nor because it plans to use them”, “China will never at any time or under any circumstances be the first to use nuclear weapons”. India also has a NFU policy. Why do you think China and India have adopted NFU policies? Do you think it’s possible for other nuclear-armed states, especially France, Russia, UK and USA to also adopt such policies?
TZ: One important reason is they wanted to reduce international opposition against their nuclear programs by stressing that China’s nuclear weapons are only to respond to a nuclear attack. That sent a message that China’s nuclear weapons are purely for self-defensive purposes. So, in an international environment where countries who openly pursued nuclear weapons were viewed with suspicion, such a policy would help booster those countries’ images as responsible nuclear powers. It would reduce international concern about these countries using nuclear weapons for coercive purposes. To some extent Chinese experts also believed at that time that it would be unrealistic for China to use nuclear weapons in a conventional conflict anyway. The international opposition against nuclear weapons was very strong. So, it wouldn’t make much sense for China to want its nuclear weapons to play a role in a conventional conflict. It’s also related to how decision-makers perceived the limitations of nuclear weapons at that time.
As for whether other countries could adopt such a policy, the question is more complex that it often appears. The US, Russia, UK, and France all have different reasons why they are resisting adopting NFU policy. We must try to understand their respective concerns: why they have reservations and what do they worry about. People can’t change their mind overnight and start to shift towards NFU. We must discuss and try to address their concerns before we can have a greater chance of encouraging these countries to move towards NFU.