by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: New York Times

A BIZARRE IDEA proposed by China as of late has been that of building floating nuclear reactors around South China Seas islands which it is currently disputing territorially with Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, and other regional powers. In truth, the idea is not as grandiose as it sounds. While artificial island building has been something that China has resorted to in order to territorial claims over these islands, most plans of these “floating nuclear reactors” would be closer to nuclear-powered vessels, rather than as large in scale as artificial islands. Another proposal has been powering traditional oiling platforms using such nuclear-powered vessels, a decidedly more modest one.

But what China possibly intends is for such “floating nuclear reactors” in the South China Seas to serve as a nuclear deterrent to possible attacks on South China Seas islands that it claims as its own. What is unique about this is that nuclear deterrent usually consists of a country warding off possible attack with the threat of attacking aggressors with nuclear countries. Countries do not typically use nuclear reactors as nuclear deterrents, in the sense that fear of causing a nuclear disaster is used as a shield to prevent attack.

Ship-based nuclear reactor mock-up. Photo credit: China Nuclear Group

It has to be remembered that nuclear-powered military vessels already do exist, as in nuclear submarines or nuclear-powered aircraft carriers operated by the United States, and fear of nuclear disaster caused by destroying these vessels is usually not viewed as a deterrent in military strategic calculus. Yet nuclear submarines or nuclear-powered aircraft usually are not positioned in territories which are highly desired by a number of nation-state as a form of deterrent.

China’s use of floating nuclear reactors, however, would be ironic in this light. A nuclear disaster would render South China Seas islands as dangerous inaccessible to China as to other countries also pursuing territorial claims over such islands. China’s attitude, then, could be summarized as resembling a scorched earth strategy. If China cannot have these islands, then nobody should be allowed to have them.

Like many other countries in the region, China has an active environmental and anti-nuclear movement. A radiation disaster in South China Seas islands, caused by China’s attempts to use nuclear reactors as a deterrent to maintain territorial claims, would no doubt affect Chinese citizens.

In general, it has to be remembered that issues of radiation contamination following nuclear disasters or air and water pollution are international causes which defy the conflicts which may exist between nation-states, seeing as pollution knows no boundaries. In fact, it is in the very nature of the environmental movement to be transnational, seeing as if one country addresses its issues of pollution within its own borders, if its neighbor does not also address these issues, that country will continue to be affected.

This is what has allowed for collaboration between environmental organizations and NGOs from Asia Pacific countries otherwise politically at odds with each other, such as many of the claimants to South China Seas islands. China has taken steps to crack down on international collaboration between NGOs in recent times, fearing that such collaboration will provide foreign agents a means to undermine the Chinese government from within.

Chinese oil platform. Photo credit: SCMP

Yet such actions evidence the hypocrisy of the Chinese state, seeing as the Chinese state seems to fear political threats or what it views as its territorial sovereignty being undermine more than it cares about addressing environmental issues facing both the Chinese people and other peoples of the Asia Pacific region.

It remains to be seen whether the notion of floating nuclear reactors is practical and workable, or simply one of the many technological pipe dreams that Chinese propaganda organs overinflate in order to stun the rest of the world into shock and awe, no matter how impractical this is in actuality. Broadly speaking, although China has done a good job of grandstanding its power on the international, China’s naval capacities leave much to be desired. China, for example, only has one aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, a former Soviet vessel originally slated to be turned into a floating casino. Although China is building a second carrier, this still does not compare to the ten aircraft carriers officially operated by America or the total of nineteen American ships which be classified as aircraft carriers.

Nonetheless, the fact that China has at least put forward the notion of floating nuclear reactors as a nuclear deterrent is out there, and this evidences something about the mentality of the Chinese party-state in terms of how it evaluates environmental dangers versus military grandstanding and the need to defend its territorial sovereignty. The values of the Chinese party-state should be clear from this.