In his July call with Chinese President Xi Jinping, U.S. President Barack Obama again called for an improved U.S.-China relationship defined by “increased practical cooperation and constructive management of differences.” But between territorial issues, cyber espionage, air-to-air standoffs, and countless other flare ups, there are few reasons to be optimistic about U.S.-China relations in the short or medium-term.
One area where progress has been particularly slow is the strategic relationship. Throughout the Obama administration, Washington has called for an official, Track-I discussion centered on nuclear weapons and strategic capabilities—to include nuclear weapon posture, missile defense, and long-range conventional strike—but Beijing has declined. Chinese interlocutors maintain that China, as the weaker power, has not reached the point where such discussions with the United States are appropriate.
Yet both sides acknowledge that the United States and China have a shared interest in improving strategic communication. In April, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chinese Minister of Defense Chang Wanquan proposed a “military notification mechanism of major military activities.” Advance notification would allow the two countries to avoid misperception, miscalculation, and inadvertent escalation in times of crises.
Under the broader military notification umbrella, the United States and China should establish a reciprocal advance launch notification agreement for long-range missile systems. Such an agreement would serve two purposes. First, it would establish the foundation for a broader military notification mechanism. Second, it would serve as a test case for informal arms control arrangements.
Fortunately, both the United States and China have experience with launch notification agreements. The United States and the Soviet Union agreed to the first such agreement, the Accident Measures Agreement, as part of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) in 1971. At the 1988 Moscow Summit, they signed the more expansive Ballistic Missile Launch Notification Agreement, which for the first time required prior notification for all strategic ballistic missile launches. China and Russia negotiated a separate bilateral ballistic missile launch notification agreement in 2009. This was the first time that China agreed to share information about its ballistic missile launches. However, despite these parallel agreements, the United States and China have been unwilling to share information with each other about strategic capabilities.
To improve communication and build trust, the United States and China should develop a launch notification agreement that includes not only intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, but also long-range conventional strike and ballistic missile defense interceptors. Each country should submit to notifying the other at least twenty-four hours in advance of the planned date, launch location, and area of impact of launches for any of the included systems. Because live-tests of strategic systems are infrequent, the agreement would likely cover only a handful of launches each year.
A U.S.-China advance launch notification agreement would have a number of benefits. First, it would ensure that launches are not misinterpreted as attacks. Mistaken retaliation is a low-risk, but potentially catastrophic scenario. An advance notification mechanism would ensure that each country can easily inform the other when it carries out a test or launches a missile at a third-party. Second, it would reduce misunderstanding about capabilities and each country’s testing regime. Both sides would, in particular, be interested to learn about the parameters of the other’s ballistic missile defense testing program, hypersonic capabilities, and the development of new long-range missiles. With this information at their disposal, military planners in both countries could avoid worst-case assumptions. Third, it would improve both sides’ early warning capabilities. Advance notification would aid efforts to identify characteristics of particular missiles via national technical means and potentially offer a way to distinguish between conventional and nuclear-armed missiles. Finally, a launch notification agreement would lay the groundwork for future confidence-building measures. The agreement would demonstrate the benefits of increased transparency and build the mechanisms and expertise for future steps to enhance strategic stability.
These benefits would be amplified if the United States and China went further and included a provision requiring the exchange of telemetry (technical data that a missile sends to operators during flight) for each test. The United States and Russia agreed to exchange such data in START I and continue to do so in a more limited fashion under New START. Exchanging this data would give both sides a better picture of the types of capabilities that the other is developing and fielding and, perhaps most important, show that neither has anything to hide.
There would, of course, be obstacles, but these can be managed. For example, both sides might worry about asymmetric benefits. The United States has a far more advanced capability than China to detect and predict launches of ballistic missiles around the world. As a result, some U.S. analysts might argue that the United States is giving up a lot of information for little benefit. Chinese analysts, on the other hand, might argue that the United States would gain greater insight from data provided. A well-crafted agreement, however, would allow each to demonstrate that, even if somewhat asymmetrical, the benefits outweigh the costs. Namely, that the reduced risk of miscalculation outweighs the cost of more accurate military planning.
A second obstacle is the security of information. China would be most concerned with Japan’s access to Chinese launch information. Japan has a close alliance relationship with the United States, and China is suspicious of its expanding defense capabilities. The United States would be most concerned with the transfer of intelligence to North Korea. The United States has been critical of China’s stance toward North Korea’s nuclear program and would worry that information about its strategic systems would improve North Korean military planning. To allay such fears, the two sides must exclude the most sensitive information and provide reliable guarantees that shared information will not be passed to third parties.
To begin to operationalize such an agreement, the United States and China should gather technical and policy experts in a Track-II working group dedicated exclusively to launch notification. U.S. and Chinese experts have experience working together through informal mechanisms such as the Pacific Forum CSIS-Naval Postgraduate School U.S.-China Strategic Dialogue and could take those discussions to the next level by addressing a specific policy challenge. A well-implemented Track-II framework would elucidate the benefits and obstacles of a launch notification agreement, while providing each side with timely information about relevant technological and policy developments—a confidence-building measure in and of itself.
In service of eventual government adoption, the working group could answer a number of relevant questions. First, would a U.S.-China launch notification agreement enhance strategic stability and improve the U.S.-China relationship? Second, for the purposes of this agreement, what should constitute a “long-range missile system?” Third, are there any lessons from the U.S.-Soviet or China-Russia agreements that should inform the U.S.-China agreement? Finally, should the agreement be extended beyond notifications to include on-site monitoring or the exchange of telemetry data?
As the Track-II group begins to hammer out the details, the governments could establish trust and build momentum for the proposal by providing post-launch notifications for long-range missile and interceptor tests. As an interim step, this would allow both countries to become comfortable with sharing launch information and start to reduce misunderstanding.
There is no panacea for U.S.-China relations, but small, incremental steps can have an important impact. Even as the relationship remains rocky, mechanisms for strategic dialogue and communication can prevent inevitable crises from spiraling out of control.
Nicholas Cosmas ([email protected]) is a foreign area officer in the United States Army. Meicen Sun ([email protected]) is a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania. John K. Warden ([email protected]) is a WSD-Handa Fellow at the Pacific Forum CSIS.
This article builds on discussions at the Pacific Forum CSIS-Naval Postgraduate School US-China Strategic Dialogue on June 8-10, 2014 in Ihilani, Hawaii. All views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the organizations with which they are affiliated.