pacific forum History of Pacific Forum

Issues & Insights Vol. 17 – No. 15 – Check Your Expectations: A Realistic Way Forward for the US-China Strategic Nuclear Relationship

The China Foundation for International and Strategic Studies (CFISS) and the Pacific Forum CSIS, with support from the US Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) and the Air Force Academy’s Project on Advanced Systems and Concepts (AFA/PASCC) on Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction, held the 11th “China-US Strategic Nuclear Dynamics Dialogue” in Beijing, on August 17-18. Attended by some 80 Chinese and US experts, officials, military officers, and observers, along with Pacific Forum Young Leaders, all in their private capacity, this annual, off-the-record track-1.5 dialogue examines one specific aspect of the US-China relationship: the strategic nuclear dimension. Our dialogue, in other words, focuses on issues ranging from strategic stability, deterrence, and reassurance to nonproliferation and nuclear safety and security. This year, discussions covered US and Chinese comparative assessments of the world’s strategic nuclear landscape, the future of US-China strategic stability, US nuclear strategy and policy review, China’s military reform and nuclear policy, North Korea (US and Chinese assessments of the threat and ways to address it), and options and measures to enhance US-China strategic reassurance, both in general and via specific confidence-building measures (CBMs), notably in the nuclear, space, and cyber domains.
On the front end of the dialogue, with support from the US Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (DOE/NNSA), the Pacific Forum CSIS also held a half-day workshop on August 16 involving a select group of US and Chinese dialogue participants. Aimed to provide support for and deepen the dialogue’s work, this workshop sought to: 1) develop common understandings and “rules of the road” in the nuclear, space, and cyber domains (a process initiated at the 10th China-US Strategic Nuclear Dynamics Dialogue, which took place in Beijing in June 2016), and 2) find common objectives and mutually acceptable mid-to-long-term outcomes to address the North Korea nuclear threat. The preliminary results of this work were fed into dialogue proceedings.
This report reflects the views of its authors. It is not a consensus document.
Key Takeaways

  • The meeting was largely positive; a spirit of cooperation prevailed. Chinese questioned US policy rather than challenged or denounced it and evinced a readiness to find ways to cooperate and work with the United States.
  • The Chinese expressed growing comfort with “strategic stability” as an operating principle behind the nuclear relationship amid signals from the US side that this terminology might not be repeated in the next Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). While there is no common definition, the two sides are closer in their understanding of the term.
  • Chinese worry that the Trump administration may see China as the US’ “number one threat” given the “growing sense of competition” between Washington and Beijing. They also have questions about the nuclear policies and priorities of the administration.
  • Both sides agree there needs to be a conceptual framework for the bilateral nuclear relationship, but disagree on which measures to develop.
  • Chinese maintain that US ballistic missile defense systems undermine strategic stability. Yet they are silent when the US explains THAAD is a response to North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats.
  • Chinese and Americans understand that they must enhance mutual strategic reassurance beyond the work undertaken between their militaries, notably on crisis management. Participants on both sides made proposals of bilateral confidence-building measures.
  • Current reforms of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) are a work-in-progress and remain obscure to many. Chinese nevertheless insist that the reforms will not transform the contours of their nuclear policy. China is committed to a no-first-use (NFU) policy and minimum deterrence; its goal is still a “lean and effective” nuclear force.
  • US and Chinese largely agree on assessments of North Korean nuclear and missile capabilities. The two sides differ in assessments of North Korean nuclear doctrine; Chinese insist that Pyongyang would only use nuclear weapons if its survival is directly threatened, while Americans worry that Pyongyang may miscalculate, engage in nuclear blackmail, or use nuclear weapons first in a crisis.
  • Chinese are concerned about the prospect of a North Korean nuclear accident or incident. It is an area where the Chinese appear open to, if not eager for, contingency discussions.
  • There are differences of opinion among Chinese on North Korea policy. Some do not share the US sense of urgency and blame US “hostile policy” toward Pyongyang for the deadlock, insisting that Chinese cooperation will hinge on US actions in other areas, including in the South China Sea. Most, however exhibit a readiness to work more closely with the US to further pressure North Korea. All Chinese stress that Beijing’s influence on Pyongyang is limited.

Broader key findings are available upon request.