Elephants in the Room

Dear China, We Have to Talk About Your Nukes

The United States and Russia can’t maintain the global system of nuclear deterrence on their own anymore.

Visitors walk past China's second nuclear missile on display as they visit the Military Museum in Beijing, 23 July 2007.
Visitors walk past China's second nuclear missile on display as they visit the Military Museum in Beijing, 23 July 2007. TEH ENG KOON/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. President Donald Trump recently called for ambitious new arms control accords that not only extend the New START agreement with Russia, but also bring China into trilateral nuclear diplomacy. Trump should be commended for his apparent desire to avoid an unnecessary and costly arms race, and for the foresight that China is an increasingly important part of nuclear calculus and U.S. grand strategy.

But Trump is half wrong. The president’s proposal might be intended as an honest effort to deal with the China factor in the nuclear equation, or, alternatively, as a subtle way to kill New START, which expires in 2021, by linking it to China. Either way, the plan is a nonstarter. Why? The United States and Russia have more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. As part of a major military buildup, with China’s military budget rising 8 percent in 2018 to roughly $175 billion, Beijing has dramatically increased its nuclear capabilities over the past 20 years—however, more so in quality than quantity. It has built new nuclear submarines and intercontinental ballistic missiles designed to ensure it can respond to a nuclear attack in kind.

But China, with only about 300 nuclear warheads, is not yet in the same ballpark as the United States and Russia as a nuclear power. This is one reason why for more than a decade, when U.S. officials have proposed nuclear talks, China’s response has been, in essence, “You’ve got 5,000, we have a few hundred, there’s nothing to talk about until you get down to our level.” With regard to classic nuclear arms control, Beijing has had a point.

But this brings us to where Trump is half-right. With respect to nuclear diplomacy, what matters most now isn’t principally arms control, but rather new nonnuclear threats to strategic stability. And in the face of these new realities, there is no excuse for China to avoid strategic talks with the United States and Russia. A suite of emerging technologies—artificial intelligence, autonomous and near-autonomous weapons, anti-space weapons, offensive cyberattacks, hypersonic missiles—threaten to destabilize the retaliatory capabilities, known as second-strike capabilities, on which the system of deterrence has been based. These new technologies have already begun to undermine longstanding assumptions about crisis stability. Yet no formal or informal arms restraints, codes of conduct, or even common norms take them into account.

Clearly, putting a ceiling on numbers of U.S. and Russian deployed and deployable nuclear weapons remains in the U.S. interest. But the new challenges to nuclear stability from nonnuclear technologies like AI and hypersonic missiles require no less than a paradigm shift in thinking about a stable strategic environment.

Why is this the case? Consider all the ways secure second-strike capabilities—on which deterrence rests—may now be undermined. Swarming drones could disable nuclear submarines; Russia or China could conduct cyberattacks could neutralize nuclear command and control; space weapons could blind or destroy satellites on which military operations and command and control depend; hypersonic missiles could take out command and control or ICBMs and bombers. In any crisis, nuclear powers could quickly be in a “use it or lose it” mode.

Any single one of these technologies by itself could undermine assured second-strike capabilities. But when you combine the potential consequences of all of them, the numerous possible combinations of preemptive acts, the risk expands exponentially. All told, the impact of this suite of unprecedented emerging technologies risks changing the calculus of nuclear powers. They have already begun to undermine longstanding assumptions about crisis stability, yet there are no codes of conduct, agreed standards, norms, or rules for these technologies.

Worse, these new risks to strategic stability come at a time of resurgent major power competition and an unraveling of the framework of arms control restraints erected during the Cold War and its aftermath. It is incomplete policy to simply proclaim China and Russia “strategic competitors.” The extraordinary dangers of the current trajectory have greatly intensified risks of miscalculation or inadvertent conflict.

Inherent in this resurgent strategic competition is that each side seeks dominant capabilities. It is classic security dilemma behavior, on steroids. What one side sees as enhancing its security, the other sees as increased threat. But can the United States, China, or Russia really assume that they have—in operational terms—the advantage in space weapons, hypersonics, cybersecurity, and AI? It’s understandable that the United States, and perhaps others, prefer maximum freedom of action to restraints. But doesn’t such logic repeat the follies of the Cold War? Recall that mindless arms racing led to the United States and the Soviet Union each having 30,000 warheads, before eventually coming to the conclusion that U.S. President Ronald Reagan reached that, “A nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.” It took several near-catastrophes before this acknowledgement of mutual vulnerability sunk in.

In the breakneck quests to dominate new technologies, such as space weapons, hypersonic missiles, glide vehicles, and AI, some harbor a hope of achieving absolute security through outright dominance. But that is a chimera. The harsh reality is that all these new and emerging threats to strategic stability, and to assured second-strike capabilities, result in more mutual vulnerability. In space, for example, the United States had far and away the most dependence on space assets like satellites for military and economic purposes. But China, now with some 300 geostationary satellites, launches more each year than the United States and Russia combined—and, like the United States, its increased military and civilian reliance on space creates new vulnerabilities.

Unfortunately, in this perfect storm of ungoverned emerging technologies and renascent great power strategic competition, it may take a catastrophic crisis before all sides are prepared to abandon the logic of all-out competition for supremacy, accept the reality of mutual vulnerability, and find ways to manage it.

Nevertheless, a modified version of Trump’s suggestion is worth pursuing. China is a necessary partner in efforts to reinforce strategic stability. But first, the United States and Russia should extend the New START accord, putting a ceiling on nuclear deployments. Trump could use New START as leverage to persuade China to join a strategic trialogue designed not for traditional arms control but to create a strategic framework to manage new and emerging threats to crisis stability. No doubt, this is uncharted territory and would be a very difficult and protracted process. But the need to reach understandings in areas such as codes of conduct on space weapons, whether to regulate or ban autonomous weapons and hypersonic missiles, may be crucial to avoiding the next version of a 21st-century Cuban missile crisis.

Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council and a former official in the U.S. Department of State during the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: @Rmanning4

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