Nuclear technology transfer and nuclear weapons between China and the Soviet Union, and what that could mean for Southeast Asian Nuclear Studies – brief article review

After a hiatus of more than two months due to the call of responsibilities from a new job and deadlines, recent developments suggest to me that it is worth exploring the deep relations between nuclear weapons and nuclear technology transfer, especially the effects of these on Southeast Asia. This will be the first in a series of posts that will move between historical and contemporary contexts while navigating between the technologically known and the blackbox. At the same time, I will attempt to restart the weekly roundups on nuclear-related news that are directly or less directly related to Southeast Asia.

In the process of considering how certain nations were able to develop their nuclear capability more so than others, despite being recipients of nuclear knowledge transfer as the baseline for development as opposed to having developed the technology indigenously from scratch, factors ranging from national political prerogatives, geopolitical security, and the personalities involved must be considered. This question emerges over the course of revising an article and reading the Atoms for Peace: An Analysis After Thirty Years coedited by Joseph F. Pilat, Robert E. Pendley and Charles K Ebinger that saw contributions from the horse’s mouth among those who were present during the formative period of the Atoms for Peace program, but this volume will be given due consideration in another post.  Just yesterday, I finally got around to reading Liu Yanqiong and Liu Jifeng’s paper “Analysis of Soviet Technology Transfer in the Development of China’s Nuclear Weapons” published in the journal Comparative Technology Transfer and Society, that weaved in the political history of Central and East Asia, international relations, and the political-economy of nuclear technology transfer in its critical narration of technology transfer as S&T diplomacy between China and Soviet Union. Although less geared towards a consideration of S&T diplomacy from a history of science and technology perspective, the paper still provides excellent insight into the development of a technology transfer program behind the iron curtain that became the political counter to rising US hegemony – the lack of direct information flow from the western hemisphere did not stop the Mao Zedong regime from acquiring and building up expertise in nuclear STE – the paper considers the specifics of such informational flows and development in nuclear knowledge during the Mao and Khruschev’s regime.

While the Atoms for Peace program appears to be about facilitating nuclear technology transfer for the NPTs, the development of the atomic nuclear research centre in Beijing was part of a long-term strategic plan of facilitating nuclear weapons research and building alliance among the eastern bloc, though that intention was not without its problems. One could infer from the paper that the problems are a result of the Soviet’s mercurial relationship with the US and its own sense of superiority over the Chinese. In “Arms Control Connection” by Henry Sokolski in the Atoms for Peace volume, discusses how the combination of atomic weapons built-up and military posture, together with the development of the IAEA, were set up as pressure on the Soviets to persuade them to concede to a peace offering from the Western hemisphere led by the US. The ongoing negotiation throughout the first half of 1954 coincided with the time when the Soviets were also calibrating and recalibrating their dealings with the Chinese. On a note that may or may not be unrelated, given the import of the Atoms for Peace program in bringing nuclear expertise to Southeast Asia, and the importance of this region to the US’s plan of controlling the incursion of socialism that were already spreading within the hinterlands of the region through China, recently declassified colonial official reports on the movement of Chinese nationals and naturalized Chinese Malayans between the Chinese universities/colleges and the Chinese-sponsored schools in Malaya in the bodies of school-teachers represented, for the British, a trade in ideological and knowledge transfer beyond the latter’s control, with potentially destabilizing effects. Therefore, one could conjecture that the gesture towards Soviet was also a way of controlling China, the latter being an intractable enemy and a worrying one due to the influence it was exerting on parts of Asia emerging out of colonialism, for reasons that will not be discussed here.

Nevertheless, the Soviets obviously had an agenda not completely controlled by how it desired to be perceived by its rival across the Atlantic. Collaborative infrastructure building went on between the Soviets and the Chinese, such as the construction of the railroad between Aktogay (near to Kazakhstan) and Lanzhou in China, the latter having significance as an ancient trade route and long political history I am not capable of discussing. Although modern Chinese universities were already well-established, its scientific R&D were still backwards compared to that of the Soviets, especially as new political policies did not welcome exchanges between domestic Chinese scientists and foreign scientists who were not part of the eastern bloc, therefore impeding the rate of knowledge flows circulating from abroad; however, there were Chinese nationals working in scientific institutions in the US who would provide the necessary know-how and tech acquisition expertise, which the authors of the paper discussed. Liu & Liu attempted to track the contents of the knowledge transferred from the Soviets to the Chinese through analyses of the agreements covering nuclear science research, the nuclear industry, and the development of nuclear weapons. The authors speculated that the Chinese would have developed its own nuclear capability eventually, even without intervention from the Soviets, except that it might have taken 1.5 years longer – the estimation came from considering the period of the tech and knowledge transfer, when the transfer was halted, and how long it took the Chinese thereafter when going its own way. One might wonder how this might had also been had the Atoms of Peace program not been pursued – what would the landscape of knowledge transfer or indigenous knowledge development of nuclear technologies would have looked like.

As with all studies on early nuclear tech transfer, the focus is on the assembling of research reactors (including where the reactor parts and fuel supply would have come from); the accelerators needed for the production of high-energy fission were also being acquired and built. If not merely for the sake of ideological comradeship, the Soviet’s interest in China was also due to the latter’s uranium store, which also led to the setting up of prospecting laboratories in China by the mid 1950s. Despite resource limitations, that China was able to develop its technical skilled labour to a high level to compensate for other inadequacies is worthy of study, as are consideration into the limitations of producing such expertise. This could then be developed to provide a comparative perspective to more recent developments in Southeast Asia. One could also consider the politics of Soviet nuclear knowledge transfer to China in contradistinction to that of the US to Southeast Asia, although the comparisons could not be direct due to their different levels of political commitment, power relations, geopolitical importance for fulfilling the agenda of the knowledge donor, and measure of distance in cultural/ideological backdrops. Nonetheless, such a work is inspiring research into Soviet’s techno-political relationship to Southeast Asia, since we now know the content of knowledge that the Soviets had allowed out, even if with strict control, including the content of nuclear weapons knowledge that might have transferred to Myanmar decades later. If there is anything which this article could tell us, it would be the degree of tech transfer of nuclear science knowledge/ nuclear scientific development necessary for setting the stage for the development of nuclear weapons, especially in expertise grooming.




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