opinion | Lessons from the Cold War on how to avoid an arms race between the US and China – Community News
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opinion | Lessons from the Cold War on how to avoid an arms race between the US and China

The United States and Russia have been working together since Cuba to avert new nuclear crises. The world’s first nuclear arms race offers two important lessons for avoiding a second: First, the US and China must avoid limiting new technologies and focus on ensuring mutual nuclear predictability. Second, they need to be prepared for a long road ahead, as it is not easy to take concerted action to promote that predictability. Fortunately, both countries have more experience with nuclear diplomacy than the US and the USSR, which gives hope.

Realistically, both the US and China are likely to circumvent any restrictions on new nuclear technologies. The US and USSR learned this the hard way in the 1970s, when the first Strategic Arms Control Agreement, SALT I, froze the deployment of new strategic intercontinental missiles. The USSR got out of that freeze by deploying additional warheads on top of ground-launched missiles — multiple, independently targetable reentry vehicles, or MIRVs. This was contrary to the spirit of SALT I, if not the letter, and undermined strategic stability by giving Russia a head start.

Although many in the United States were angry, the US soon had its own MIRVs deployed on high-precision submarine-launched missiles. Now, in theory, the United States had the upper hand in the nuclear stability contest because its missiles, hidden underwater, could survive and retaliate against a surprise Russian attack.

It became clear that limiting technologies, such as new types of missiles, would be difficult. Instead, the US and USSR came to the idea that weapons themselves should be controlled and reduced. Hardware items can be controlled or destroyed during a weapon reduction process, but the technology that goes into them cannot.

But as the two sides have learned, “managing” weapons can mean many different things in a gun control negotiation. It can be operational, such as limiting where weapons are deployed, or numerical, such as putting caps on missiles and warheads. It also has an element of verification; indeed, the Russian word for verification is “Контроль” – ensuring that the agreed measures are implemented.

Which brings us to the second lesson for the process of strategic stability between the US and China: patience will be key. Control and reduction may sound simple, but it took the US and USSR more than a decade to agree to that course. Verification with on-site inspection has always been difficult for the Soviet Union, which did not like foreign inspectors poking around sensitive sites for nuclear deployment. Budget cuts, while simpler, were not very popular with the Russian General Staff or the Pentagon. It wasn’t until President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev met in Reykjavík in 1986 that our two countries began to take the reduction of nuclear weapons seriously.

When US-China talks get underway, US negotiators should be ready to hear some long-standing complaints about how the US is undermining strategic stability, through missile defenses that undermine China’s nuclear deterrent or high-precision conventional missiles deployed in be able to achieve Chinese nuclear targets. The US, in turn, will want to hear clear explanations for China’s multifaceted nuclear developments.

Both sides will have to deal with these complaints, but luckily it won’t take the years of effort it took during the Cold War. The United States has enough experience with nuclear diplomacy, including with the Chinese, to avoid that outcome. After all, the Obama administration has pursued multiple strategic stability tracks with Beijing, including at the military-to-military level.

China, while a relative newcomer as a nuclear competitor, also brings valuable experience as it has participated in talks with the US and international regimes such as the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban. The nuclear-weapon states under the NPT — France, the United Kingdom, the United States, China and Russia — meet regularly to discuss stability; they will do that again in Paris at the beginning of December. In other words, it should be possible to make faster progress with China than before with the Soviet Union.

Russia can help by conducting its own stability talks with the Chinese. It will not be possible, nor particularly desirable, to put all three countries in one room: America’s separate nuclear agenda with Russia is much more advanced, despite the strained relations between the countries, with a working group already underway to pursue a sequel. on treaty to New START.

The relationship with China is not as mature, and the Chinese do not have the nuclear parity that the US and Russia have. We should therefore not expect them to jump into nuclear reduction negotiations. US officials reportedly acknowledged that fact after the Biden-Xi meeting, saying formal arms control negotiations are not a realistic goal “because Beijing would not accept limits on its nuclear arsenal unless it moved closer to parity with Washington and Moscow. “

Instead, based on my conversations with Chinese experts, I expect a broad stability agenda, including discussions on traditional nuclear strategy, doctrine and stance. Just as the 1970s and 1980s brought greater clarity to the USSR’s nuclear intentions, we need to understand China’s goals for its nuclear modernization — while also being willing to talk candidly about our own. Our main objective must be to prevent an arms race.

One possibility for progressing faster than the US and the USSR may be to share information and eliminate, rather than limit, misconceptions about new technology. For example, the two sides could discuss the threat of cyber-attacks on nuclear command and control; modernization of missile defence; or the implications of hypersonic missiles. China may also be willing to intervene early in areas where it has more equivalent capabilities, such as space-based assets. Progress in this area would be especially timely, given China’s FOBS test over the summer and Russia’s anti-satellite test last week.

Of course, we don’t know yet how seriously the Chinese will take this process. In the past, the stability dialogues with Beijing sometimes seemed like all talk and to no avail. If the Chinese are serious, both countries can gain in predictability and security. If not, the US has more reason to see malicious intent in its actions.

While China’s nuclear push is worrisome, there is no need to panic. The United States has more than 4,000 nuclear warheads; even if the Chinese quadruple their power, they will only have a quarter of it. We have time to understand each other’s nuclear strategy and force stance.

Ultimately, the most important development is that Biden and Xi have taken responsibility for the strategic stability dialogue. That will motivate their governments to end the current nuclear lull between Washington and Beijing. If we manage to get a good discussion going and help the Russians, we’ll be on our way to avoiding another arms race. Fortunately, history shows that this outcome is eminently possible, if we work hard at it.

About the author

Rakesh

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