China Raises Concerns About Japan’s Nuclear Plans

– Analysis –
By Han Xaio, Guest Blog / New Voices
Han Xaio (hanxiao19900308@hotmail.com) Earned a Bachelor of Law in International Politics from Shanghai International Studies University in 2012, and an MA in International Relations from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University in 2013

The Sino-Japanese relationship has deteriorated since Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo came into office last year. Japan’s plan for large-scale reprocessing and storage of plutonium is one of the issues that have triggered new concerns in China.

The news that Japan has resisted returning plutonium to the U.S. first appeared in China’s media on Jan.27, but did not attract wide attention until Feb.17, when Hua Chunying, the spokeswoman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, expressed “ignited concerns” during the daily press conference.(1) After that, Hua and Qin Gang, spokesmen of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, commented on this issue on Feb.20, Feb.21, Feb.24, Feb.25, Feb.26, Feb.28 and March.3. At the same time, the state-run media also expressed grave concerns. Xinhua News Agency urged Japan to explain why it “hoards far more nuclear materials than it needs”,(2) and argues that Japan’s nuclear material stockpile challenges the effectiveness of nonproliferation mechanisms, undermining the security of East Asia.(3) Jia Xiudong’s article in People’s Daily emphasizes the negative implications of the stockpile.(4) Si Chu points out that a nuclear-weapons-capable Japan will destroy the regional structure of East Asia, and it will open questions about whether the U.S. is able to curb a nuclear Japan.(5) In addition, two articles in the PLA Daily worry about Japan’s intention to develop nuclear weapons and to loosen the three non-nuclear weapon principles.(6) The intensity of the information campaign suggests the Chinese government’s strong positions and concerns regarding Japan’s nuclear materials.

China has three main concerns. The leading concern is Japan’s intention. From the perspective of technology, Japan insists on using mixed oxide fuel, a combination of plutonium and uranium. This technology was based on the assumptions that uranium mines were scarce so the prices would go up, and the fast-breeder reactor technology which was viewed as practical. However, these popular ideas from the 1950s and 1960s were proved to be wrong, and other countries are now using cheaper and more effective uranium rods. As such, China suspects that Japan maintains this costly technology to justify its reprocessing capability and production of separated plutonium. From the perspective of size, the nuclear materials Japan has exceed the demands for energy. Chinese experts and government spokesmen emphasize that Japan’s stockpile of 331 kg weapons grade plutonium, 44 tons of other plutonium, and 1.2 tons of enriched uranium violates its promise to keep a supply/demand balance of sensitive nuclear materials to IAEA in 1997,(7) and this unbalance becomes increasingly obvious after Japan shut down most of its nuclear power plants after the Fukushima disaster in 2011.

The biggest suspicion comes from the political and policy perspective. Chinese experts worry that Japan’s words are not matched by its deeds. For instance, Eisaku Sato formed a four-pillar nuclear policy on the basis of the three non-nuclear principles in 1971, which included that Japan should rely on the nuclear deterrence of U.S. and Japan should follow the non-nuclear policy when it served Japan’s national security. This caveat maintained Japan’s option to develop its own nuclear weapons when U.S. nuclear umbrella was removed or unreliable.(8) Sato also forged a secret agreement with U.S. in 1960s, allowing U.S.’s warship carrying nuclear weapons into Japan in emergency situations. This secret deal is a violation of non-introduction principle. At the same time, China has concerns that the domestic debate and opinions favoring nuclear armament in Japan imply an intention to get rid of these constraints. On Feb.14, the Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida stated in the Diet that Japan would allow U.S. to introduce nuclear weapons into Japan during a war time.(9) Several former Prime Minister even officially or unofficially expressed their opinions favoring nuclear armament, including Nobusuke Kishi (Shinzo Abe’s maternal grandfather and prime minister from 1957 to 1960), Hayato Ikeda (1960-64), Esaku Sato (1964-72), Yasuo Fukuda (2007-08) and Taro Aso (2008-2009).(10) In that case, China suspects that Japan’s “civil nuclear programs” are a cover for nuclear weapon development, and that these nuclear materials, including plutonium and enriched uranium, work as a strategic deterrence force.

The second concern is the safety. Japan’s nuclear material stockpile experienced a large number of accidents during 1990s, including the Monju Nuclear Power Plant sodium leak and fire accident (1995), Tokaimura nuclear accidents (1997 and 1999) and Shika Criticality Event (1999)(11) – The Shika Criticality Event was covered up by the Hokuriku Electric Power Company for eight years.(12) After 2000, Japan’s nuclear power plants experienced at least four big incidents before the Fukushima Disaster in 2011. Besides, Japan acknowledged to the IAEA in 2003 that Japan “lost” 206 kg plutonium, which could make over 20 nuclear warheads.(13) All these incidents question Japan’s ability to manage the safety of its nuclear material stockpile.

The third concern is its negative implications on non-proliferation. First of all, Japan’s nuclear program will increase the difficulty of dissuading other (potential) nuclear powers. Japan is a nuclear threshold state, and its H-II launch system could be used as delivery system of nuclear warheads. In that case, Japan can manufacture its nuclear weapons quickly. If Japan decides to do so, it will trigger a nuclear arms race in East Asia by motivating North and South Korea to develop their nuclear weapons. It will also strengthen Iran’s argument that U.S. and international community are applying double standards for nuclear capabilities, and undermine the efforts to denuclearize the Middle East. Secondly, the poor management and “lost” plutonium increase the opportunities for non-state actors to obtain nuclear materials for dirty bombs. Terrorists groups such as al-Qaeda and Aum Shinrikyo have reportedly “tried to obtain radioactive materials,”(14) so the large reserve of nuclear materials in Japan creates the risk of proliferation.
Considering the long-lasting rumors about Japan’s nuclear material stockpile, it is worthwhile to speculate why China voices its opposition so fiercely at this time. The first reason is the rivalry between China and Japan. Tensions are accumulating since the boat collision incident near Senkaku Islands in 2010, and there have been no signals of improvement after China shut the door to discussion due to Prime Minister Abe’s conservative actions. After that, China makes use of every chance to establish an image of Abe and Japan’s society as conservative, militarizing and turning rightward. This plutonium issue provides new evidence for China to strengthen its argument.

The second reason is that an exacerbated U.S.-Japan relationship provides a window of opportunity for China and the U.S. to work together on Japan. Chinese experts see that conservative actions and speeches in Abe’s government are disappointing the Obama administration, so Chinese government spokesmen and experts emphasize that a conservative Japan is not only a threat to China, but also to the U.S. The nuclear material issue creates another common interest for both sides to deal with Japan.

The third is to improve its security environment on nuclear issues. China is surrounded by nuclear facilities: four nuclear states (Russia, North Korea, Pakistan and India), two nuclear threshold states (Japan and South Korea) and civilian nuclear programs (Vietnam and Indonesia). The tensions caused by China’s rise create the possibilities that these countries will strengthen or develop their strategic deterrence force. Such actions will trigger proliferation and arm races, and undermine the regional security. Therefore, by showing a strong position on Japan, China manifests its policies and determination to prevent neighboring countries from developing nuclear weapons.

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1- Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China. “Foreign Ministry Spokeperson Hua Chunying’s Regular Press Conference on February 17, 2014.” Feb.17, 2014. Available at http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/xwfw/s2510/2511/t1129283.shtml.
2- Xinhua Writer Tian Dongdong. “Commentary: Tokyo owes world explanation over weapon-grade plutonium stockpile.” Xinhua News Agency. Feb.18,2014. Available at http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/indepth/2014-02/18/c_133125192.htm.
3- Wu Jun, Sun Xiangli. “Japan accumulating nuclear material brings worries to East Asia security.” (日本累积核材料令东亚安全蒙忧) Xinhua Feb.21, 2014. Available at http://news.xinhuanet.com/world/2014-02/21/c_126170211.htm.
4- Jia Xiudong. “Japan does not reassure the world on nuclear problem.”(日本在核问题上让世界不放心) People’s Daily (overseas version, editorial). Feb.21, 2014. Available at http://paper.people.com.cn/rmrbhwb/html/2014-02/21/content_1393874.htm.
5- Si Chu. “If Japan has nuclear weapons, U.S. will have more difficulties to control it.” People’s Daily. Feb.25. Available at http://paper.people.com.cn/rmrbhwb/html/2014-02/25/content_1395279.htm
6- See Zhang Fengpo. “How big is Japan’s ‘nuclear’ ambition?”(日本“核”野心有多大?) PLA Daily. Feb.24. http://www.chinamil.com.cn/jfjbmap/content/2014-02/24/content_68411.htm Chen Hongda, Liao Xian. “Japan’s ‘nuclear stockpile’ is not a simple issue” (日本“囤核”不简单) PLA Daily. Feb.28. Available at http://www.chinamil.com.cn/jfjbmap/content/2014-02/28/content_68848.htm.
7- “Japan does not reassure the world on nuclear problem.”
8- Jonathan Schell (2007). The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger. Macmillan. P.145.
9- “How big is Japan’s ‘nuclear’ ambition?”
10- Zhao Jinglun. “Why is the US asking Japan to return plutonium?” Feb.20. Available at http://www.china.org.cn/opinion/2014-02/20/content_31527790.htm=
11- “Japan’s ‘nuclear stockpile’ is not a simple issue”
12- “Japan’s nuclear power plant experienced serious accidents. It was criticizes for covering the issue for eight years.” (日本核电站发生重大事故 隐瞒八年遭狠批) China News Service. Mar.16, 2007. Available at http://www.chinanews.com/gj/ywdd/news/2007/03-16/892733.shtml.
13- “Japan does not reassure the world on nuclear problem.”
14- Chico Harlam. “Japan has lots of plutonium on hand, little way to use it.” Washington Post. March 27, 2012. Available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/japan-has-lots-of-plutonium-on-hand-little-way-to-use-it/2012/03/27/gIQA7jjyeS_story.html

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