Cooperative Security, Arms Control and Disarmament By Masakatsu Ota  |  20 November, 2023

Nuclear Peril, No Clue In Sight

Image: Gugurat/istock

November 6, 2023, Washington, the capital of the United States, as autumn deepens. A senior Chinese diplomat passed through the gates of the State Department. This was to attend high-level U.S.–China talks on arms control and nuclear nonproliferation. The first U.S.–China dialogue on nuclear issues took place under the Biden administration, which took office about three years ago.

“Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Arms Control, Deterrence, and Verification Mallory Stewart and an interagency team from the U.S. Government is hosting PRC Director General Sun Xiaobo at the department today. We have continually called on the PRC to substantively engage on arms control issues and reducing strategic risk.”

Speaking at a press conference on the same day, a State Department deputy spokesperson explained that the aim of the talks was to "ensure competition does not veer into conflict” between the U.S. and China.

”Strategic risk'' is the risk that a conflict between nuclear-weapon states, including an accidental event, could escalate into a large-scale conflict that includes the possibility of the use of nuclear weapons.

China conducted its first nuclear test in 1964 and became the fifth nuclear weapon state. However, the number of nuclear weapons it possesses is thought to be in the hundreds, and it has not concluded any bilateral disarmament treaties with the U.S., which has a much larger number in the order of thousands. Still, during the Obama administration, the U.S. and China engaged in quiet dialogue over nuclear issues.

“Actually, we had many, I would say, channels, at that point, to discuss – we weren’t specifically “negotiating” on nuclear arms limits, at that point. But we had a couple of different national and nuclear security discussions. One was conducted at the level of Tony Blinken, the then Deputy Secretary of State. There was another dialogue that was conducted at my level, as Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. There were military-to-military consultations and discussions, on nuclear arms control and nonproliferation strategy, and also nuclear strategy and doctrine,” Rose Gottemoeller, who held key positions in the Obama administration, told me during an online interview. She is an expert who compiled the only remaining New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) between the U.S. and Russia.

However, these multi-layered communications between the U. S. and China that Gottemoeller describes came to a halt after the Trump administration took office in 2017.

During the Trump administration from 2018 to 2019, additional tariffs were imposed on imports from China due to China's intellectual property rights infringement, and China responded with retaliatory tariffs, intensifying U.S.–China trade friction. In addition, military tensions have increased due to China's coercive actions in the East China Sea and South China Sea, and relations between the two countries have deteriorated significantly. The U.S.–China nuclear dialogue also disappeared in the midst of this.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which began in the winter of 2022, has been prolonged, and Israel's attack on Gaza in the fall of 2023 raises concerns about future involvement by Iran, which supports the Islamic organization Hamas and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah. The Biden administration, which supports Ukraine and Israel, wants to avoid at all costs a situation where a third ``military conflict'' opens in Asia.

Meanwhile, on November 15th, President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping met for the first time in a year in San Francisco. The U.S.–China talks on nuclear issues that took place in Washington just before that were, so to speak, an opportunity to build momentum for the summit meeting to put the bilateral relationship on a certain stable trajectory.

After the talks, the State Department announced that “the two sides held a candid and in-depth discussion on issues related to arms control and nonproliferation,” and praised the meeting as “constructive.”

However, a diplomatic source with knowledge of the gist of the talks said: “On the U.S. side, officials from the State Department, the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy attended, but there were no military personnel on the Chinese side.”

China's nuclear forces are controlled by the Communist Party's Central Military Commission, the highest military body headed by Xi and flanked by senior military officials. Therefore, if future nuclear arms control and disarmament are to be discussed, the involvement of the military will be necessary.

The same source continued, "I don't think there was any intention to do anything substantive this time,'' and indicated the lack of concreteness in the absence of the Chinese military.

Ultimately, the person who holds China's "nuclear button" is Xi, the chairman of the military commission and a person with absolute power. Xi's distrust of the United States has deepened with each passing year.

“The Chinese nuclear strategy was always heavily influenced by the political leader’s thinking,” says Tong Zhao, a Chinese expert who is familiar with China's nuclear strategy. He is currently researching in Washington, D.C., and has been observing the evolution of U.S.–China relations from the perspective of a “nuclear professional.”

“In China, the political leadership has convinced itself of the defensive nature of China’s strategic objective, and from that perspective, China itself doesn’t believe it has shifted towards a more offensive nuclear strategy. The Chinese conviction is that it’s the United States that has adopted a much more hostile policy towards China. And that justifies China’s development of greater nuclear capability, in order to counter the perceived hostility from the United States,” Zhao said.

“The problem is that China and the United States see very differently about the nature of the Chinese buildup,” Zhao added, warning that “both risks” of an arms race and nuclear use are increasing.

Since China is heading to a fully-fledged nuclear power, not only the U.S. and China but the entire world finds themselves in a “nuclear peril”. There is no sign of nuclear disarmament in sight. And in the undercurrent, a magma of mutual distrust continues to accumulate.

Among the "Five Great Powers" of the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France, China's nuclear power is shrouded in the thickest veil of secrecy. Tong, one of the top experts in the world who is most familiar with the actual situation, said that President Xi saw “the political value of a stronger nuclear arsenal.” He points out that "centralization" of nuclear policy decision-making has progressed.

According to Zhao, in 2016, Xi, who upgraded the Second Artillery, which had been in charge of nuclear weapons, to the current Rocket Force,' instructed the military to accelerate the modernization of its nuclear forces. In 2018, he ordered the strengthening of maritime nuclear deterrents, including nuclear submarines, and at last year's Communist Party Congress he called for “building a strong strategic deterrent system.”

Under the grand command of Xi, who has established his political power as one and only, the nuclear-related budget and the authority of the Rocket Force have increased. This seems to have become a new hotbed of corruption, leading to the dismissal of two top leaders of the Rocket Force this summer.

“If there is enough domestic policy debate and scrutiny, and checks and balances, I think China would realize that to massively build up its nuclear capability is not going to deliver the expected result. In fact, it is likely to create an even stronger American threat perception and likely to cause the United States to adopt even tougher security policies against China,” Zhao said.

He emphasized the importance of dialogue between experts in addition to intergovernmental consultations between the U.S. and China. Doing so will increase the influence of Chinese private experts and lead to China's policy formulation with more checks and balances.


Related articles:

Three scorpions in a bottle? Disturbing movements at nuclear test sites in Russia, China and the US (3-minute read)

Four nuclear myths (3-minute read)

Powerful nuclear norms trump tinkering with treaties (3-minute read)

Japan's nuclear choices after Ukraine: Interview with Masakatsu Ota (1:05:06)

Masakatsu Ota is a senior editorial writer at Kyodo News, Visiting Professor at Waseda University and author of nine Japanese books on nuclear and security issues, including US-Japan ‘Nuclear’ Alliance and Great Divergence of the Nuclear Age