2019 photo of a computer screen in a South Korean trading floor bearing images of Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, and U.S. President Donald Trump

2019 photo of a computer screen in a South Korean trading floor bearing images of Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, and U.S. President Donald Trump AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon, File

China is Willing to Negotiate on Nuclear Arms, But Not on Trump’s Terms

Here are four steps that might bring Beijing to the table.

President Trump announced to the world in a March 5 tweet that he would propose “a bold new trilateral arms control initiative with China and Russia.” China immediately rejected the idea the very next day. It would be wrong, however, to infer that Chinese leaders are opposed to nuclear arms control. They are not. They are just not interested in what Trump appears to be offering.

There are good reasons for China to suspect Trump’s motives. He used China as a scapegoat when withdrawing from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, for example, and he may be using this vague new initiative to justify allowing the New START Treaty to expire. China was not a party to either agreement. Walking away from treaties with Russia and blaming China for it is unlikely to encourage Chinese leaders to come to the negotiating table.

Trump premised his announcement of this new initiative with a questionable claim that China will “double the size of its nuclear stockpile” before the end of the decade. That sounds ominous, but in fact China has only about 300 warheads and barely enough plutonium to get to 600. Meanwhile, the United States and Russia each possess more than 6,000 warheads. Any new agreement based on parity among the three states would require steep U.S. and Russian cuts even if China did indeed double its arsenal.

China certainly would welcome major U.S. and Russian reductions. But there is no sign either nation is willing to make them. On the contrary, Trump and President Putin have announced ambitious nuclear modernization programs that dwarf China’s. Since neither of the two countries are planning to reduce their arsenals, it is difficult for Chinese leaders to understand what Trump wants to discuss. Neither the president nor his aides have provided a tentative agenda or cited desired outcomes.

Related: A US-Russia-China Arms Treaty? Extend New START First

Related: America’s Allies Are Becoming a Nuclear-Proliferation Threat

Related: Progress, Peril, Hope: The Nuclear Decade in Review

Despite Trump’s apparent failure to engage China, if he or his successor wants to bring China to the negotiating table, there is a path to follow. Below are four steps the United States can take to convince Chinese leaders to negotiate on nuclear arms.

Step 1. Pursue International, not Multilateral, Negotiations

There is a marked difference between international and multilateral negotiations, and it matters to China.

Chinese leaders perceive multilateral agreements negotiated by a few powerful nations, including bilateral agreements such as New START, as hegemonic—or dominant—behavior. Since the beginning of the nuclear arms race, China has opposed allowing decisions about nuclear weapons to be made without the participation of non-nuclear weapons states.

Conversely, Chinese leaders see international agreements negotiated in the United Nations, such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, or CTBT, as more inclusive and equitable. Their outcomes are more stable. 

In the past, Chinese communist leaders were skeptical of international nuclear arms control agreements. They described the Partial Test Ban Treaty as an attempt to “consolidate the nuclear monopoly.” They believed its true motivation was to prevent non-nuclear weapons states, such as China at the time, from joining the nuclear club.

Chinese communist leaders’ views on nuclear arms control evolved after their government obtained a seat at the United Nations in 1971. Familiarity with the organization led to a better understanding of how it works, who it represents, and what it does. China joined the NPT in 1992 and signed the CTBT in 1996. The test ban treaty was the first international nuclear arms control agreement China had a hand in writing. It was an empowering experience that made China willing to take the next step and negotiate a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty, or FMCT, that would ban the production of uranium and plutonium for use in making nuclear warheads.

The entry into force of the CTBT and the FMCT would prevent China from developing new types of nuclear warheads and producing the fissile material it would need to further expand its small stockpile. Working with China in the United Nations to complete those two treaties is the most effective way a U.S. president can verifiably cap the size and sophistication of China’s nuclear arsenal.

Step 2. Accept Mutual Vulnerability

Accepting mutual vulnerability sounds defeatist. But all it means is that no one can win a nuclear arms race. The United States cannot prevent China from being able to retaliate and deliver some number of nuclear weapons if the United States should ever choose to use nuclear weapons first during a war.

Unfortunately, the United States refuses to acknowledge its vulnerability to Chinese nuclear retaliation. From China’s point of view, that means the United States is still seeking invulnerability.

China maintains a comparatively small nuclear force. It has about 300 nuclear warheads and enough weapons-grade plutonium to produce several hundred more. The United States has around 6,000 nuclear warheads and enough weapons-grade plutonium to make about 5,000 more. China’s small nuclear force encourages U.S. war planners to imagine they could wipe it out at the beginning of an armed conflict.

Chinese war planners calibrate the size of their nuclear arsenal based on their assessment of whether such a disarming first strike is likely. The more the United States appears to invest in trying, the larger China’s numbers will become. U.S. dreams of invulnerability also encourage China to develop less vulnerable nuclear forces, including mobile missiles and submarine-based missiles.

Unlike the former Soviet Union, China is not overly concerned about the huge disparity in nuclear forces. Chinese leaders do not appear to believe a massive U.S. nuclear first strike is likely. But they are very worried about a highly accurate conventional first strike that could threaten China’s nuclear weapons. The United States currently deploys very large numbers of precision-guided conventional munitions on China’s periphery. As the quantity and quality of those munitions increase, so does the level of China’s anxiety about the survival of its nuclear weapons.

This concern encourages China to add to its small nuclear force. At the same time, the Trump administration is increasing the already overwhelmingly superior U.S. nuclear force. If the goal is to stop China from building more nuclear weapons, it would be much more effective, and far less expensive, to look for ways to assure Chinese leaders that unless China uses nuclear weapons first, the United States will not attack China’s nuclear forces in the event of war. If the U.S. goal is instead to seek invulnerability to Chinese nuclear retaliation, Chinese leaders will continue to enlarge their arsenal.

Step 3. Take No-First-Use Seriously

China is serious about not using its nuclear weapons first in an armed conflict. In a statement after its first nuclear test in 1964, the Chinese government declared it will “never at any time and under any circumstances be the first to use nuclear weapons.” It also stated that China did not develop nuclear weapons because it intends to use them, stating, “China's aim is to break the nuclear monopoly of the nuclear powers and to eliminate nuclear weapons.”

That logic is hard for many Americans to understand. But it is the same logic that underpins the Non-Proliferation Treaty. U.S. commentators frequently overlook it, but the NPT requires nuclear weapons states to disarm. The United States and the Soviet Union agreed to eliminate their nuclear weapons because they were afraid many other nations, such as China, would acquire them.

Chinese leaders see no-first-use as prerequisite for elimination. They believe the only legitimate purpose of nuclear weapons is to free a country from the fear of being attacked with nuclear weapons. From China’s point of view, any nation that imagines nuclear weapons can be used to fight and win wars can never be genuinely committed to nuclear disarmament.

U.S. officials in successive administrations have not considered China’s no-first-use pledge to be credible, and they have spent the last several decades testing China’s resolve during bilateral discussions. For example, they have asked what China would do during a war if the United States did something like blow up the Three Gorges Dam, destroy Chinese nuclear power plants, or take out China’s nuclear weapons with high-tech conventional bombs. Regardless, China regularly reaffirms its commitment to what it deems a core principle.

China has never required other states to commit to no-first-use as a precondition for negotiations. But a U.S. no-first-use commitment would dramatically alter U.S.-China nuclear relations for the better. It would greatly increase Chinese confidence in U.S. intentions. And it would cost the United States next to nothing, since there is no imaginable circumstance that would require the United States to use nuclear weapons first.

Step 4. Discuss Limits on Missile Defense

When the United States and the Soviet Union finally realized that no one could win a nuclear arms race, they decided to talk. Negotiators quickly discovered that limiting offense was impossible without limiting defense as well, since an effective way to counter defenses is to build more offensive weapons. That is why on the same day President Nixon and Soviet General Secretary Brezhnev signed the first Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, or SALT, agreement, they also signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile, or ABM, Treaty, which put strict limits on missile defenses. Unfortunately, the Bush administration pulled the United States out of the treaty in 2002.

Limiting missile defense is even more important to China today than it was to the former Soviet Union. The huge disparity between U.S. and Chinese nuclear forces and China’s vulnerability to a U.S. conventional first strike make even a marginally effective U.S. missile defense system appear to be a problem because it would be more effective against a small retaliatory strike following a U.S. first strike. It is not unreasonable for Chinese leaders to worry that a U.S. president who believes the United States is protected from Chinese nuclear retaliation might be more willing to risk using nuclear weapons against China first. Investing in more offensive missiles, and new missile types that might defeat the U.S. defense system, are understandable Chinese responses to U.S. missile defense expansion.

There is no existing proposal for international negotiations on missile defense. But there is a proposal in the United Nations for negotiations to prevent an arms race in outer space. Since long-range missile defense interceptors also can be used to attack satellites in orbit, missile defense is a topic that should be discussed in such negotiations. The United States refuses to consider such a treaty despite serious concerns about space security. Some observers think it is because talks at the United Nations on this topic would lead to international discussions on missile defense. The United States should embrace rather than avoid that opportunity. Joining UN discussions on missile defense would significantly increase Chinese confidence in U.S. intentions to negotiate on nuclear weapons.

The Bottom Line

The first two steps listed above are prerequisites for getting China to the nuclear negotiating table. The Chinese leadership’s distaste for multilateral rather than international negotiations is deeply rooted in Chinese communist ideology and unlikely to change. And if the United States is unwilling to accept vulnerability to Chinese nuclear retaliation, what is there to discuss? What is the point of negotiating with a more powerful nuclear rival that believes that it is invincible?

The next two steps are not required but are highly recommended. Why does the United States insist on maintaining the option to use nuclear weapons first? It is difficult to imagine an answer that would not undermine Chinese confidence in U.S. intentions. And negotiations that begin with a refusal to discuss the age-old battle between offense and defense are unlikely to get very far. China, despite considerable progress, still sees itself as scientifically and technologically inferior to the United States. Chinese leaders understand that a reliable defense against intercontinental ballistic missiles is still out of reach, but they worry about an unforeseen breakthrough.

China is willing to negotiate on nuclear arms, but the United States cannot expect to dictate the terms. There is no need for what President Trump calls “bold new” initiatives. There already is a formidable set of essential tasks waiting to be addressed. If Trump really wants to do something to avoid a new nuclear arms race, pressing the Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and starting negotiations on the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty are two bold initiatives he can accomplish right now.