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Hiroshima for Global Peace

Column 3 A Realistic Path for U.S.-China Nuclear Relations

James McKeon

Mark Melamed

Over the next four years, the relationship between the United States and China will become ever more central – and likely increasingly fraught. As competition – and the potential for conflict – increases, there is an urgent need for the two countries to better manage their strategic relationship and avoid blunders or miscalculations that could have potentially catastrophic implications. Nowhere is this more evident than in the nuclear weapons arena.

While broader and deeper bilateral engagement between the United States and China on issues related to strategic stability is essential, the most recent effort by the United States to engage China has proven unrealistic. The Trump administration focused on drawing China into the traditional U.S.-Russia bilateral dialogue on nuclear arms control, an approach Beijing has rejected repeatedly, citing the major disparity in the size and composition of China’s nuclear arsenal compared with those of the United States and Russia.

The new Biden Administration should pursue an alternative strategy to engage China – one based on a recognition that with no established baseline of dialogue over time, there can be no shortcut to fruitful talks on nuclear arms control, let alone a full-fledged arms control agreement. Instead, the initial focus of U.S.-China engagement should be on reducing the risk of nuclear conflict between the two countries and laying a foundation for future arms control efforts.


This approach should center on three key objectives and should be pursued in close consultation with U.S. allies in the region and calibrated as required in response to North Korea’s arms build-up.

First, the United States and China should work together to reduce the risk of use of nuclear weapons as a result of blunder or miscalculation. It is difficult to imagine either the United States or China launching a “blue sky” nuclear attack. The greater risk is of miscalculation or miscommunication, particularly in the context of a broader crisis, leading to nuclear use.

Second, the two sides should find ways to constrain the potential for a destabilizing arms race. As both sides modernize their nuclear arsenals and develop capabilities – offensive and defensive – to address perceived security concerns, the risk of an arms race is high and rising.

Third, Washington and Beijing should establish a foundation of dialogue and engagement on strategic issues. This will require serious buy-in on both sides and should focus on developing transparency and confidence-building measures in the near-term as a foundation for potential arms control agreements over the longer term.

Measures to Avoid and Manage Crises

While there is little experience of U.S.- China engagement on strategic stability and arms control issues, there is a modest track record of bilateral efforts to avoid and manage potential crises. These include the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement and the “Non- Targeting Agreement” from 1998, and two non-binding MOUs from 2014 that commit the two sides to notify each other of major military activities and to follow an agreed code of conduct for encounters at sea. Washington and Beijing should use these modest agreements as a foundation for additional measures that would reduce the risk of a nuclear crisis.

As a first step, the two sides should negotiate and implement an agreement for advance notification of ballistic missile test launches. It could be modeled on the 1988 U.S.-Soviet Ballistic Missile Launch Notification Agreement, which required at least 24-hours’ notice regarding the planned date, launch area, and area of impact for any launch of a strategic ballistic missile.

The United States and China should also explore the establishment of a bilateral “Nuclear Risk Reduction Center” (NRRC) link. The link could be used initially to facilitate the voluntary exchanges of information and notifications called for under the existing 2014 U.S.-China MOUs and also could facilitate a missile launch notification agreement.

In addition to bilateral steps to increase dialogue and avoid and manage crises, China and the United States should intensify their nuclear risk reduction and arms control efforts in multilateral fora, in particular the P5 (China, France, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S.) process. In recent years, China has emphasized its interest in reinvigorating the P5 mechanism, and the Biden administration should welcome and encourage more sustained and substantive P5 engagement on key issues, while also pursuing bilateral dialogue with Beijing. In particular:

➢ The P5 should deepen and broaden dialogue on nuclear policy and doctrine and expand those discussions to address efforts to reduce the risk of use of nuclear weapons. Critically, this will require sustained buy-in and participation from diplomatic and military officials of all P5 countries.
➢ The P5 should affirm their commitment to preventing the use of nuclear weapons through a joint declaration that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
➢ Given U.S. concerns about possible nuclear testing activity by Russia and China and reports that the Trump administration considered resuming such tests, the P5 should reaffirm their moratoria on nuclear explosive testing and launch a dialogue aimed at addressing concerns about adherence to such moratoria.
➢ The P5 should declare a moratorium on the production of fissile material for use in nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.

U.S.-China progress on nuclear disarmament will be a long-term undertaking, but the need for engagement to reduce the risk of nuclear use is urgent. The coming four years of the Biden administration are an opportunity to begin that work and, in doing so, reduce the risk of catastrophe and lay a foundation for future, more ambitious steps on arms control and disarmament.

James McKeon: Program Officer, Global Nuclear Policy, Nuclear Threat Initiative

Mark Melamed: Senior Director, Global Nuclear Policy Program, Nuclear Threat Initiative

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