But although the United States and Russia still have much larger nuclear forces than China, Washington and Moscow will find it difficult to reduce their arsenals considerably further unless Beijing restrains its nuclear modernization. Otherwise, US and Russian strategists would fear that China could exploit Russian-American nuclear reductions to strengthen its own nuclear forces in an effort to become an equivalent nuclear power.
Fears about Beijing’s ambitions have worried US and Japanese policy makers concerned about sustaining the credibility of the US extended nuclear deterrence guarantee to protect Japan against Chinese aggression. In the past, American pledges to defend Japan against a nuclear attack from China or North Korea have been a major, perhaps decisive, factor in dissuading Tokyo, which has advanced civilian nuclear capabilities, from developing its own nuclear weapons. A Chinese nuclear surge, even if it didn’t achieve absolute nuclear parity with the United States, would risk undermining Japanese faith in the credibility of US deterrence commitments.
Chinese government representatives deny that they would exploit the opportunity provided by further reductions in the size of the Russian and US nuclear arsenals to ‘sprint to parity.’ Yet, they have never formally affirmed a readiness to join the strategic nuclear arms negotiations once the Russian and American arsenals reached China’s lower level.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
In his April 2009 speech in Geneva, Yang declined to commit China to joining international strategic arms reductions negotiations, at best suggesting that Beijing would consider eliminating its own nuclear weapons when everyone destroyed theirs: ‘As countries with the largest nuclear arsenals in the world, the United States and Russia bear special and primary responsibilities in nuclear disarmament. The two countries should continue to drastically reduce their nuclear arsenals so as to create necessary conditions for the eventual complete and thorough nuclear disarmament.’ Like Xu, Yang argued that China had ‘developed limited nuclear capabilities’ only ‘for the purpose of self-defence’ and had never deployed its nuclear forces in foreign countries or participated in a nuclear arms race.
Chinese analysts have tended to disparage previous Russian and American steps to decrease the size of their nuclear holdings. As in past cases, the signing earlier this month of the New START Treaty, which will require further cuts in the size of the Russian and US stockpiles of nuclear warheads and their delivery vehicles, has failed to entice Beijing into joining international strategic arms control negotiations. Indeed, Maj. Gen. Zhu Chenghu, a scholar at China’s National Defense University, observed that, ‘Although there have been major reductions, their symbolic significance far surpasses their practical significance.’
But Chinese policymakers should realize they could see more progress in Russian-American arms reductions if Beijing would participate in the process. Securing a more binding commitment from the Chinese government than simple declarations of intent to restrain the country’s nuclear forces is essential for reassuring Washington and Moscow that further reducing their nuclear arsenals won’t risk undermining global and regional stability.
Richard Weitz writes a weekly column for The Diplomat on Asian defence and security. He is a senior fellow and director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Political-Military Analysis.