Illustration: Craig Stephens
Asma Khalid
Asma Khalid

US must adapt its nuclear arms control policies to get China on board

  • A main sticking point preventing progress on nuclear arms reduction is Washington’s policies that leave China feeling it must expand its arsenal
  • If the US wants China to feel secure enough to negotiate, it must address Beijing’s legitimate concerns
The United States and China engaged in rare nuclear arms control talks recently. However, there are questions about the feasibility of nuclear arms reduction given that a recent US Congressional Strategic Posture Commission study recommended that Washington expand its nuclear arsenal to deter the simultaneous aggression of Russia and China, identified as “two-nuclear-peer” rivals.
Currently, the US and Russia have each deployed more than 1,500 nuclear warheads, with thousands more in storage. On the other hand, the US Department of Defence’s latest estimate suggests that China has developed “more than 500 operational nuclear warheads”, surpassing previous assessments. Furthermore, it anticipates China has the potential to increase its arsenal to more than 1,000 warheads by 2030.
Consequently, the US would need to augment its nuclear arsenal to maintain credible deterrence against both Russia and China while ensuring an adequate quantity of warheads for a secure second-strike capability in the event of a pre-emptive nuclear strike by its rivals. However, this approach fails to account for the likelihood that an expanded US arsenal would prompt China and Russia to follow suit, perpetuating a dangerous nuclear arms race.
Historically, the US faced only Russia as an equal nuclear superpower, with each deploying 1,550 warheads under the New START treaty. However, the addition of China as a third peer competitor – described by Washington as possessing both the intent and capability to challenge the international order in ways contrary to US interests – complicates the path to nuclear arms control.

China’s reluctance to engage in nuclear talks with the US stems from its perception that Washington refuses to acknowledge mutually assured destruction, which signifies shared vulnerability to nuclear attacks between the two nations. Beijing is concerned the US could use such dialogue to curtail China’s nuclear expansion and jeopardise the survivability of its nuclear arsenal.


Russia launches missile drills to test its ability to deliver ‘massive’ retaliatory nuclear strike

Russia launches missile drills to test its ability to deliver ‘massive’ retaliatory nuclear strike
Moreover, Beijing expects the US and Russia to substantively reduce their nuclear arsenals and create the conditions for trilateral nuclear discussions. However, China has not specified an acceptable number of deployed warheads for the US and Russia, and Washington has not said how big China’s nuclear arsenal would need to be, to be seen as a challenge or to overcome its nuclear strategy.
Given that the two countries are unlikely to reduce their nuclear stockpiles, Beijing sees the need to increase its nuclear arsenal to ensure survivability and second-strike capability. This, in turn, presents a dilemma for the US, prompting calls for expanding the number of deployed warheads to deter the nuclear forces of Russia and China at the same time.

Is there a middle ground or an alternative approach that could address this trilateral nuclear arms security dilemma? Part of the problem lies with Washington’s counterforce strategy, which targets an adversary’s nuclear forces, command and control systems, supportive industries and leadership.

This encourages nuclear arms proliferation, as the US would naturally seek to amass as many nukes as possible to credibly target the nuclear forces of China and Russia. Nevertheless, it would probably fall short of neutralising the nuclear arsenals of both countries to prevent retaliatory strikes.

An intercontinental ballistic missile lifts off from a silo in Russia. Historically, the US has faced only Russia as an equal nuclear superpower. Photo: AP
Additionally, this approach is destabilising as it can lead to mutual fears of pre-emptive counterforce strikes during crises. This carries the risk of a conventional conflict escalating into a nuclear one, and even a limited nuclear war could escalate to all-out nuclear Armageddon.

Alternative targeting strategies have been discussed that accentuate deterrent effects without driving rival states into a nuclear arms race. One option is what George Washington University political science professor Fiona Cunningham calls the “combine principle”. Cunningham suggests that Washington could integrate both nuclear and non-nuclear strategic weapons into the strategic stability equation with China, broadening the scope beyond nuclear arsenals.

Non-nuclear strategic weapons include cyberattacks on military infrastructure, precision-guided conventional missiles, anti-satellite weapons and missile defence systems. Adding non-nuclear strategic weapons into the strategic stability equation could address the asymmetry that Beijing has with US nuclear and conventional capabilities.

Incorporating these elements would signify Washington’s recognition of Beijing’s ability to target critical US assets and thus establish mutual vulnerability. Moreover, it would elevate China’s nuclear power status to parity with the US.

A deactivated Titan II nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile in Green Valley, Arizona. The US currently has more than 1,500 nuclear warheads deployed, with thousands more in storage. Photo: AFP

Doing so could invite a Chinese rebuff if Beijing feels Washington is relegating it to second-tier nuclear power status and undermining its nuclear force survivability or retaliatory strike capability.

However, there are two steps the US could take to mitigate this. First, it could agree to a mutual, legally binding “no first use” policy with China, aligning with the latter’s commitment. Second, both parties could agree to mutual limitations on deploying intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities near each other’s territory.
There is also a recurring theme of China demanding that the US stop providing extended nuclear deterrence commitments or nuclear-sharing agreements with its allies. However, Beijing fails to acknowledge that one reason Japan and South Korea, for instance, have refrained from developing their own nuclear weapons programmes is the assurance of US nuclear coverage.

If Washington were to end its extended deterrence commitments, Tokyo and Seoul could invoke Article 10 of the Nonproliferation Treaty, citing “extraordinary events” that have compromised their national security interests as grounds for withdrawal.

Finally, China’s willingness to engage in such negotiations could be seen as a step forward. However, it is unlikely that Beijing will compromise on reducing its nuclear arsenal unless the US and Russia demonstrate a similar commitment.

Achieving genuine progress will also require Washington to align its nuclear doctrine with China’s no-first-use strategy and refrain from transplanting the nuclear-sharing model from Europe to the Asia-Pacific.

Asma Khalid is an independent researcher and former visiting fellow at the Stimson Centre