BEIJING – Forget nuclear power. It’s time for the United States to talk to China about mutual vulnerability.
It is clear that Beijing is rapidly expanding its nuclear arsenal. Commercial satellite images suggest China is building more than 100 new intercontinental ballistic missile silos. It was reported last month that it was testing a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile orbiting the world — the first country to do so. America’s top military officer later confirmed that “key event,” and now the Pentagon is warning China could quadruple its arsenal by 2030.
All things considered, concerns about a “strategic breakthrough” by China are understandable. Without the willingness of the United States and China to engage in a clear dialogue, the results could be catastrophic.
Some US experts have argued that China is testing nuclear weapons delivery systems as it seeks ways to circumvent US missile defenses, which Beijing nuclear experts fear their country will be unable to absorb and then retaliate against a US nuclear attack.
While this may be technically correct, it misses the bigger geopolitical picture. The gradual development of US missile defenses cannot explain the relatively abrupt Chinese build-up. Instead, President Xi Jinping’s March order to “accelerate the construction of advanced strategic deterrent systems” most likely reflects his growing concern that China’s inferior nuclear capability could encourage US hostility and undermine Beijing’s rise at a critical time. in competition from major powers.
Chinese officials have expressed a belief that the United States has become more desperate in its attempts to forcibly disrupt China in order to outperform the United States economically (in the short term) and militarily (down the line). They see increasing US pressure on China over human rights, the rule of law, Hong Kong and Taiwan as evidence that Washington is willing to take greater risks to halt China’s rise by delegitimizing the government, destabilizing the country and promoting national unification. to block.
I spent a brief stint as a local official in Beijing on foreign affairs more than a decade ago and spent the past seven years working as an independent nuclear policy expert. It is clear to me that Beijing’s nuclear buildup is ultimately an attempt to force Washington to drop the alleged strategic attack and accept a relationship of “mutual vulnerability” – in which neither country would have the ability or will to deal with threaten nuclear war without risking its own destruction.
The United States has been reluctant to accommodate China’s desire for such a relationship, adding to Beijing’s concerns about the US pursuit of “absolute security.” To prevent its nuclear competition from escalating, it is time for the United States to recognize the actual existence of mutual nuclear vulnerability with China.
This may sound like a bold move, but we must remember that there is a precedent for it. And the stark alternative requires the effort.
The 1985 Reagan-Gorbachev joint statement that “a nuclear war cannot be won and should never be fought” helped lower the temperature of the Cold War. A similar mutual commitment of US and Chinese leaders would help defuse the current nascent arms race.
It would help stabilize the world’s most important bilateral relationship. It would also reassure Beijing that the United States was willing to accept peaceful coexistence and refrain from challenging China’s core interests. (Within reason.)
Reducing the threat of a nuclear holocaust could also provide opportunities for substantial arms control negotiations — for example, limiting the development of new missile systems and counter-space weapons — plus help curb bilateral military competition in general. With greater confidence in the future tenor of US-China relations, Beijing could be more proactive in working with Washington on other bilateral issues, such as trade disputes and cyber-attacks, or pressing global challenges such as the Covid-19 pandemic.
Of course, there are risks that it could backfire.
China could conclude that its nuclear build-up had acted as a pressure tactic and so further military build-up could demand even greater concessions from the US.
US allies in East Asia, in particular, have understandable concerns that China could increase its military aggression to a conventional level once the risk of nuclear escalation is off the table.
And there’s always a chance that China will interpret US recognition of mutual vulnerability as a sign that Washington is willing to advance Beijing’s efforts to advance its alleged “core interests,” such as occupying disputed territory in the South China Sea or achieving unification. with Taiwan, to be overlooked.
Similarly, China could expect the United States to stop proclaiming human rights and internal oppression by claiming the criticism threatens the security of the Beijing regime. This could undermine President Biden’s efforts to uphold universal values in diplomacy.
But recognizing mutual vulnerability does not have to be a blind leap. There are measures the United States can take to mitigate these risks.
America should invite China to talk candidly about mutual vulnerability, using the dialogue as an opportunity to get clarification and mutual commitments to create the necessary conditions for the formal acceptance of mutual vulnerability.
China should present a mutually acceptable framework on its specific expectations of a mutual fragility relationship. That should involve detailing what constitutes a real breach of China’s core interests versus a high-level political disagreement — for example, not treating normal exchanges on human rights issues as attempts to overthrow the regime — and what reassurances Beijing could offer to allay US concerns about China’s regional military behavior and plans regarding Taiwan. One option could be to discuss military confidence-building measures with US allies in East Asia or to forgo military resolution of territorial disputes.
China probably won’t want to bend — but for it to work, it needs to be flexible. It is also in China’s interest to understand that, just as the mutual vulnerability between the US and Russia did not protect Moscow from US criticism of human rights, the mutual vulnerability between the US and China would probably not force Washington to “respect” the way Chinese officials wish. And it wouldn’t be because China’s nuclear arsenal is too small. On the contrary, China’s public rejection of a rules-based international order probably makes US officials question the wisdom of accepting mutual vulnerability more than anything else.
But they should. Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi, who are scheduled to meet at a close-knit virtual summit, will discuss ways to “responsibly manage competition” between their nations and “ways of working together” where interests align. lying down.
The sooner the two sides realize that the shared understanding of pleasurable behavior—not one-sided nuclear buildup—will stabilize their relationship, the sooner they can end this insanely wasteful and dangerous nuclear escalation and better use resources to address pressing challenges such as the pandemic and climate change.
Recognizing mutual nuclear vulnerability is a useful and necessary step to move the bilateral relationship on a much more constructive path.