Opportunities for Nuclear Arms Control Engagement With China

January/February 2020
By Tong Zhao

The clock is ticking on an extension of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). To complicate matters, instead of extending the treaty as is, Washington seeks to broaden the existing U.S.-Russian agreement by including China in a new trilateral arms control framework. There is no chance that Beijing would change its long-held views on arms control within the next 12 months before New START expires. Nonetheless, China’s growing military power and influence are producing counterpressures for China to deepen its participation in arms control. At a time when President Xi Jinping said China should “take center stage in the world,”1 China may find itself having to seriously prepare for major-power competitions and major-power arms control.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet at Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida on April 6, 2017.  (Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)Over time, China’s own interest will align with arms control for several reasons. At the strategic level, the major-power competition between Washington and Beijing is going to be a long-term reality. It is driven by fundamental conflicts in world views, values, and ways of governance. Nonetheless, it is in no one’s interest, including China’s, to allow this competition to become completely uncontrolled and unregulated. Just as U.S. and Soviet leaders Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev agreed during the Cold War that “nuclear wars cannot be won and should never be fought,” Beijing and Washington should set some basic boundaries to their competition so that they do not half-wittingly destroy everything worth competing for. In particular, they need to assure each other that neither intends to threaten the survival or the most critical security interests of the other. To this end, they must commit to maintain strategic stability, avoid a repetition of a Cold War-style arms race, and agree on redlines and basic rules of major-power competition. Against an uncertain future geopolitical landscape at regional and global levels, arms control can and should serve as guardrails and a stabilizer of the major powers’ strategic relationship.

China has benefited from the U.S.-Russian arms control process without having to contribute directly to it. That situation is no longer tenable. Indeed, China’s stand-aside policies have already unwittingly contributed to the demise of one U.S.-Russian nuclear treaty, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. In the mid-2000s, Russia openly complained about restrictions on its missile programs while other nations, particularly China, were unconstrained. If China had acknowledged and addressed Russian concerns, Moscow would have had one less reason to develop and deploy the alleged treaty-violating 9M729 missile, which led the United States to withdraw from the pact. With the treaty’s demise, China is now presented with a much larger security problem. In this sense, arms control can be a preventive measure that helps China manage and mitigate future security challenges. If China’s involvement in some arms control measures today can contribute to the continuation of U.S.-Russian arms control in the future, it would be worth serious Chinese efforts.

Domestically, China is facing a new economic reality. Decades of very fast economic growth have revealed deep structural problems in its economic system. With accumulating governmental debts, looming stagnation, a rapidly aging society, and external troubles in its trade relations, economists worry not only about a growth slowdown but about a possible economic crisis.2 One thing seems clear: China will probably be unable to increase defense spending at its prior rate without undermining its population’s key socioeconomic interests. A timely decision to enter arms control can help avoid a costly reciprocal arms buildup with the United States, including at the regional level over INF Treaty-range missiles and at the global level over other strategic military capabilities that will not improve any party’s security. This decision can also contribute to China’s foreign image as a responsible power. As the United States suffers huge reputation losses by withdrawing from key arms control institutions, Washington creates opportunities for Beijing to win global support for demonstrating leadership in advocating cooperative arms control as a necessary step toward achieving Xi’s vision on “building a community with a shared future for mankind.”3

How to Engage With China

The current U.S. approach to include China in arms control will not work. Statements by senior U.S. officials leave China with two main impressions. First, the White House is not really serious about including China in arms control and simply uses it as an excuse to end New START. U.S. officials have not been able to suggest specific and substantive proposals for including China. Second, China believes the United States seeks to impose constraints only on Chinese capabilities and intends to use arms control as a tool to advance its own competitive advantage and win the military competition with China. There is no hint that the Trump administration imagines reciprocity or mutual restraint.

China displays a DF-41 ICBM at a 2019 parade in Beijing. Despite China's program to modernize its strategic nuclear forces, the nation's arsenal is much smaller than those of the United States or Russia. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)This approach will backfire in Beijing, as it would anywhere else. The United States cannot coerce China to participate in arms control. If Washington wishes to copy the 1980s European dual-track game plan by stepping up pressure on China and deploying new INF Treaty-type missiles in the Asia Pacific, Beijing would be much more likely to respond with more of its own missile deployments than to agree to conduct arms control under U.S. military pressure. Without a reformist leader in China like Gorbachev in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, who prioritized rapprochement with the West, a coercive U.S. strategy would likely be met with strong pushback. China believes it has acquired technological advantages and better operational experience in areas such as INF Treaty-type missiles. This confidence in China’s capacity to outcompete the United States makes security policymakers even less likely to consider arms control proposals that impose more constraints on China than the United States.

The United States needs to make its objective practical. Arms control with China cannot be aimed at helping Washington win future military competition with China. The goal should be to help manage the competition so that it will not be as dangerous and costly as in the Cold War, which is a common interest that China shares. Arms control proposals offered to China need to involve fair give-and-take between all parties. Given China’s lack of experience in arms control, it is unrealistic to expect Beijing to introduce detailed options. The United States and Russia should take the responsibility to think creatively and propose concrete ideas. Two proposals may stimulate thought experiments for feasible models of arms control cooperation with China.

Possible Models of Arms Control Cooperation With China

Regarding INF Treaty-range missiles, China has an advantage in land-based systems, and the United States has superior capability in air-based systems. Both countries are procuring more weapons, and the trajectories of their development show that, at some time in the near future, Chinese and U.S. stockpiles of land- and air-based INF Treaty-range missiles will likely be on the same scale, counting nuclear and conventional systems. This may provide an opportunity to set an equal ceiling for the combined stockpile of these missiles in each country. The two countries could then negotiate and cooperate as equals. Each would have flexibility to decide how they would like to mix their land- and air-based systems and thus to balance their traditional advantages and future security needs. They also would have the freedom to decide how quickly and deeply they proceed with arms control. For example, they could set the ceiling somewhat higher than their existing stockpile and make this a capping agreement at the first stage, or they could set the ceiling at the same level of their existing stockpile and turn it into a freeze agreement. Still more ambitiously, they could set a lower ceiling to gradually roll back their capabilities down the road.

A second model takes longer-range strategic weapons systems into the equation. Given China’s numerical advantage in land-based INF Treaty-range missiles and the much larger U.S. and Russian stockpiles of long-range nuclear-capable systems, it would make sense to set an equal ceiling for the combined stockpile of both types of weapons for all three states. This would cover all INF Treaty-range land-based missile launchers, intercontinental ballistic missile launchers, submarine-launched ballistic missile launchers, and heavy bombers. This type of trilateral, comprehensive framework could focus initially on the numbers of launchers before turning to the more complex issues involving missiles and warheads.

Each of the three countries currently operates approximately 600 launchers of the relevant types.4 This offers an opportunity to include China in a trilateral arms control framework on an equal footing without creating the impression of China being treated as a junior partner to two former superpowers. A comprehensive agreement along these lines would address U.S. and Russian concerns about China’s INF Treaty-range land-based missiles and helps address the Chinese concern about U.S. and Russian strategic weapons advantages. It meets the expressed goal of the Trump administration by essentially including China in a combination of New START and the INF Treaty, but in a way that is fair and makes sense to China.

Committing to a Long-Term Process

These are just two examples of many potential arms control models that could be discussed with China. They serve the goal of offering China some concrete proposals and ideas that would not be immediately unfair to Beijing, therefore creating the opportunity to start a process of talking and engagement on substantive arms control issues. Given the traditionally high level of skepticism toward arms control in China’s security expert community, even in the most optimistic scenarios it will take time before informal talks and explorations on arms control options could develop into official negotiations, and then lead to executive-level agreements and possibly legally binding treaties far down the road. Nonetheless, whether it may generate quick results in the near term, the process of talking and engaging with China on these issues in and of itself is necessary and important. Without it, there is little clear way to build confidence in each nation’s will and capability to manage major-power competition.

Indeed, because mutual confidence is in such short supply, a modest yet still worthwhile objective could be to open dialogue with the Chinese security community that gradually addresses its habitual inclination for secrecy and ambiguity and its long-standing skepticism toward arms control as a potentially effective tool to achieve cooperative security. Deeper understanding and greater appreciation of transparency, mutual restraint, and verification can be built by exposing Chinese policymakers and experts to the political practicality and technical feasibility of rival states overcoming hostility and achieving mutual security benefits through arms control, just as the two former superpowers have demonstrated in recent history. In this regard, measures such as sharing with China the U.S. and Russian perspectives and practices of exchanging missile prelaunch notifications and flight-test telemetry data, as well as inviting Chinese observers to U.S.-Russian on-site inspections or Open Skies Treaty flights without demanding a reciprocal Chinese transparency measure, would be helpful.

Washington and Beijing also need to work on removing misunderstandings about their nuclear doctrines and policies. For example, the lack of nuanced understandings about U.S. domestic policy deliberations has led most Chinese experts to believe that the pursuit of new low-yield nuclear weapons by Washington reflects a U.S. effort to deliberately lower the threshold of nuclear employment and to build up nuclear war-fighting capabilities,5 rather than as a response to the perceived Russian “escalate to deescalate” strategy. Perceiving U.S. policies this way, Chinese distrust of U.S. intentions and the value of arms control cooperation is unsurprising. Substantive and extensive exchanges and dialogue on doctrines and policies can help promote more accurate and nuanced mutual understanding.

Additionally, a comprehensive dialogue on reducing the risk of nuclear use and understanding the impact of new technologies on strategic stability can be started soon. This is low-hanging fruit for engagement with China, which has expressed clear interest in joint examination of some of these issues.6 Missile defense, conventional hypersonic weapons, counterspace technologies, cyberweapons, artificial intelligence, and autonomous weapons systems may affect the credibility of a nuclear deterrent and present an important challenge to major-power strategic-stability relations. The entanglement between nuclear and non-nuclear technologies, as well as other operational practices of existing nuclear powers, may increase the risk of inadvertent escalation of conflicts.7 The major powers have divergent views on the impact of new technologies on nuclear deterrence, and they are far from reaching a common appreciation of the risks of conflict escalation. Dedicated working groups need to be set up for technical and policy experts to study these issues jointly and thoroughly, which can take place at the unclassified level to minimize bureaucratic resistance. As long as the perception gaps on new technologies can be narrowed, even if formal arms control agreements to control and regulate such technologies are impossible initially, countries would still have stronger incentives to minimize nuclear risks through unilateral readjustments of military capabilities and postures.

In sum, arms control engagement with China is not impossible. It is important, however, that the United States, Russia, and other relevant parties approach this issue with China in the correct way. Otherwise, they could destroy the prospect of arms control cooperation with China before it starts, and the existing U.S.-Russian arms control regime might be negatively affected as a result. With the growing need to effectively manage major-power competition, the stakes of getting it right are high. Fair, equal, and concrete proposals are necessary to start a process of arms control talks with China. Commitments to long-term efforts to build capability, address entrenched fears, and cultivate nuanced understandings are also imperative to pave the way for more substantive cooperation down the road.



1. “Xi Jinping: ‘Time for China to Take Centre Stage,’” BBC, October 18, 2017, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-41647872.

2. Hal Lambert, “Is China About to Cause the Next Asian Economic Crisis?” Real Clear Politics, August 13, 2019, https://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2019/08/13/is_china_about_to_cause_the_next_asian_economic_crisis_140996.html.

3. Cao Desheng, “Nation Helping World to Create Shared Future,” China Daily, August 20, 2019, https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/201908/20/WS5d5b06c2a310cf3e35566a15.html.

4. U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2019,” May 2, 2019, p. 117, https://media.defense.gov/2019/May/02/2002127082/-1/-1/1/2019_CHINA_MILITARY_POWER_REPORT.pdf; Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda, “Chinese Nuclear Forces, 2019,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 75, No. 4 (2019): 171–178; Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, “Russian Nuclear Forces, 2019,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 75, No. 2 (2019): 73–84; Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda, “United States Nuclear Forces, 2019,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 75, No. 3 (2019): 122–134.

5. Xianrong Li and Yang Min, “U.S. Will Further Enhance Nuclear Warfighting Capability,” PLA Daily, March 1, 2018, p. 11.

6. Cong Fu, “Maintain Global Strategic Stability and Reduce Risks of Nuclear Conflicts” (speech, 16th PIIC Arms Control Conference, October 16, 2019.)

7. James M. Acton, “Escalation Through Entanglement: How the Vulnerability of Command-and-Control Systems Raises the Risks of an Inadvertent Nuclear War,” International Security, Vol. 43, No. 1 (2018): 56–99; James M. Acton et al., “Entanglement: Chinese and Russian Perspectives on Non-Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear Risks,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, November 2017.

Tong Zhao is a senior fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing.