Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers assembling during military training at Pamir Mountains in Kashgar, northwestern China's Xinjiang region on January 4, 2021.

Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers assembling during military training at Pamir Mountains in Kashgar, northwestern China's Xinjiang region on January 4, 2021. STR/AFP via Getty Images

Launch Arms-Control Talks with China

Instead of saber-rattling, the Biden-Harris administration and leaders across the political spectrum should be putting the pressure on Beijing to come to the table.

Reporting on China’s buildup of silos that could house nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles caused a new round of calls for the United States to not only continue its ambitious and expensive nuclear weapons spending, but to accelerate it. This is a predictable reaction from those in favor of an ever-increasing defense budget, but also a deeply misguided one. Instead of spending trillions of dollars on upgrading the world’s most dangerous weapons, we should heed the bipartisan tradition of the 20th-century arms-control efforts. 

When distrust and tension were at the highest levels between the United States and Soviet Union, we were still able to act in the national security interest by constraining our adversaries while dramatically reducing nuclear stockpiles through sustained and consistent arms control. Following the near-catastrophe that was the Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States and Soviet Union realized that their mutual capacity to end the world multiple times over was untenable. This sparked the first serious nuclear arms control dialogues, which produced the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963, followed by the landmark Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty in 1968, and others in the decades that followed.

Crucially, there was broad recognition that it was in the U.S. national security interest to limit the Soviet Union’s nuclear expansion. Overwhelming bipartisan majorities in Congress approved multiple treaties limiting offensive nuclear weapons and defensive systems. Presidents of both parties championed these efforts, and Republicans in Congress often led the call for limiting nuclear weapons. The result of these bipartisan efforts of multiple decades was the reduction in nuclear stockpiles by 85 percent from their Cold War heights. 

The new Chinese advancements require a 21st-century arms control framework in the same vein. Already, there have been calls for arms control talks with China that evoke the memory of the strategic dialogues with the Soviet Union. Others have outlined specific steps that the Biden-Harris administration could take to kickstart that process. However, notably absent from the pro-arms control chorus are conservative voices. While conservatives such as Ronald Reagan, Mark Hatfield, Richard Lugar, and George H.W. Bush were instrumental in the efforts to reduce the dangers of nuclear weapons, the bench of pro-arms control Republicans is dwindling. For example, of the 13 Republicans who voted to ratify the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, only two remain. Recent votes in the House of Representatives tell a similar story, with only four Republicans voting in support of an amendment that expressed support for extending New START. Despite military leaders supporting  arms control measures and public support  for such efforts at levels few public policies receive, Republican elected officials remain stubbornly skeptical of arms control. Somehow, the understanding that it is in our national interest to limit our adversary’s capabilities is being lost in favor of a destabilizing and expensive arms race.

As New START negotiator and former Deputy Secretary General of NATO Rose Gottemoeller reminds us, successful arms control negotiations almost always follow some event that destabilizes the status quo. China’s new silos are certainly one of those events. But the reaction should be a doubling down on efforts to bring them to the negotiating table instead of accelerating our nuclear weapons programs. As a growing power with global ambitions, China’s pursuit of a strong nuclear deterrent should not be treated as a shock. Instead it should be responded to accordingly, the U.S. should engage China on transparency measures to avoid miscalculation instead of racing to build arguably unnecessary and extravagantly expensive weapons systems. As the lessons from the Cold War taught us, it is possible to avoid a devastating nuclear war if you talk to your adversaries – and as the Cuban Missile Crisis taught us, such a war is made possible when you don’t. Unfortunately, Republicans seem to only believe in one side of the equation when it comes to nuclear weapons policy.

As history shows us, it is possible to increase transparency and limit the dangers of nuclear weapons by engaging in consistent arms control dialogue. China bears responsibility for responding to calls for their participation in such talks. But accelerating U.S. nuclear weapons spending will only harden their position. Instead of saber-rattling, the Biden-Harris administration and leaders across the political spectrum should be putting the pressure on China to come to the table. It was a bipartisan tradition to push for arms control during the Cold War. We cannot let that that tradition be forgotten at a time when we need it most.

Louie Reckford serves as a Policy Advisor at Foreign Policy for America, covering Iran, North Korea, and nuclear nonproliferation issues. Before that, he spent five years in Sen. Jeff Merkley's office in a range of positions, most recently as the Legislative Aide covering foreign affairs, defense, and veterans' affairs.