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

October 16, 2013 | 8:51 am
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

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.