U.S. Shares Responsibility for Lack of Dialog with China on Nuclear Weapons

, China project manager and senior analyst | October 16, 2013, 8:51 am EDT
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Bradley Roberts, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear and Missile Defense Policy in the Obama administration, comments on dialog with China during a presentation at the Stimson Center on 26 August  2013. Video courtesy of C-Span.

In the video above, Bradley Roberts, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear and Missile Defense Policy in the Obama administration, chastises China for refusing to engage in an official dialog with the United States on nuclear deterrence and nuclear strategy. He claims the Obama administration provided an “incentive” to China by offering to discuss strategic stability “without any content on what that would require.” That sounds like an offer to begin discussions without any preconditions.

It isn’t. The Obama administration’s offer contained a very important precondition that China could not accept. As I point out in a previous post, the United States refused to accept mutual vulnerability as the basis for discussions with China on nuclear deterrence and nuclear strategy. So while the Obama administration may have offered no “content” on what strategic stability might require, it made it very clear what strategic stability could not require. China could not be allowed to possess a credible nuclear deterrent that the United States would recognize.

It is easy to understand why China refuses to come to the negotiating table. The U.S. position seems irrational. Mutual vulnerability is a reality and the United States is aware of this reality so why not admit it?  Moreover, both countries are aware that any U.S. attempt to make itself invulnerable is impractical, and risks igniting a new nuclear arms race that neither side wants. So refusing to admit vulnerability seems, to the Chinese, either petty or delusional. The United States is essentially insisting China surrender the deterrent value of its nuclear arsenal before the talks begin.

Removing this precondition is likely to receive a positive response from China, and could open the way for an agreement to finally begin the long-stalled talks without preconditions of any kind from either side.

Although China is making significant improvements to the missiles it can use to deliver nuclear weapons, China is not “building up” the size of its relatively small arsenal, as Dr. Roberts suggests at the end of the clip. In fact, under the counting rules of the New Start agreement between the United States and Russia, the size of China’s nuclear arsenal would officially be counted as zero. This is because the several hundred warheads China is believed to possess are not mated to the missiles that can deliver them, but are kept in storage, like the several thousand warheads the United States and Russia each hold in reserve in addition to the 1,550 each of the two nuclear superpowers are allowed to deploy under the treaty.

A more frank public assessment of China’s nuclear capabilities, especially relative to those of the United States, might also help China place more faith in the efficacy of a bilateral dialog on nuclear deterrence and nuclear strategy.

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  • JP

    Those who have interacted with Dr. Roberts in the past are well aware of some of the slick, to the point of being dishonest, assessments he’s made for the sake of his advocacy and that on the part of the Obama administration arms control crowd (e.g., as exercise see how many the better informed of you can find in http://www.nids.go.jp/english/publication/visiting/pdf/01.pdf).

    That said, the point Kulacki makes (i.e.,”… China is not “building up” the size of its relatively small arsenal, as Dr. Roberts suggests at the end of the clip. In fact, under the counting rules of the New Start agreement between the United States and Russia, the size of China’s nuclear arsenal would officially be counted as zero.”) is completely irrelevant and off point. It would be hard to imagine that China make the effort of increasing the number of strategic delivery vehicles without a corresponding increase in the number of warheads to which they could be mated. Whether such warheads are mated or not, it by any normal accounting represents an increase in their arsenal.

    Arguing that by New START counting rules the size of China’s nuclear arsenal is zero is not only irrelevant but specious. Kulacki should know better than to make such an argument and only calls his own judgement into question.

    • Gregory Kulacki

      Thanks for your comment. According to the best available open-source estimates, China is not producing more plutonium to enlarge the size of its arsenal, and the amount China produced before complying with but not formally agreeing to the moratorium constrains the size of its arsenal. To describe the modest number of increased delivery vehicles produced as China modernizes its missiles as “a build up” is misleading. Since Russia and the United States both point to their reductions under New Start as a benchmark for assessing their own progress, I think it is reasonable to use the same benchmark when assessing China’s arsenal.

  • What did you make of the use of term “strategic stability” in the President’s nuclear weapons guidance applied not only to Russia, but to China? Was this a related attempt to push open the door to discuss nuclear weapons with China, w/o explicitly admitting mutual vulnerability, but implying it by putting China and Russia in same category?

    • Gregory Kulacki

      Thanks for your comment Peter. I’m not sure how the language was chosen but “strategic stability” is a term mentioned often in accounts of unofficial dialogs with China on nuclear weapons issues. Dr. Roberts offers no clear definition of the concept in his remarks.