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Issues & Insights Vol. 18, CR1 – A Realistic Way Forward for the US-China Strategic Nuclear Relationship


The China Foundation for International and Strategic Studies (CFISS) and the Pacific Forum, 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. The dialogue focused 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, 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.

This report reflects the views of its authors. It is not a consensus document. A longer and more comprehensive version is available upon request.

Key Takeaways

  • The meeting was largely positive; a spirit of cooperation prevailed. Both Chinese and US participants sought ways to minimize distrust and enhance mutual understanding.
  • 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.US interlocutors argue that THAAD is a response to North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats and does not pose a threat to China’s second-strike capability.
  • 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 (CBMs). Mutually-acceptable CBMs should be reviewed and validated at the next dialogue round.
  • 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.

Broader key findings are available upon request.