Nuclear Weapons and U.S.-China Relations: A Way Forward

By John Warden

China and the United States must find a way forward to nullify any risk of nuclear war. Source: DOD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo.

Maintaining stability in U.S.-China nuclear relations will be critical to the interests of the United States and those of its allies and partners in the coming years. Nuclear weapons are by no means central to the U.S.-China relationship, but maintaining stability is nonetheless essential because of the catastrophic consequences of a nuclear war. At present, nuclear dynamics between the United States and China are relatively stable, but the changing conventional military balance in the region, the current sources of tension and possible conflict, and the expansion of the quality and quantity of China’s nuclear arsenal raise serious questions.

The United States should, therefore, work to enhance nuclear stability with China through a series of bilateral and unilateral policy and posture adjustments that would enhance crisis stability and arms race stability, while also laying the groundwork for future bilateral and multilateral nuclear engagement.

That is the conclusion of a report released by the CSIS Project on Nuclear Issues (PONI). The report, Nuclear Weapons and U.S.-China Relations: A Way Forward, is the product of a working group that was co-chaired by Elbridge A. Colby, a principle analyst at the Center for Naval Analysis (CNA), and Abraham M. Denmark, a vice president at the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR). The working group consisted of 14 U.S.-based academics, analysts, and former government officials that met regularly for one year to explore the various issues policy options and reach a consensus on recommendations.

Because the current nuclear dynamics are broadly stabilizing and should be sustained, the Working Group recommends a robust but realistically tailored program of engagement and dialogue on nuclear issues that reinforce China’s nuclear restraint and advance U.S. interests in stability, dialogue, transparency, and progress toward arms control. In concert with efforts to improve dialogue, the United States should adopt three policy initiatives.

First, the United States should plan, procure, and posture its forces and base its own policy on the assumption that an attempted U.S. disarming first strike, combined with U.S. missile defenses, could not reliably deny a Chinese nuclear retaliatory strike on the United States. This recommendation is based on a hard-nosed judgment that the United States cannot realistically hope to deny China’s second-strike capability and a failed attempt to build capabilities to do so would be costly and counterproductive. Members of the Working Group differ, however, on whether the United States should explicitly and publicly acknowledge a state of “mutual vulnerability” with China. Some believe that such a step would have positive stabilizing benefits on China’s nuclear policy, while others fear that public and formal acknowledgment will achieve little more than raising questions from nervous allies.

Second, the United States should specifically and publicly tie the development and deployment of its national missile defenses oriented to East Asia to North Korea, making it clear that it will continue to adjust the size and scope of its capabilities in accordance with the development of the North Korean ICBM threat. To minimize China’s reactions to U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) programs, the United States should seek to quell China’s concerns as much as possible by making its program as transparent as prudence and security allow and by making it clear that the United States has no intention of using BMD to negate China’s long-range nuclear deterrent capability. The Working Group notes, however, that China’s significant shorter-range conventional missile capability, especially those ballistic and cruise missiles that threaten U.S. military forces in the region, are a legitimate and necessary target for the development of U.S. theater missile defenses.

Third, the United States should strive to maintain, and in important respects strengthen, its extended deterrent structure in the Pacific. Especially important will be the translation of admirable rhetoric about a restoration of U.S. attention to the Asia-Pacific region and promising first steps in the evolution of the U.S. regional force structure into sustained and concrete investments of resources, time, and energy. In the military realm, this means making significant investments in the kinds of capabilities that can maintain U.S. military advantages in the region, particularly conventional capabilities designed to counter anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) operations. The United States should also ensure that it can provide a credible extended nuclear deterrent by investing in a fleet of next-generation strategic ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), a new heavy bomber capable of carrying nuclear ordnance, and a new nuclear cruise missile.

In addition to dialogue and the policy initiatives just described, the United States should consider a number of more concrete confidence-building measures (CBMs) with China that would enhance the credibility of U.S. policy changes. Proposals should include:
• reciprocal visits to national missile defense sites;
• reciprocal notification of ballistic missile defense and hypersonic vehicle test launches;
• observers at national BMD exercises and tests;
• mutual visits to reactors and enrichment and reprocessing facilities;
• technical exhibitions of strategic weapons;
• Chinese participation in New START practice inspections; and
• development of a common concept of strategic stability.

As a practical matter, the Working Group argues that time for formal arms control talks with China is not yet ripe. China remains deeply and consistently resistant to involvement in any such negotiations or framework for several reasons. Still, this situation should not preclude the United States from continuing to refer to arms control as a possible long-term goal with China. To this end, the United States should continue to urge Chinese participation in multilateral efforts, such as the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT), and propose a verifiable multilateral agreement that bans the deployment of new fixed-site ICBMs with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs).

The relationship between the United States and China will be of tremendous geopolitical consequence for the 21st century. Even though conflict mercifully seems unlikely at this point, it cannot be ruled out and might become increasingly likely if we are unwise or unlucky. With both sides possessing and appearing set to retain formidable nuclear weapons arsenals, such a conflict would be tremendously dangerous and quite possibly devastating. Finding ways to minimize the possibility of war and the use of nuclear weapons is therefore a primary responsibility of political leaderships on both sides of the Pacific.

Mr. John K. Warden is a research assistant with the Defense and National Security Group at CSIS. He served as executive director of the PONI U.S.-China Working Group.