New Leaders Forum

How to Engage China

The US and China have fundamentally different ways of building trust. Over nuclear arsenals is a good example.

China has been slowly and gradually modernizing its small nuclear arsenal. As old liquid-fuelled missiles have been replaced by solid-fuelled road-mobile systems, and as new nuclear ballistic missile submarines have entered into service, China has boosted its nuclear arsenal a little. However, with growing global momentum for the reduction, and even elimination, of nuclear arsenals, China’s opaque nuclear modernization programme has drawn widespread attention.

After the United States and Russia signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), officials from the two countries made clear that they would be unlikely to implement further deep reductions in their nuclear arsenals if China remains outside of nuclear disarmament talks and continues building its stockpile. Will China become a deal breaker for future global nuclear reductions?

Obviously, no one wants to see that happen. Engaging China in nuclear reduction talks will therefore be crucial if the goal of global nuclear disarmament is to have any chance of succeeding.

But it won’t be easy.

One problem is the makeup of China’s nuclear stockpile, as well as the security environment it faces. The Chinese nuclear deterrent is dependent on the survivability of its small nuclear arsenal, which itself is susceptible to a range of nuclear and non-nuclear factors. A nuclear first strike, a conventional first strike, missile defences and advanced space-based surveillance and reconnaissance systems could all undermine the credibility of China’s nuclear deterrent. Since it’s hard to predict the capacity of these nuclear and non-nuclear military weapons in the future, as well as deployment policies in other countries, Chinese decision makers will tend to hedge against future uncertainties and resist nuclear disarmament initiatives.

Such worst-case thinking and planning is derived from distrust between China and other nuclear weapons states, the United States in particular. Mutual distrust has created numerous problems in US-China relations, particularly in the military and nuclear arena. Observing track-two exchanges in the US-China Strategic Dialogue, it has been clear that the two countries have fundamentally different ways of addressing the issue of distrust.

The United States adopts a bottom-up approach of trust-building, and holds the view that trust-building starts with cooperation on small and specific issues. According to this view, cooperating on specific policy issues is the most direct and effective way to promote mutual understanding and confidence-building. The thinking is that successful cooperation on specific policy issues will pave the way for cooperation on strategic issues and grand policy.

The Chinese, on the other hand, are more used to a top-down approach under which both countries should first recognize each other as friends and partners on the strategic level and establish a good political relationship. Under this approach, only after the two sides have come to agreement on strategic issues can they cooperate effectively on specific policies. As a result, China pays close attention to the US commitment to the Sino-US strategic relationship and expends a great deal of energy analysing US behaviour for any changes. This means that it’s difficult to reassure China over US strategic intentions, and any perceived US ambiguity is seen by China a reason to shun cooperation on specific policies, including nuclear arms control.

All this means that any disruption in US-China political ties could derail communication and engagement on nuclear security policy. Disagreement between Washington and China on issues related to South China Sea, Sino-Japan relationship, arms sales to Taiwan, and the Korean Peninsula, for example, can all easily undermine the prospects of engaging Beijing on nuclear arms talks.

Clearly, if both nations stick doggedly to their own approach toward trust-building, then it won’t be possible to find solutions on key issues. Changing the way a nation thinks about strategic issues obviously takes time. In the meantime, though, there are a number of steps that the two countries can take to start improving trust.

For example, the development of prompt global strike systems in the United States raises Chinese concerns about its nuclear deterrent. To address this, Washington could offer to explicitly renounce the option of using global strike weapons against China’s nuclear forces and facilities as a step toward building confidence.

Beijing could, for its part, take a more flexible approach toward possible nuclear arms control discussions. For a start, there’s a lack of research within China about what role the country can and should play in future global nuclear arms control negotiations. In many cases, China’s nuclear posture and policy is more transparent than the government has realized. By encouraging discussions and studies on nuclear policy, Beijing is likely to come to the conclusion that participating in talks and negotiations is the best way to defend and advance its security interests.

It would certainly be a good start.

Tong Zhao is a PhD Candidate at the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, Georgia Institute of Technology.