Analysis | Why the Biden administration needs to start an immediate nuclear dialogue with China

Luka Ignac

Rocket launch
A rocket launch (Image: Tim Mossholder/StockSnap)

China is one of six countries that has increased its stockpile of nuclear warheads since 2019. Regardless of the extension of the New START between the United States and Russia, and a significant decrease overall in the number of nuclear weapons worldwide, China’s continued attempts to close the nuclear gap with the United States and Russia raise concerns over Beijing’s commitment to No-First-Use (NFU) policy. NFU is the commitment by a nuclear-armed state not to employ nuclear weapons except in case of retaliation following a nuclear attack on its own territory or military.

The debate over China’s continued efforts to expand its nuclear capabilities reignited after a 2020 U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) report on Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China stated that there is no indication of a public change in attitude towards NFU among Chinese leadership, parting from a 2019 assessment of there being no indication of change at all. Granted, the difference between the two assessments could easily escape the eye, but the implication of a slight language change is telling. Previously, DoD asserted that there was no indication that China plans to abandon its commitment to NFU policy, whereas the 2020 report’s language implies a possible departure from NFU, but that Chinese officials have not made this departure public.

Some analysts quickly drew connections to the Cold War, by claiming that it would not be “the first time authoritarian regimes’ nuclear posture and declaratory policy diverged.” While the guessing game continues, China is modernizing its forces and closing the force structure gap with the United States. To avert misjudgments triggering a change in Chinese nuclear posture, the Biden administration needs to prioritize nuclear discussions by removing ambiguities in interpreting mutual intentions.

Chinese leaders have been consistent in supporting NFU policy based on a limited, second-strike capable nuclear arsenal. However, modernization of Chinese capabilities, occasional ambiguous messaging, and increased global ambitions raise concerns over potential changes in China’s nuclear posture. Two aspects of modernization efforts send mixed signals: developments in technologies to defeat U.S. missile defense systems and the ability to arm new missiles with nuclear warheads.

Russia, too, remains a concern. China and Russia are developing technologies to overcome the U.S. missile defense systems. Even though China lacks ballistic missile early warning systems, it is pursuing military integration and interdependence with Russia, which would allow both to defend themselves from a first strike. China is also rapidly developing hypersonic glide vehicles that the United States has no defense against. These developments can be attributed to the deployment of the U.S. missile defense systems and are part of China’s overall strategy to improve the survivability of nuclear capabilities — the ability to survive a nuclear attack and launch a nuclear counterattack; however, in the eyes of the United States, these point to the growing ambiguity surrounding Chinese nuclear posture.

Several DoD reports indicate that China has been able to increase accuracy across its missile forces, mount both nuclear and conventional warheads on its theater range missiles, and regularly mate a portion of its missiles with nuclear warheads. According to Beijing, these developments serve only to enhance its second-strike capabilities. However, the credibility of these claims is in question. To ensure survivability, China must conceal its nuclear capabilities. The United States is increasingly concerned over how these missile developments affect Chinese tactical nuclear capabilities, operational flexibility, and regional strike options.

There are justifiable concerns over Chinese NFU policy arising from the fact that most modernization efforts can be interpreted both as a change in nuclear posture and as force survivability enhancements. For this reason, Biden should correct the mistakes of the previous administration, which tried to pressure China to join the New START and unwittingly invited it to build more weapons. Instead, President Biden needs to start a new nuclear dialogue with China that will provide mutual strategic reassurances to decrease the risks of miscalculation and misperception.

If Washington is serious about expanding and strengthening the nuclear non-proliferation regime, it needs to jumpstart multilateral talks with China, India, Russia, and Pakistan about the possibility of placing further limits on the nuclear arsenal of all nuclear-armed states. Trilateral talks between Russia, China, and the United States should also be on the table, but will likely be less effective in extending the nuclear regime beyond the trio.

Accepting that to win some battles, the Biden administration will need to make some difficult compromises will be the first step in drawing China to the negotiating table. Biden’s goal to lead with the power of example could bode well with China if the United States demonstrates a willingness to consider reductions in its arsenal and commits to having an open and transparent conversation with China on nuclear policy.

These confidence-building measures do not guarantee that China will be willing to agree to an arms control agreement but can be a powerful incentive to renew multilateral nuclear arms control discussions. The longer the United States waits to start these discussions, the higher the likelihood that China’s nuclear posture changes, embroiling the world in yet another nuclear arms race.

Luka Ignac is a McHenry Fellow at ISD pursuing a Master’s in German and European Studies at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, focusing on transatlantic security cooperation and international security more broadly.

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The Diplomatic Pouch features insights and commentary on global challenges and the evolving demands of diplomatic statecraft. Views are those of the authors and not necessarily the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy or Georgetown University. Visit isd.georgetown.edu for more.

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