As China accelerates the nuclear arms race, the US wants to talk


This seemed to be at the heart of Mr. Sullivan’s first concern: creating lines of communication between the two military as the United States and Russia have had for decades. (He avoided using the word “nuclear” in his presentation, which reflects how space, cyber weapons and other high technologies need to be part of the conversation, say Mr. Biden’s senior staff.)

On Capitol Hill, most of the talks so far have been about uniting Chinese investment rather than rethinking the nature of the arms race.

“I am very worried,” Rose Gottemöller, an arms control officer in multiple administrations who now teaches at Stanford University, said in an interview. “What worries me is the automation of actions – of more nuclear weapons and more missile defense, without thinking about whether there is a smarter way to go.”

Mr. Xi and Mr. Biden, American officials said, agreed to further talks – but there was no commitment as to how deep they would go. When asked whether the talks would include arms control, the National Security Council said in a statement: “No. What we are looking for – and what Jake Sullivan spoke about – are discussions with competent interlocutors about “guard rails to reduce the risk or the probability of incorrect assessments”.

The history of these conversations is not encouraging. For years, across multiple governments, the United States sought to get Chinese officials to talk about how they would secure nuclear weapons in North Korea if the nation collapsed. The effort was to avoid a collision between Chinese, South Korean and American forces looking for loose arms. The Chinese have always objected, perhaps out of fear of being caught talking about the possibility of the north collapsing.

It is possible, say many arms control experts, that Chinese rearmament is motivated by the deployment of U.S. missile defense in the Pacific – land-based systems in California, Alaska, Guam, and South Korea, as well as on board ships patrolling Japan and the Korean Peninsula. The US has always insisted that these systems are designed to deter North Korea. But the Chinese government has long raised concerns that North Korea’s nuclear program provides a convenient excuse for the United States to build a system that aims to contain Chinese nuclear weapons.

China and the United States have never had a detailed discussion of missile defense in the Pacific. But the hypersonic test could force the problem, say independent experts, because it’s clear Beijing’s ambitions are growing.


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