President Barack Obama guides Chinese President Xi Jinping off the podium at the conclusion of the official state arrival ceremony for the Chinese president, Friday, Sept. 25, 2015, on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington.

President Barack Obama guides Chinese President Xi Jinping off the podium at the conclusion of the official state arrival ceremony for the Chinese president, Friday, Sept. 25, 2015, on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington. Evan Vucci/AP

How the US and China Can Talk Each Other Out of a Nuclear Arms Race

By striving for strategic stability, Beijing and Washington can relieve the pressures of oneupmanship and the risk of accidental escalation.

Nuclear weapons are likely to loom larger in Sino-U.S. relations in light of China’s rise, the growing tensions in the Asia-Pacific, and the potential for irritants in the relationship to result in conflict. It is vital that the two sides cooperate intelligently to promote strategic stability, both to prevent an arms race and to keep accidents and misperceptions from becoming conflicts or driving further escalation.

First, the U.S. perspective. China’s military is rapidly modernizing. If the United States loses conventional superiority in maritime Asia, American policymakers may begin to lean harder on nuclear weapons as a counterweight. Washington has also watched with apprehension as China—which has long espoused a “no first use” policy, a “lean and effective” nuclear force, and a desire to avoid an arms race—upgrades and expands its nuclear arsenal, and even is reportedly considering shifting away from some of these, its cardinal policies.

To date, the United States and its allies have benefited in numerous ways from the relative restraint that China has exhibited in its nuclear policy, both in terms of how Beijing says that it would use its nuclear forces and in terms of their size, sophistication, and diversity. Yet as China’s economy continues to grow and its military continues to modernize, Beijing will increasingly have the option to expand its nuclear forces, improve their capability, and broaden their role in its national security strategy. The United States cannot realistically prevent Beijing from doing so, but in cooperation with its allies, may be able to persuade Chinese leaders to develop their forces in ways consistent with mutual stability.

From the Chinese perspective, the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attacks or nuclear coercion, and so the only reason to improve its nuclear arsenal is if its ability to deliver a retaliatory strike is threatened. U.S. missile defenses, the Chinese believe, represent such a threat. Witness the debate over the potential deployment of the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system to South Korea, where it would be set up to fire on missiles launched from North Korea. Chinese officials, who have strenuously objected to such a deployment, are less concerned about THAAD’s interceptor missiles than its TPY-2 radar, which from a forward location on the Korean peninsula could track Chinese ICBMs as they launch and deploy decoys, thereby improving the chances of American interceptors to home in on the real warheads. As U.S. ballistic missile defenses improve, therefore, China has been working to improve its own missiles’ survivability and penetrability. For example, China began to deploy the DF-31 and DF-31A solid-propellant road-mobile ICBMs, in 2006 and 2007; more recently, it has been flight-testing the next-generation DF-41 ICBM.

In the foreseeable future, China could maintain the effectiveness of its nuclear deterrent through modernization alone. However, if the United States significantly improves the scale or effectiveness of its missile defense, China might decide to build more nuclear warheads. Therefore, in order to avoid an arms race, China and the United States should reach a common understanding on strategic offensive and defensive capabilities. For example, the United States could commit to maintaining a low level of ballistic missile defense (BMD) effectiveness, enough to counter North Korea’s unsophisticated missiles without threatening China’s more advanced strategic missiles. In return, China could agree to refrain from expanding its nuclear arsenal.

Read more: Under the Nuclear Shadow: A Short History of the China-North Korea Relationship
Read more: China’s Military Wants to Put Its Nukes on a Hair Trigger
See also: Beijing Needs A Way To Save Face in the South China Sea

Joint Views: While there are and will remain major disagreements between the two sides, there are nonetheless also substantial areas of overlap and a potential for a shared conceptual approach to managing risks. Accordingly, Washington and Beijing should seek to apply some of the concepts associated with the idea of strategic stability in managing their relations in the nuclear domain. The essential idea of strategic stability is that if both sides field forces that are capable of surviving a first strike and can credibly demonstrate to one another that their current and future capabilities cannot deny the other side a viable strategic deterrent, this confidence would eliminate the fear of preemption and the need to launch weapons early, either as irritants in a crisis or as dangers in conflict. This would reduce the danger that nuclear war might begin because of essentially technical “use or lose” or “itchy trigger-finger” fears – concerns that can become very real in crises and conflicts.

Proceeding from this logic, the two sides should agree to the following principles:

  • Mutual restraint is important to maintaining strategic stability. Both sides should seek areas where their restraint can contribute to stability in the relationship.
  • The United States is not orienting or designing its national ballistic missile defenses against China. Rather, they are motivated with respect to the Asia-Pacific by North Korea’s long-range ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs.
  • Nonetheless, missile defense programs designed against intercontinental-range systems have the potential to undermine the viability of the other side’s second-strike capability. Measures designed to validate that such BMD systems do not threaten to negate the other party’s second-strike capability are therefore to be encouraged.
  • The deployment of theater-range missile defense systems is understandable and need not undermine strategic stability. Because components of such systems can potentially threaten strategic-range missiles, or may be perceived to do so, each side should strive to differentiate its theater-range defense systems from its national defense systems. Steps that can validate to the other party that TMD systems do not have capabilities against long-range systems should be encouraged.
  • Efforts to differentiate both sides’ nuclear (especially strategic nuclear) forces, bases, networks, and other assets from their conventional analogs should be encouraged.
  • Because North Korea’s advancing missile and nuclear programs are driving U.S. national missile defense developments with respect to the Asia-Pacific, satisfactorily addressing these programs is crucial for stability in East Asia. North Korea’s nuclear program, in particular, is a grave challenge for regional stability, and a worsening one.
  • A conventional conflict between China and the United States would involve serious risks of escalation, and a major conventional conflict would involve grave risks of escalating to the nuclear level. Both sides should therefore focus on ensuring that their military plans, capabilities, doctrines, and postures seek to avoid encouraging nuclear escalation on the part of the other. Accordingly, both sides would benefit from a clearer understanding of the other’s nuclear doctrine, red lines, and conceptions of escalation, thereby lessening the risk of conflict arising or one that has already broken out escalating due to a preventable misunderstanding. Engagements that illuminate each side’s perspectives on these issues should therefore be encouraged. As well, crisis management cooperation should be encouraged to enable both countries to stem or stop inadvertent or accidental escalation.

In addition, potential concrete measures that would promote strategic stability include reciprocal steps such as visits to national missile defense sites, observations of BMD tests, notifications of BMD and hypersonic weapon test launches, and visits to military reactors, enrichment, and reprocessing facilities; Chinese participation in New START practice inspections; official discussions on submarine security issues and verification techniques; and joint studies on key issues, to name a few.

Such steps will not solve deeper political disagreement, but they could promote stabilizing postures and reduce the chances of misperception which could result in more severe tensions, or even worse.

This piece is based on the essay, “Seeking Strategic Stability for U.S.-China Relations in the Nuclear Domain,” part of a new report published by the National Bureau of Asian Research co-authored by American and Chinese scholars. The report will be released online on April 18.