China’s Atomic Pessimism and the Future of Arms Control
Marshall Billingslea, the Trump administration’s arms control envoy, argued in 2020 that the United States knew how to win arms races and “spend the adversary into oblivion.” It was a strange comment coming from a diplomat — especially one charged with reducing nuclear dangers — but it was revealing. Billingslea’s observation was meant to grab China’s attention and lay out the consequences for Beijing if it did not, as Washington hoped, participate in nuclear arms control talks with the United States and Russia.
While adopting a less strident tone, the Biden administration also sees Chinese participation in arms control as essential. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently stated that the Biden administration will “pursue arms control to reduce the dangers from China’s modern and growing nuclear arsenal.” Scholars and analysts have supported the administration’s arguments, claiming that Beijing should join future negotiations, as both its nuclear and conventional capabilities are on an upward trajectory.
Missing from these debates is analysis of Chinese perspectives. For any effort to engage China to be successful, it is vital to understand how Chinese strategists and experts regard nuclear arms control. In a recent article published in the Journal of Contemporary China, we map the evolution of Chinese assessments during the last decade. Unfortunately, the views of the Chinese strategic community provide little ground for optimism.
Chinese strategists generally view arms control through a strongly realpolitik prism. Many do not view U.S. calls for arms control as an effort to improve strategic stability and limit the risk of nuclear war. Rather, they see a trap designed by the United States to lock in its nuclear superiority, undermine China’s nuclear deterrent, and try to win the moral high ground. In recent years, this skepticism has only hardened. Chinese analysts see the arms control agenda as an arena in the intensifying political and military struggle between the United States and China. Including China in arms control will therefore be severely challenging. U.S. efforts will most likely fail unless they address nonnuclear strategic capabilities such as missile defense.
The Arms Control “Struggle”
China’s suspicious attitude towards nuclear arms control is not new. Even during the first period of Barack Obama’s presidency — when the prospects for the international arms control seemed much more promising — Chinese experts were highly skeptical. While China’s leaders paid lip service to Obama’s disarmament visions, Chinese observers dismissed it as “hollow talk.” In the 2013 edition of the authoritative text Science of Military Strategy (Zhanlüe xue), the authors described arms control as a “struggle” where great powers were trying to protect their advantages. While recognizing that arms control between the United States and Russia could serve China’s interests by reducing the risk of nuclear war and limiting military spending, strategists worried that a reinvigorated arms control agenda could increase pressure for China to join. Chinese analysts were also concerned about calls for greater transparency — which they feared would undermine Chinese deterrence — and claimed U.S. political domination could produce an “unbalanced” agenda designed to serve U.S. interests. Chinese analysts further saw the nuclear modernization efforts of United States as evidence that its nuclear thinking had not changed, and that the vision of a nuclear weapons-free world was “a myth.”
Skepticism of arms control hardened under President Donald Trump. Many Chinese analysts believe U.S. calls for China to join trilateral talks with the United States and Russia was little more than an attempt to blame the collapse of New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) on China. Officials in Beijing further claimed U.S. allegations of Russian cheating was a pretext to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, and that the real motive was to have a free hand to deploy new capabilities in both Europe and the Asia-Pacific. As Ling Shengli from China Foreign Affairs University argued in PLA Daily, the withdrawal was “entirely logical,” given that the United States only adheres to treaties that serve its interests, and abandons those that do not.
In addition, Chinese strategists were highly skeptical about the direction of U.S. nuclear policy, and regarded the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review a confirmation that the United States was pursuing a “hegemonic” nuclear policy. They further claimed the review signaled that the United States lowered the threshold for employing nuclear weapons, and saw the reintroduction of low-yield nuclear weapons on U.S. ballistic missile submarines part of an effort to address growing Chinese conventional military might. The 2019 U.S. Missile Defense Review further confirmed these suspicions, with observers in China seeing yet another sign of the U.S. desire for “absolute security.” The strategic community in China has long regarded U.S. missile defense as the biggest threat to their retaliatory capability, fearing that such defenses could intercept any surviving Chinese missiles after a U.S. first strike.
There is little to suggest that the shift in U.S. leadership has dampened suspicions about U.S. intentions. Chinese analysts are skeptical of the Biden administration’s signals that it will reduce the importance of nuclear weapons in its security strategy, and point to its embrace of great-power rivalry and its support for nuclear modernization efforts. The administration’s efforts to secure robust funding for modernization of all three legs of the nuclear triad, along with a focus on bolstering deterrence of China, will do little to dampen these concerns. Moreover, while they welcomed the Biden administration’s decision to extend New START, Chinese observers argue that it is likely to use calls for arms control to promote its “moral supremacy,” but simultaneously continue to pursue superiority. Observers in China continue to regard arms control as an arena of political competition, where each party attempts to push its narrative and to portray its policies favorably — at the expense of its rivals.
What China Wants
China’s deep mistrust makes it difficult to be optimistic that U.S. arms control efforts will succeed, at least in the near term. So far, the dialogue has not even started, with China reportedly unwilling to hold bilateral talks on this topic with the United States. However, while overly cynical, Chinese skepticism is not completely unwarranted. So far, there have been few specific proposals from U.S. officials about efforts that could suit China’s interests. If the Biden administration really wants to include China, it needs to demonstrate to skeptical Chinese strategists how arms control can improve China’s national security.
An agreement that limits only nuclear weapons is likely to be almost impossible to achieve. Chinese officials and analysts frequently point to the major gap between the arsenals of the United States and Russia, on the one hand, and China on the other. China’s nuclear stockpile is currently estimated to be in the “low 200s,” compared to approximately 3,800 warheads in America’s arsenal and nearly 4,500 warheads in Russia’s stockpile. Even if China’s stockpile doubles in the next decade, as the U.S. Department of Defense claims it might, a major discrepancy will remain. Unless the threshold is set very high, China is unlikely to accept a deal that would cap its arsenal in exchange for U.S. reductions.
To entice China, the United States may instead need to go beyond nuclear weapons and include the non-nuclear strategic capabilities Chinese strategists care most deeply about in talks. As other analysts have argued with regard to Russia, compromise on missile defense may be a prerequisite for serious progress. In addition to missile defense, Chinese observers are concerned about U.S. conventional precision-strike capabilities — including the prospect of U.S. ground-launched missiles being deployed in East Asia — as well as U.S. military superiority in space. While challenging, it may be necessary to address nuclear and advanced non-nuclear capabilities simultaneously.
The United States may need to consider forums beyond bilateral or trilateral talks. Given China’s deep skepticism of U.S. motives, pressure from the United States to join such talks may backfire, as it is politically difficult for Chinese leaders to cave in. However, it is harder for China to disregard broader initiatives, such as discussions of arms control among the five permanent members of the Security Council Chinese strategists have long expressed concerns about being internationally isolated in arms control and disarmament processes, as it may harm China’s international image. Moreover, continued efforts to engage Chinese experts and analysts are important, as they could help blunt at least some of the most extreme cynicism of U.S. intentions.
In an era of intensifying great-power rivalry, reinvigorating the arms control agenda is crucial. Arms control could not only dampen the emerging arms race between the United States, Russia, and China, but also serve as a tool to build trust and ease broader political tensions. Unfortunately, thus far, Chinese observers see arms control as an arena for mutual accusations and blame-shifting, and a tool the United States uses to cement its nuclear hegemony.
Henrik Stålhane Hiim is an associate professor at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies.
Magnus Langset Trøan is a researcher affiliated with the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs.