China’s communist leadership is uninterested in reducing the risk posed by nuclear weapons, according to senior U.S. officials.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) continues to refuse to engage in nuclear nonproliferation and strategic stability talks, despite an announcement last year that the regime would cooperate with the United States on the issue, according to Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Alexandra Bell.
“As a first step, we’d really like to have a conversation with them about each other’s doctrines, about crisis communication, crisis management,” Bell said during a Nov. 1 fireside talk with the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank.
“We’re not in that space with Beijing yet. So, there’s work to be done to begin the conversation, we think, bilaterally.”
Bell’s comments came just weeks after CCP leader Xi Jinping swore that the regime would strengthen its own nuclear capabilities despite assurances made in November 2021 that it would engage in strategic stability talks with the Biden administration.
Beijing has instead resisted requests for arms-related talks with Washington, and Pentagon leadership believes that China is instead expanding its nuclear forces, going so far as to quadruple its arsenal to 1,000 warheads by 2030.
Dialogue Unlikely to Prevent CCP Nuclear Expansion
Former Under Secretary of Defense Walter Slocombe said that, while admirable, the Biden administration’s pursuit of communication for communication’s sake was unlikely to yield fruitful results with the CCP.
“I’m afraid I’m a skeptic about ‘dialogue’ as the answer to all these problems,” Slocombe said during a panel after Bell’s comments. “We talk to China. This document [the Nuclear Posture Review] talks to China. The Chinese talk to us by what they say.”
“Dialogue is fine but it’s not really going to move the ball very far.”
Slocombe said that U.S. efforts to counter Chinese nuclear development ought to focus less on deterring the regime from using a nuclear missile and more on preventing it from using the threat of nuclear missiles to coerce other nations.
He warned that China and Russia’s increasing reliance on nuclear weapons as a key part of their national defense and diplomacy strategies signaled the two powers were likely to depend on the threat of nuclear force to bully other states into behaving according to their will.
“It is often the case that countries, like people, say what they would like someone to believe about what they think, ” Slocombe said.
“I’m not saying the Chinese are lying any more than we’re lying but, I think that the central problem is the use of coercion.”
New US Nuclear Review Not Enough to Deter China
The Biden administration’s newly released nuclear posture review, unveiled as part of the administration’s National Defense Strategy (pdf), alleges that the CCP is expanding and modernizing its nuclear arsenal with the aim of threatening the United States and its allies.
Moreover, the document states it is doing so while cooperating to some degree with Russia, meaning that the United States will have to simultaneously deter two near-peer nuclear adversaries.
“That is the central question of the next four or five years: The ‘how do we address two nuclear peers problem,” said Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Robert Soofer, who also served on the panel.
“On the one hand they’ve identified this problem but there seems to be actions in the review that preclude options for dealing with the problem.”
Soofer said that, despite all the talk of competition and bringing China to the table, the Biden administration had terminated its pursuit of some capabilities that could be important in deterring China’s nuclear proliferation. One such example is nuclear sea-launched cruise missiles, despite recommendations by the military to develop the system.
With that in mind, he said, the administration would need to develop a whole new way of understanding and dealing with the CCP’s nuclear capabilities and strategy.
“The key phrase is ‘major nuclear power,'” Soofer said.
“By the time China deploys its 1,000 nuclear weapons, it won’t just be the numbers, but the fact that they have a full triad, and the fact that in addition to strategic systems they’re also going to have regional systems. It’s a whole new framework for addressing them.”
Reuters contributed to this report.