U.S.-China arms talks may not include the nuclear kind

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Contributing writer
Don’t believe everything you read in the media. While headlines after last week’s three-hour virtual summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, highlighted their readiness to talk about nuclear weapons, there is no — zero, zip, none — chance that those will be “arms control talks.”
Still, the prospect of bilateral conversations about “strategic stability” sparks nervousness in Tokyo, which is a feature, not a bug, in Beijing’s thinking. As always, it is incumbent on the U.S. to recognize the great sensitivity attached to these discussions (which they do), keep its allies informed of developments with China (which they try to do), to consult with them (ditto) and ensure that they understand U.S. statements and intentions. It also underscores the necessity of deeper integration and modernization of the alliance, a process that is underway but is being delayed by the changes in government in Japan.

According to the U.S. readout from last week’s chat, Biden “underscored the importance of managing strategic risks” and “noted the need for common-sense guardrails to ensure that competition does not veer into conflict.” The day after the meeting, Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, said that the two men discussed “the need for a strategic stability set of conversations … that cut across security, technology and diplomacy.” But, Sullivan added, the talks wouldn’t look like the U.S.-Russia “strategic stability dialogue,” which is the product of decades of talks and negotiations.
Look closely at the White House statement after the summit or that in Xinhua, the Chinese news agency, and there is no mention of nuclear weapons or arms control in either document. That’s because China is adamant that there is no need for it to join nuclear arms talks. Beijing insists that the primary responsibility for nuclear cuts rests on the U.S. and Russia, possessors of the world’s biggest nuclear arsenals and 90% of all the weapons on the planet. Only when they bring their stockpiles down to the level of that of China — from several thousand to several hundred — will Beijing be ready to talk about nuclear arms control.
That doesn’t mean that there is nothing to discuss. Chinese interlocutors say that they could join “strategic stability” talks, a malleable concept that can mean a variety of things. In one version, strategic stability talks are about nuclear weapons since they are the expression of stability, most narrowly defined. Chinese experts and officials acknowledge this definition, but it’s not their focus.
More commonly, when the Chinese talk about strategic stability they are referring to the broader U.S.-China relationship and the degree to which both sides are prepared to live in peace with the other. For the Chinese, this entails “mutual recognition of the other side’s core interests.”
Tong Zhou, an independent Chinese nuclear expert affiliated with the Carnegie Endowment, provided a window on Chinese thinking in an article in The New York Times last week. He explained that Chinese officials are increasingly worried that the U.S. is “becoming more desperate … to forcibly disrupt China from surpassing the U.S.” Campaigns to protest developments in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang are, for many Chinese, proof that “Washington is willing to take greater risks to stop China’s rise by delegitimizing the government, destabilizing the country and blocking national unification.”
Chinese memories are long. They recall U.S. nuclear threats in the 1950 and ‘60s — “blackmail” is the usual term — and vowed that they wouldn’t be repeated. Beijing’s nuclear buildup, whether the breakneck expansion of its nuclear arsenal, the development of hypersonic missiles, or the deployment of new platforms, is, he argues, “ultimately an attempt to force Washington to drop the perceived strategic assault and accept a ‘mutual vulnerability’ relationship — in which neither country would have the capability or will to threaten nuclear war without risking its own destruction.”
The call for a U.S. admission of “mutual vulnerability” has been a staple of U.S.-China nuclear discussions for over a decade. In those meetings, U.S. participants countered that a flat declaration was politically impossible and U.S. policy and deployments showed that Washington did not seek to counter China’s second-strike capability, which meant that the long-sought mutual vulnerability in fact existed.
At least, that was the argument a few years ago, before views of China as a revisionist power calcified. Couple Beijing’s more aggressive posture with a more assertive foreign policy and there is real worry in the U.S. about Chinese intentions.
That concern is prevalent among its allies as well. While Japan welcomed a dialogue between the two countries — Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno called stable relations between the U.S. and China “very important” — there is apprehension as well. Experts I canvassed agreed that talks are a good idea, but not if they give Beijing the wrong impression. Michito Tsuruoka, an associate professor at Keio University who specializes in nuclear issues, warned that the U.S. must “avoid Beijing’s misunderstanding that the U.S. has lost confidence in its nuclear posture and is desperate in involving China, which would destabilize the situation.”
Masashi Murano, a Japan chair fellow at the Hudson Institute, explained that this could lead to the “stability instability paradox” in which U.S.-China nuclear stability encourages Beijing to play offense close to home. The result is “gray zone coercion and conventional conflicts under the ‘nuclear shadow’ cast by China.” Nobumasa Akiyama, a professor at Hitotsubashi University and another core member of Japan’s community of nuclear analysts, fears that this “would allow the expansion of China’s sphere of influence and freedom of action at the regional level while China enjoyed stable relations with the U.S.”
Plainly, strategic stability talks are not just a concern for Washington and Beijing. Murano, like the other experts, urges the U.S. to anticipate those anxieties, “consult closely with allies who are insecure, understand their concerns and figure out in advance how to reassure them.”
The Chinese are aware of allies’ concerns since U.S. interlocutors invariably mention them. They are dismissed, however, with the claim that the U.S. uses that argument to justify its presence in the region. Without Washington, the Chinese reason those allies would have to accommodate China. And Beijing probably enjoys the notion that even the prospect of U.S.-China talks plants seeds of insecurity among those allies.
There is little reason to expect much from talks if they do materialize. In U.S.-China discussions on strategic stability with experts and former officials from both countries earlier this month, Chinese participants insisted that all problems in the bilateral relationship were the fault of the United States and progress depended on Washington putting things to right. By their logic, U.S. “aggression” has forced China to act as it has. Chinese experts charge that the U.S. is the revisionist state. After all, it is pursuing the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, has created the Australia-U.K.-U.S. security partnership, is boosting ties with Taiwan, has withdrawn from the Intermediate Forces Treaty, scuttled the nuclear deal with Iran and highlights “strategic competition” with China.
David Santoro, an analyst who as president of Pacific Forum chaired the bilateral discussion earlier this month, insisted that “keeping expectations low is important, but there is some potential for U.S.-China discussions on crisis management.” He concludes that “If we can avoid a repeat of the Cuban Missile Crisis, everybody wins.”
It’s a low bar — but a realistic one. A lousy headline though.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).
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