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Beijing and Washington Should Not Overlook Nuclear Challenges (and Opportunities)

Apr 17, 2020

China-U.S. cooperation regarding the current COVID-19 outbreak is clearly sub-optimal given the gravity and urgency of the crisis. Even so, Beijing and Washington must not become so preoccupied with the current pandemic, however serious, that they overlook other global challenges such as nuclear non-proliferation and arms control.  

China and the United States may have dodged a bullet with the postponement of this spring’s Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (commonly known as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT), which was supposed to open in New York this month. They are two of the five NPT-recognized “nuclear weapon states” conditionally permitted to possess nuclear weapons. Many other states were prepared to criticize them for not making more progress on reducing their nuclear forces. 

Beijing and Washington still have time to renew great power arms control by including more countries and strategic capabilities in future treaties. If this is not possible, they should at least impose non-treaty limits on various weapons and countries. Without such progress, we could plausibly see the collapse of all nuclear arms control in the next few years. 

In this scenario of unrestricted arsenals, the world’s most powerful countries would prioritize enhanced-force capabilities achieved through researching, developing, and deploying a large and diverse portfolio of nuclear delivery systems. They would strive for qualitative and quantitative advantages as well as vigorously pursue emerging strategic capabilities such as artificial intelligence, counter-space, and cyber weapons. Such developments would adversely affect previous global nonproliferation initiatives. Collectively, the nuclear force buildups, resumption of nuclear weapons testing, and overt threats to employ nuclear weapons would encourage other states, such as Iran and North Korea, to pursue similar capabilities. 

In contrast, optimists hope that renewed great powers arms control would help transition the world from its current state of mutually assured destruction to a world based on mutually assured security. China, the United States, and the other nuclear weapons states could commit to a grand bargain in which they agree to reciprocal compromises with substantially lower limits on all types of nuclear forces. The great powers would also agree to restrict new types of strategic weapons based on nuclear or emerging technologies. They would all ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which would enter into force, while reorienting their weapons research towards realizing comprehensive nuclear disarmament. Their progress related to disarmament would convince the non-nuclear weapons states to recommit to a stronger NPT regime. 

One force that may drive the world towards this scenario might be renewed international cooperation against mutual threats, such as heightened fears of natural diseases or bioterrorism due to COVID-19. However, such a scenario would depend on realization of many of the demanding conditions in the U.S. Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament initiative. Pursuing this disarmament path would likely take decades. 

In the interim, China and other countries should pursue arms control primarily as a means of enhancing strategic stability and reducing risks rather than promote radical reductions. The nuclear weapons-states could agree to some legally binding limits, though more often, the great powers rely on less formal executive agreements, informal, parallel, unilateral actions, and on strengthened norms of behavior. Additional initiatives to increase transparency without formal treaties could include regular strategic stability dialogues, enhanced data exchanges, and averting dangerous operational practices.  

In this regard, China could regrettably continue to remain aloof from formal nuclear arms control treaties like New START and instead relax its traditional strategic opacity and share more information about its capabilities, intentions, and future plans. Although China and the United States might not ratify the CTBT, they would not resume nuclear weapons testing. Other nuclear powers could follow China and adopt a nuclear no-first-use doctrine. They would also work with China and the United States to coordinate measures to strengthen the NPT. 

Although China and the United States continue to differ on critical nuclear issues, they have launched effective joint initiatives to secure nuclear materials against terrorists. The PRC and U.S. presidents and other senior officials attended all four Nuclear Security Summits and also held yearly nuclear security dialogues from 2016-2018. These helped prepare for the successful 2018 Nuclear Security Summit, notwithstanding the Russian boycott of the meeting. The Center of Excellence on Nuclear Security in greater Beijing, which began operation in 2016, received substantial U.S. support and now trains many Chinese and other Asian nuclear security personnel. In addition, China and the United States have been collaborating to convert research reactors from using highly-enriched uranium fuel, which can be used to make nuclear weapons, to less dangerous, low-enrichment uranium fuel. Yet, a China-U.S. nuclear security dialogue did not occur last year; they need to convene one soon. 

The Chinese and U.S. governments should be able to overcome the current COVID-19 crisis in the next year or two through testing, tracking, treatment, and immunization. Given their immense national resources and common interests, they could accelerate progress through greater bilateral and multinational collaboration. A longer-term imperative will be pooling international efforts to avert future pandemics. Beyond global health issues, however, the Chinese and U.S. leaderships will need to cooperate more effectively on managing other international crises, such as nuclear nonproliferation and arms control, that also threaten global survival. 

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