Prevention of an N-arms race between the United States and China
Prevention of an N-arms race between the United States and China

Prevention of an N-arms race between the United States and China

China’s recently reported test of a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile in July and August, although officially rejected, threatens to undermine strategic nuclear stability. They have already contributed to the escalating tensions between the United States and China.

Throughout the summer, satellite images revealed that China was in the process of building as many as 300 new missile silos in its northern deserts. Some of these silos are likely to be used only as empty decoys. But if even half of them become sites of nuclear-armed missiles, it would represent an almost tripling of China’s nuclear arsenal.

Following these revelations, the US State Department warned in October that “The rapid build-up of China’s nuclear arsenal is worrying and threatens international security and stability. … We urge Beijing to engage in practical measures to reduce the risk of destabilizing arms races and conflict.” But China’s ambassador for disarmament, Li Song, fired back the same day, describing the US new pact with Australia and the United Kingdom (AUKUS) to help Australia acquire nuclear submarines as a “textbook case” on nuclear proliferation that spurs a regional arms race.

To date, China has consistently refused to enter into negotiations with the United States on strategic arms control (whether bilateral or trilateral with Russia) until the United States makes significant reductions in its own arsenal of nearly 4,000 active warheads. Yet China, in pursuit of its own rapid expansion, has begun to undermine this argument, making the need for negotiations increasingly urgent.

In September 2021, the former Chinese Ambassador for Disarmament Affairs, Sha Zukang, became the latest prominent voice in Beijing, claiming that China’s non-aggression nuclear policy “is no longer appropriate”. The “strategic pressure on China is intensifying,” Sha noted, “as [the US] has built new military alliances, and as it increases its military presence in our neighborhood. “The policy should no longer apply, he said,” unless China and the United States negotiate a mutual understanding of no first use of nuclear weapons, or unless the United States ceases to take action. any negative measures that undermine the effectiveness of China’s strategic forces. “

Shas intervention is serious. Chinese officials do not randomly engage in the Chinese public debate. They are empowered to do so, especially with regard to such an existential issue as nuclear safety.

A new Chinese nuclear stance would represent a destabilizing shift. But Sha’s comments also serve to highlight the root of the current standoff. The United States must clearly understand the Chinese Government’s deeply apprehensive view of its own nuclear and broader geostrategic vulnerability. Chinese President Xi Jinping has repeatedly characterized the situation as a decades-long “struggle” against a power determined to limit China’s progress in any way.

But the same insight also provides the key to breaking the current stalemate. China’s strategic culture is deeply realistic. Moral appeals to China to do the right thing will not bring American traders anywhere; but cold, pragmatic arguments can.

The deeper rivalry between the United States and China could in itself create an incentive for Beijing to come to the table, provided the United States can convince the Chinese that they would be less vulnerable with a arms control deal than without one.

How can this be done? China may not be willing to jump into major negotiations right away, but it is clearly concerned about US capabilities and may therefore be willing to start with less bilateral negotiations on strategic transparency and crisis management. A series of “Track-1.5” dialogues – unofficial talks between officials – focusing on such issues were suspended in 2019. Relaunch of this or a similar process, possibly after the Biden administration has completed its ongoing review of nuclear position at the beginning of 2022, would be a good first step.

Next could come modest confidence-building measures designed to increase predictability, reciprocity and trust. These could include a ballistic missile test notification system, joint technical assessments of missile defense capabilities and, ultimately, even Chinese participation in the monitoring regime of the new START Treaty.

In order to make real progress, the developments that most disturb China – including US missile defense, the development of low-performance tactical nuclear weapons, hypersonic conventional precision attack systems, and the US ambiguity about its nuclear stance – will also need to be discussed. And the same goes for the United States’ concerns about China’s rapid modernization of its nuclear arsenal and its ambiguity about moving to a less restrictive “launch of warning” doctrine.

While it would in itself be valuable to start with bilateral efforts, the ultimate goal should be to pursue a multilateral arms control agreement that at least includes Russia.

The ultimate goal would then be to agree on force constraints at the lowest possible level for each country, thereby preventing the slide towards an Indo-Pacific nuclear arms race.

Even in the depths of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union managed to establish real security measures and borders for nuclear weapons. They had good reasons to cooperate. Both had experienced the shocking weeks of the Cuba crisis, in which the world came dangerously close to a catastrophe. Today, the United States and China – and the world – cannot afford to wait for another such crisis before taking similar measures. © 2021 / PROJECT SYNDICATE (

Kevin Rudd is the former Prime Minister of Australia and President of the Asia Society

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