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The biden administration is expected to release a review of its nuclear weapons strategy this month. Photo: US Air Force via AP

Restraint or strength? Which nuclear option will Biden take to tackle China?

  • The White House is expected to release a review of US nuclear strategy this month
  • Observers say the president will have to factor in concerns at home and among allies about deterrence
US President Joe Biden will have to walk a fine strategic line when he unveils his administration’s nuclear policy.
The policy, known as the nuclear posture review, is expected to be released this month and will have to balance the two competing aims of restraint and firm defence amid worsening relations with China and Russia.

On the one hand, Biden ran for office on a commitment to ensure that the “sole purpose” of the US’ nuclear arsenal “should be deterring – and if necessary, retaliating against – a nuclear attack”.

And in March, in its interim national security strategic guidance the administration said: “We will take steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy.”

But there is huge domestic opposition to this pledge, according to Zhao Tong, a senior fellow in the nuclear policy programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Beijing.

“Many opponents believe that while Russia, China, North Korea and other countries are actively developing nuclear forces, the United States has no reason to impose further restrictions on its nuclear policy,” Zhao said.

He said there was also pressure from US allies who feared a US nuclear policy of self-restraint would encourage military expansion of hostile countries.


US, China, Russia, Britain and France pledge to only use nuclear weapons for defence

US, China, Russia, Britain and France pledge to only use nuclear weapons for defence

When the review is released, it will be the fourth such document from a US administration since 1994.

As well as setting out a general nuclear weapons policy, it is expected to contain a reassessment of the number, kind, and purpose of the warheads.

The review has been months in the making and the Financial Times reported in October that US allies, including Britain, France, Germany, Japan, and Australia, were lobbying Biden not to commit to a “ no first use” policy, arguing that doing so would weaken deterrence against China and Russia.

There is also debate on whether Biden will cut the numbers of nuclear weapons. In December, nearly 700 scientists and engineers, including 21 Nobel laureates, asked Biden to use the review as a chance to cut the US arsenal by a third, and to declare, for the first time, that the United States would never be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict.

The US has shown signs of leaning towards restraint, joining China and three other nuclear-armed countries last week in pledging to use nuclear weapons only for defensive purposes.

China says it will continue to develop nuclear arsenal

Li Bin, an international relations professor at Tsinghua University, said that making a “no first use” pledge would help the country’s security as well as its international image.

Li also said Biden should cut the US nuclear stockpile and move in the sole purpose policy direction.

“If so, the US nuclear strength would not decline, but the signals would be much more moderate,” he said.

“It will be of great significance if the United States moves towards restricting the use of nuclear weapons and gradually makes progress.”

But the US has also been wary of China’s build-up of new missile silos and testing of potential delivery vehicles for hypersonic weapons in recent months.

The Pentagon highlighted China’s nuclear development in an annual report in November, forecasting that the country would have up to 700 deliverable nuclear warheads by 2027 and at least 1,000 by 2030. The US has 3,750 nuclear weapons.


North Korea fires first suspected ballistic missile of the new year

North Korea fires first suspected ballistic missile of the new year

Zhao, from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, cast doubt on whether White House would cut the number of US warheads.

“It cannot be ruled out that the Biden administration will reconsider some new nuclear capability development plans launched during the Trump administration,” Zhao said.

“But facing new security pressure from adversary countries, the Biden administration is unlikely to significantly reduce the size of its nuclear arsenal.”

Zhou Chenming, a researcher from the Yuan Wang military science and technology institute in Beijing, said it would be unfair for the US to ask China to cut the numbers of warheads, given the gap of existing numbers between the two countries.