Youth Fusion interviews Dr Tong Zhao

AH: What can students in relevant majors and other young academics learn from your personal experiences (change of academic focus, combined educational background)? 

TZ: I always believe that as scholars we need to be open-minded; we need to really understand how decision-making in other countries works; and we need to develop nuanced expertise, including history, technical aspects, domestic policy, foreign policy, etc. Nuclear is a small and narrow field on the surface, but if you dive into it, it’s a very broad field and there’s always much more to learn. All this knowledge is public domain information. People can acquire this knowledge as long as they spend time looking for it and doing research. It’s not like you have to get access to classified information. No, there is no need to get anywhere close to classified information. There is more than enough knowledge people can learn through publicly available information. This field is not as sensitive as it appears and people who work in this field would understand that all the interesting information already exists in the public domain. 

I do believe one of the key obstacles for global efforts to promote arms control, cooperative security, and disarmament is that people don’t understand each other—they don’t have nuanced understanding about each other’s thinking. For example, once there was a senior colonel of the PLA who worked as a senior researcher in the Second Artillery. He claims he knows a lot about Chinese nuclear decision-making and deliberation. He once was talking about his experience on TV, and he told the audience that he once received an invitation letter from a foreign university professor who invited him to an international policy conference. In the invitation letter it said something like: senior colonel XYZ, if you are willing to accept this invitation, I would be happy to let my secretary Ms. ABC to arrange your accommodation and travels, etc. This PLA senior colonel, after reading this text, seemed to believe that this foreign university professor was hinting at some sexual favour for him to come to this international conference and divulge national secrets, simply because the letter said something like I would have my secretary Ms. ABC to arrange your hotel accommodation and travels. He believed that this was a honey trap, and he appeared very proud about his integrity and his capacity to resist this attempt to corrupt him. All the audience also gave him a big applause.

But for people who have more experience in conducting international exchange, it’s very normal to them. This is how international meetings were arranged. The professors would never arrange your hotel themselves. It’s always done by a secretary. There is nothing particular about this invitation letter. I think that’s the problem. Many influential Chinese military strategists, because their work is very important, they’re much protected from the outside world. They don’t travel much internationally and they don’t often talk to foreign people. They work in a very enclosed environment. I think there’s a problem with that because you don’t really develop nuanced understanding about how the other’s system works. Therefore, you can easily develop misunderstandings.

I believe for young people, if you are dedicated to make a positive contribution to this field and to international peace and stability, the first thing to do is to make sure you are real experts and professional specialists; develop real expertise and equip yourself with sufficient knowledge. In this process, always keep an open mind. 

In academic discussions, Chinese experts often have debates about the US deployment of missile defense systems in Asia-Pacific. Many Chinese experts firmly and genuinely believe that the US has a long-term strategy to gradually deploy missile defense systems around China, so that eventually they would completely neutralize China’s capacity to conduct a nuclear second strike. Personally, I don’t agree with this assessment. I lived and studied in the US for 6 years. I was able to attend policy meetings, workshops, academic exchanges, and I was able to see with my own eyes those debates among US officials and policy makers. They have very different views about what the US missile defense policy should be. They argue against each other and their views clash with each other. Sometimes, their views are so opposed that their personal relations were ruined. So you can see there’s a real internal debate. And if you observe in close distance, you will know there’s no way that the US government has a coherent long-term strategy for the next few decades, as their internal dispute is so serious that they want to kill each other. So, I think the reason why there’s so deep suspicion here in China is very much that people haven’t developed nuanced understandings. That’s the role that scholars should and can play. All this is in public, and you just need to read them and learn them. There’s no obstacle to learn. I think that’s good news for young experts: if you want to try, there’re always opportunities to learn. You can easily become an expert over time. After achieving that, experts would be in a much better position to make informed and positive contributions to policy debates. 

AH: What recommendations would you give to Chinese young academics who try to find ways of combining their research interests with their disarmament work? 

TZ: The nuclear field sounds very small and narrow but in fact it’s very broad and deep. I think young scholars can pick a niche area/niche topic that interests them and then try to understand everything about this very small topic. That will gradually help broaden their perspective and lead them to other related areas or topics. This is at least how it happened to me. I became interested in a small topic and then in the process of doing research I was exposed to even more topics of interests. So gradually you become more and more familiar with this field. There are many great educational programs that are available today, if you are determined to pursue a formal training in this field. There are many opportunities, short-term programs, long-term programs, master programs, PhD programs, etc. Young scholars should make full use of these resources. 

I think it’s also important to note that nuclear policy is never an isolated topic. The reason that one country has this or that policy on disarmament, for example, is always closely related to its overall foreign policy or even domestic policy issues. It would benefit young experts to do two things simultaneously. One is to develop very specialized expertise, in the specific research area; the other is to develop broad understandings about the foreign policy and domestic policy of the country under research. There are often strong connections between the two. You have to understand the one in order to understand the other. One challenge for young experts today is that they don’t necessarily pay much attention to the overall picture, for instance, what’s happening in China in general, what’s China’s overall foreign policy approach? They are sometimes only interested in one specific area. That’s fine in some cases, but in terms of disarmament policy and nuclear policy, it’s all very much connected to other issues. So, I think these two levels of efforts are necessary at the same time.