Language : English 简体 繁體

How to Make Nuclear Dialogue Happen

Jan 22, 2024
  • Zhang Tuosheng

    Academic Committee Member, Center for International Security and Strategy (CISS), Tsinghua University

Since the start of the new century, nuclear dialogue with China began to appear on America’s wish list. In 2005, President George W. Bush personally proposed to his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, that the United States would like to invite the commander of the People’s Liberation Army Second Artillery Force to visit. In 2008, a meeting came to pass: The two militaries held their first nuclear dialogue in Washington DC. The process was then discontinued over Chinese objections to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.

The Obama administration proposed to pursue “a world without nuclear weapons.” It also talked in its 2010 Nuclear Posture Review report about the need to have a dialogue with China to enhance strategic stability. This immediately became an important topic in what was then the ongoing Track 2 and 1.5 dialogues. In the conversations that followed, despite many remaining differences on how such a dialogue could be conducted, the two sides gradually developed some important common understandings.

At the same time, as the U.S. and Russia agreed on a New START, the U.S. began to consider when China might be brought into the discussion of nuclear disarmament. But the general view in America was that conditions were not yet ripe.

The Trump administration, however, in 2019 demanded that China join the U.S.-Russia nuclear disarmament negotiations, and then withdrew from it because China rejected the proposal. At that time, the unreasonable American demand was opposed not only by both China and Russia, but also by American arms control experts and scholars, who believed that the demand was not only unachievable but would lead to the end of the U.S.-Russia nuclear disarmament negotiations. The Chinese government expressed its willingness to consider a bilateral strategic security and arms control dialogue instead, but the U.S. did not give a positive response.

When President Joe Biden took office in 2021, China-U.S. relations further deteriorated. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in the summer 2022 triggered a crisis in the Taiwan Strait, and all dialogue between the two countries came to a stop.

At the end of last year, the two heads of state met in Bali and agreed to stabilize and improve bilateral relations. However, the unexpected balloon incident at the beginning of this year again seriously frustrated the two countries’ efforts to ease relations. It was not until June, when U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken finally paid a much-delayed visit to China, that the two sides resumed the process of striving for better relations.

Encouragingly, high-level communications have been maintained since then, and a gradual resumption of various dialogues and consultations has followed. The two presidents, during their formal meeting before the San Francisco APEC summit, agreed to restore military-to-military dialogues on the basis of equality and mutual respect. The renewed possibility of a bilateral nuclear dialogue has thus resurfaced.

As a matter of fact, the two sides already resumed arms control and non-proliferation consultations in November, with Chinese participants from the country’s Foreign Ministry and American participants from the U.S. departments of state and defense.

Will China and the U.S. have a bilateral nuclear dialogue? What format and content might be expected for such a dialogue? In my view, the conditions are now ripening for a bilateral nuclear dialogue, as it is imperative for them to avoid a potential nuclear arms race. The stabilization of relations has provided a necessary prerequisite.

To facilitate an inter-governmental nuclear dialogue at an early date, China and the U.S. should first resume their Track 2 and Track 1.5 nuclear dialogues, which had gone on for more than a decade and achieved many important results. Experts and scholars may strive for basic agreement on the format and content of the official dialogue, thereby preparing for and informing talks. The following points should be included:

• First, any China-U.S. nuclear dialogue should be 2-plus-2, involving both the diplomatic and defense services.

• Second, the main goal of such a dialogue should be to achieve and maintain strategic stability.

• Third, China-U.S. strategic stability should be approached quite differently from U.S.-Soviet/Russia strategic stability of the past. China and the U.S. will achieve strategic stability through an acknowledgement of mutual vulnerability, with both possessing reliable second-strike capability and given the obvious asymmetry of nuclear forces. By contrast, the U.S. and Russia, both with huge nuclear arsenals and rough parity between them, achieve strategic stability via mutually assured destruction.

• Fourth, China-U.S. strategic stability will involve nuclear arms control and crisis stability but not nuclear disarmament for a long time to come. China will only join the nuclear disarmament process after deep cuts by the U.S. and Russia. By comparison, the U.S. and Russia mainly pursue arms race stability and crisis stability, with the former manifested as bilateral nuclear disarmament through treaties and agreements.

• Fifth, with great changes in the international situation and landscape, as well as in science and technology, China-U.S. strategic stability should have broader and deeper connotations. Dialogue, therefore, should cover not only nuclear policies, strategies and force development, but also related topics such as cybersecurity, outer space security, weaponization of artificial intelligence, development and deployment of missile defense systems and development of long-range conventional precision strike capabilities. At the same time, nuclear non-proliferation, nuclear security, nuclear safety cooperation and confidence-building measures in the nuclear field should also be taken up.

Since the end of the Cold War, China has been taking an increasingly active part in international nuclear arms control processes with a constructive attitude. It joined the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and participates in NPT reviews. It signed the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty and has honored its moratorium on nuclear testing. It supports the Geneva Conference on Disarmament to negotiate a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty. It actively participates in P-5 coordination, dialogue and cooperation on nuclear policy, strategy, disarmament and non-proliferation.

In the future, China will continue to play a constructive role in the aforementioned multilateral mechanisms and make even greater efforts to promote progress in nuclear arms control.

In the near future, a nuclear dialogue with the United States will mark an important step by China in the international nuclear arms control process. It will be of great significance — not only for the two countries to carry out arms control cooperation and maintain strategic stability, but for maintaining the stability of their overall relations.

You might also like
Back to Top