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Issues and Insights Vol. 15, No. 7 – US-China Strategic Nuclear Relations: Time to Move to Track-1 Dialogue

The China Foundation for International and Strategic Studies and the Pacific Forum, with support from the Naval Postgraduate School’s Project on Advanced Systems and Concepts for Combating Weapons of Mass Destruction (NPS-PASCC) and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), held the 9th China-US Strategic Nuclear Dynamics Dialogue on Feb. 9-10, 2015. Some 80 Chinese and US experts, officials, military officers, and observers along with four Pacific Forum Young Leaders attended, all in their private capacity. The off-the-record discussions covered comparative assessments of the strategic landscape, nuclear dimensions of the “new type of major country relationship,” nonproliferation and nuclear security cooperation, ways to address regional nuclear challenges (North Korea and Iran), strategic stability and reassurance, and crisis management and security-building measures. A sub-group of US participants met with VADM Sun Jianguo, Deputy Chief of the PLA General Staff. Key findings from this meeting are outlined below.

Chinese and US participants were eager to frame China-US relations in the best possible light. Chinese continued to emphasize that a framework for the “new type” concept should ensure positive relations in the bilateral relationship, and that nuclear dynamics played only a minor role in this. Discussions were candid, but not contentious; differences of opinion were spelled out but a cooperative spirit prevailed.

Chinese participants continue to insist that conditions are not ripe for a more robust official dialogue on nuclear issues and strategic stability with the US. Instead, they favor deeper discussions at the Track-1.5/2 level and better use of existing official channels. They stressed that our Beijing meetings have been helpful in allowing participants to better understand US policies and intentions. These discussions also have been building consensus in China for enhancing the Track-1 step (and for building consensus in China about basic policy and strategic questions). Some Chinese participants stressed that they, too, would like to strengthen the Track-1 process.

Lack of clarity on what specific issues would be included in a Track-1 dialogue remains a Chinese concern. Moreover, some senior Chinese participants questioned whether Track-1 discussions could devote the time to examining issues in the depth displayed in Track-1.5/2 dialogue and thus that this Track-1.5 dialogue provided a “richer” discussion. An official dialogue appears impossible if it requires China to reveal exact current and planned future numbers of its nuclear arsenal, a level of transparency that is incompatible with China’s traditional policy of ambiguity and would undermine China’s limited deterrent. While maintaining that military-to-military dialogue remains important, senior Chinese participants also stressed that any future official dialogue should involve the US DOD and China’s MOD, rather than STRATCOM and the Second Artillery.

US participants cautioned that the absence of meaningful official dialogue, and the unwillingness to provide the transparency that is an essential for it, is generating mounting frustration in Washington and that the window of opportunity for building a strategic military relationship that supports the objectives of the “new type” political relationship may be closing. Some were sympathetic to the idea that an initial Track-1 effort could be undertaken with limited transparency. All agreed that Track-1.5/2 efforts could help build mutually acceptable Track-1 agendas. One US participant stressed that more legwork is needed on the US side to prepare for possible Chinese agreement to initiate a Track-1 dialogue.

US participants stressed that the downturn in US-Russia relations, the worst since the Cuban Missile Crisis, is proof that major-power relations can quickly go sour and that it is imperative to work through issues while relations are good. Chinese agreed, identifying Chinese President Xi’s “new type” concept as the framework for US-China relations. Chinese hope that the differences between the US and Russia over the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty can be resolved. They explained that this treaty is fundamental to stability “in Europe and beyond.” Chinese participants acknowledged there were no significant changes in China’s policy toward Russia as a result of the Ukraine crisis.

Some Chinese remain concerned about Japan, denouncing policy changes made and envisioned by the Abe administration and possible escalation over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. They stressed that the US needs better management of its allies, including preventing Japan from developing nuclear weapons. One senior participant asserted that the US was overconfident in believing that it could control Japan, warning that the Japanese are trying to get rid of US control and move out from under the peace constitution. Some Chinese stressed that the four-point principled agreement reached between China and Japan is an important development, and that Sino-Japanese relations could gradually become more stable and improve if this agreement is fully implemented on both sides.

Chinese assert that a Japanese nuclear breakout is a real possibility given that Tokyo has “large amounts” of nuclear materials. US attempts to temper that assessment were unsuccessful.

Chinese regard their nuclear arsenal as a hedge against worst-case scenarios vis-à-vis the US and “other de facto nuclear-armed states.” Beijing’s number one concern remains maintaining a secure second strike capability in the face of US superior nuclear capabilities. Chinese, however, stressed that China’s policy was not to seek parity with the US or Russia.

Some Chinese expressed concerns about the US determination to maintain “nuclear superiority” over Russia, China, and other nuclear-armed states. They saw US fears that China may sprint to parity with the US and Russia as the two countries draw down their arsenals as evidence that Washington wants to maintain nuclear superiority. US explanations that there is a stark difference between building down to parity and sprinting up to parity did not satisfy Chinese concerns.

Nuclear safety and security is an area where China and the US have expanded cooperation. The Chinese nuclear security Center of Excellence is a success story, where more bilateral cooperation can occur. General agreement at the Third Nuclear Security Summit was also highlighted as a positive step underscoring bilateral cooperation.

While nonproliferation cooperation between China and the US has improved, US participants believe that Beijing’s nonproliferation policy is transactional. Chinese denied this accusation, stressing that they regard proliferation as a serious problem. They insisted that it is a shared China-US concern. US participants expressed readiness to enhance cooperation with Beijing, especially to target entities within China that facilitate North Korea’s proliferation to Iran and others. China denied this claim and argued that, in recent years, the US has proved less enthusiastic about export controls at the working level.

The breakout group discussion on North Korea was described by both sides as the “best ever” on dealing with the North Korean nuclear challenge. There was general agreement on the nature of the challenge, with all seeing nuclear proliferation, nuclear safety, and security of nuclear assets as the primary concerns, among a longer listing of potential challenges. US participants believe that North Korea’s nuclear capability now poses a real threat to the US, and some Chinese agreed. Chinese, however, and in contrast with some Americans, could not envisage a situation in which North Korea would use nuclear weapons first. Although some US participants believed that North Korea is likely to collapse, Chinese did not see a collapse as a likely outcome in the foreseeable future. They argued that the focus should be on how the two sides could cooperate to prevent Pyongyang from future nuclear or missile testing, with some receptiveness to deeper discussions to develop specific measures and to identify agreed upon “redlines.” The possibility of discussing joint responses to onward proliferation from North Korea was also not rejected. US participants believe that it was unlikely that Pyongyang would give up its nuclear weapons, and some Chinese believed that the window is narrowing for that to happen. Chinese, however, continue to insist that resuming the Six-Party Talks is the best way to address the North Korean problem; US participants remained skeptical. Chinese also encouraged the resumption of dialogue between the US and North Korea. Furthermore, Chinese expressed concern over incidents between the North and South in the context of US-ROK military exercises, and hoped that the US would do more to reduce tensions.

The breakout session on Iran was cordial but less productive. Chinese and US participants regard the Iranian nuclear problem differently (a key disagreement is the value of the threat of force) but agree on the importance of reaching a comprehensive agreement if sufficient verification is granted over Tehran’s key facilities. There was also agreement that China and the US could cooperate to manage regional dynamics after an agreement is concluded. Some Chinese and US participants regard the P-5 diplomatic process as another arena where bilateral cooperation has been productive. One Chinese participant said that if the Iranian talks fail and the US is seen to be at fault, further P-5 cooperation will be difficult. Recommendations for further progress included discussion of ways to prevent nuclear use and a discussion with non-nuclear-weapon states, capitalizing on China’s role in the Non-Aligned Movement.

There were important areas of disconnect between Chinese and US participants. A few Chinese accused the US of having active offensive cyber and space programs, explaining that they are the victims of constant US attacks. They explained that US extended deterrence “molests” Chinese interests, downplaying US insistence that it helps keep US allies from acquiring nuclear capabilities. Without giving specific examples, and as in the past, a few Chinese also asserted that the US seeks “absolute security” and “absolute supremacy over others.”

Further engagement on strategic stability appears necessary and potentially fruitful. The challenge of thinking about nuclear strategic stability in isolation from other issues was also raised. Chinese presentations and comments indicated that Chinese experts continue to wrestle with how to define stability in the China-US strategic relationship. Those attempts suggest an effort to find some middle ground between stability defined as an overall productive political-military relationship and stability based on transferring US-Soviet concepts into the China-US relationship.

Chinese and US participants concur that more work is needed on both sides to better avoid and manage crises, particularly crises triggered by third-parties. This involves better communication mechanisms and hotlines. US participants pointed to the importance of giving the responsibility for managing crises to a single authoritative entity to avoid conflicting messages.

Next steps. There was agreement that the next dialogue should focus on more specific and practical areas, and address issues beyond the nuclear problem (to include missile defense, cyber, space, conventional strategic weapons including CPGS, among others). Opportunities for joint studies were discussed, such as research on the changing balance of power in Asia and implications for China-US relations, of which nuclear and other strategic issues are a subset. This dialogue could work on developing an agenda for a Track-1 dialogue and on fleshing out the components of the “new type” concept. Deeper discussion on developing common approaches to preventing North Korean nuclear and missile tests were endorsed by all, as was the need to better identify the major impediments to preserving strategic stability. US participants also saw the utility of table-top exercises at the companion track-2 Hawaii dialogue.