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  • The SAIS Review Interviews Fiona Cunningham
  • Fiona Cunningham (bio)

November 22, 2019

SAIS Review:

Would you be able to provide us a brief summary of your background—as it relates to China and nuclear weapons—and how you got interested in the topic?

Dr. Fiona Cunningham:

I started researching China and nuclear weapons issues a long time ago when I was a research associate for the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, Australia. At the time, President Obama had just given a speech expressing his desire for a nuclear-weapon-free world to occur at some point, which triggered a lot of interest, obviously, in the Australian government, the Japanese government, and the think tank community about how that could be achieved, particularly in Asia. I was involved in a project that was looking at the future of extended nuclear deterrence—or extended deterrence I should say—as one moved towards a world with a lesser role for, and eventually no, nuclear weapons. Over the course of the two years that that project ran, it became quite obvious that the conventional military balance in Asia was changing in ways that was going to make that a very difficult objective. Through the course of this project, I started to look at questions about the China and its nuclear weapons program—what its ambitions were in the region, what its nuclear weapons were good for, how its nuclear strategy worked—and realized that there were some unanswered questions I thought needed more interrogation, specifically about what China wanted, the nature of nuclear deterrence and nuclear weapons, and what nuclear weapons could provide to different countries. It was this line of inquiry that guided my entrance into [End Page 181] graduate school. Ultimately, I ended up looking at a broader range of issues about China and strategic deterrence than what I started with.

SAIS Review:

In researching Chinese nuclear weapons, did you have any trouble conducting your research in China? What was it like doing your research in China? Were Chinese officials forthcoming?

Dr. Fiona Cunningham:

It's obviously a sensitive topic and it isn't an easy one to research. On the one hand, because nuclear weapons are one of those capabilities from which statesmen derive much more utility if they aren't used, China wants its nuclear deterrence policies to be understood. On the other hand, probing at some of the more difficult and sensitive issues can get a little tricky. My sources have consisted of interviews with members of China's expert community who weren't actually serving officials and doing a lot of documentary research with materials that are available in both the United States and in China that I was able to collect to try to understand the decision-making and the mentality behind China's approach to nuclear weapons versus other military tools of strategic leverage, including its space weapons, cyber capabilities, and conventional missile program.

I will say that there is an expert community in China that is much better developed on the nuclear side than on the other tools, so it is much easier, in many ways, to research nuclear weapons than the other tools. But there are, of course, sensitive parts, and there are questions that can't be asked in interviews that have to be answered in other ways. But I would say just generally speaking, that China's expert community welcomes the opportunity to exchange and to understand what Western analysts find surprising and concerning about China's nuclear strategy, as well as the opportunity to help China's policies to be a little better understood abroad.

SAIS Review:

The American nuclear process—how it launches nuclear weapons with the president and the "nuclear football," the American nuclear apparatus—is fairly well known by the public and is relatively easy to research and learn about. What is the process in China, in terms of how they launch nuclear weapons? What is the political and military structure governing a Chinese nuclear weapons launch? How many checks and balances are there? And is there a debate about whether these kinds of processes should be reformed?

Dr. Fiona Cunningham:

These are really hard topics...


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pp. 181-191
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