The US is worried about China’s rapidly expanding nuclear arsenal, and it should be. However, arms control negotiations with Beijing might not be the best path forward.
Last month’s China Military Power report, released by the Pentagon, shocked many observers with claims of China’s rapidly expanding nuclear arsenal. The Pentagon believes that Beijing is likely to have 700 deliverable nuclear warheads as early as 2027, and 1,000 by 2030. The US Department of Defense said that this expansion exceeded “the pace and the size that we projected in the 2020 China Military Power report.”
The department said that Beijing might have established a nuclear triad — the ability to launch nuclear missiles from the air, land and sea.
“We’re witnessing the largest shifts in geostrategic power that the world has ever experienced,” US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley said. “We need to act with urgency to develop capabilities across all domains … to address this evolving global landscape. We have to act now.”
The Pentagon’s sense of urgency, while belated, should be welcomed. The US must prioritize strategic competition with China on all levels, but Washington must be cautious in engaging China in negotiations over its burgeoning nuclear power.
Some have said that China’s advanced nuclear arsenal should spur the US and China to the negotiating table. The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), for example, said that “Washington is pushing for arms-control talks with” Beijing.
Indeed, the day after last month’s virtual meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) and US President Joe Biden, the White House announced that the two had agreed to explore talks on arms control.
Yet US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan later said that the possibility of such talks is tentative. Should they occur, an anonymous Chinese official told the WSJ, they would likely be a “Track II dialogue” consisting of academics and non-government analysts.
The newspaper said that “a Track II format would represent a step back from previous nuclear-arms meetings between the two countries.”
That is revealing.
There is little reason to think that Beijing is interested in, let alone committed to, reducing its nuclear arsenal.
For their part, the Chinese statement on the meeting between Biden and Xi did not mention the possibility of such a dialogue, and it was China that suggested a Track II format. China was also reportedly slow in scheduling talks during unofficial arms control talks between Beijing and Washington that occurred from 2004 and 2019. China even sent delegates that were too low-ranking.
As the WSJ said in 2013, China has consistently “resisted US attempts to engage the Chinese military in a sustained high-level nuclear-security dialogue.”
However, the greatest illustration of Beijing’s seriousness can be discerned from the fact that it was clearly planning a massive nuclear arms buildup while engaged in previous low-level talks.
It is unlikely that China would spend such considerable sums on weapons only to negotiate in good faith for their reduction and removal. Judging by its military buildup and increased saber rattling over Taiwan, China clearly has plans — and they do not involve arms reductions.
Nor has China been forthcoming. Chinese officials have failed to explain the reasons behind the massive military expansion. When it was revealed in October that China had conducted a nuclear-capable hypersonic vehicle in August, Beijing lied about it.
History provides a warning about arms control agreements with authoritarian regimes.
While widely hailed at the time and since, many of the arms control agreements reached between the US and the Soviet Union were routinely violated by Moscow. As one US Department of State study said last year: “Compliance by the Soviet Union, and then Russia, with its arms control agreements and commitments has frequently been problematic … in which fidelity to promises took a back seat to the pursuit of competitive advantage vis-a-vis the United States.”
There is even evidence that aid given to Russia to help dismantle some of its weaponry was used by Moscow to refurbish arms.
None of this means that arms control talks should not take place, but it does mean that skepticism by the US is not just warranted — it is required.
Sean Durns is a Washington-based foreign affairs analyst.
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