By Tong Zhao
In the lead-up to the Xi-Biden summit in San Francisco in November, China and the United States engaged in a consultation on arms control and nonproliferation, the first such effort in recent years and one that occurred amid a severe downturn in their bilateral relationship.
Although a positive step, the consultation’s long-term impact will be contingent on the arrangement of subsequent meetings in an institutionalized setting. For these meetings to transcend symbolism and address substantive issues of concern, it will be essential to include representatives of the Chinese defense policy establishment and, ideally, military officials alongside the usual foreign
Beijing has attributed the intensifying rivalry to what it perceives as increased strategic hostility from Washington. This perception has led China to believe that expanding its nuclear capabilities is crucial to stabilizing bilateral relations and that it should avoid being lured into self-imposed restrictions. Unless this viewpoint shifts, bilateral nuclear competition probably will continue escalating. Meanwhile, diplomatic engagement stands as one of the limited but crucial means to establish a safety net and reduce the risk of conflict.
As China increasingly seeks to win the hearts and minds of the international community, the United States and other countries have an opportunity to focus on engaging Beijing in endorsing broad guiding principles for collaborative management of international security challenges rather than presenting specific arms control proposals. For example, China has taken a more active role in global discussions on artificial intelligence (AI) governance, signaling its intent to be a responsible leader in addressing the implications of such emerging technologies. Some Chinese media reports suggested that Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden would jointly declare their support for maintaining human oversight in nuclear weapons decision-making processes during their November summit.1 Although the joint announcement did not happen as reported, the concept has garnered considerable backing within Chinese policy circles.
In an era when China is resistant to specific limitations on its military growth, its endorsement of overarching principles regarding certain military conduct and emerging military technologies remains beneficial. This stance allows the United States and the international community to advocate for further operationalization of these broad principles through official and expert-level dialogues. Once China’s leadership publicly supports such overarching principles, it paves the way for more detailed engagement by Chinese officials at the working level and policy experts in crafting specific rules of behavior.
An example is China’s endorsement of the principle of human involvement in nuclear decision-making, which could lead to in-depth discussions on defining adequate human oversight in nuclear decisions at a practical level. Future dialogues could focus on shared understandings concerning safety protocols, fail-safe mechanisms, and realistic simulations to acquaint decision-makers with the capabilities and potential pitfalls of AI in supporting decisions. These conversations are crucial for adding guardrails to an intensifying Chinese-U.S. nuclear rivalry.
Policy Incoherence in China
With China experiencing significant internal transformations under Xi, the shift toward a more centralized and personalistic decision-making model has markedly heightened internal incoherence in strategic decisions, including the expansion of nuclear capabilities. The apparent sidelining of nuclear policy experts in policy discussions, the growing tendency of bureaucrats to align with and reinforce the paramount leader’s views on power politics, the reduction in the scope for internal debate, and the erosion of checks and balances have made achieving policy coherence increasingly challenging.
China is deviating notably from its long-standing nuclear policy in several aspects. These changes include a shift toward simultaneous quantitative expansion and qualitative improvement of capabilities and the development of a nuclear triad with a massive investment in silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Other changes include a transition from a relaxed posture to a “rapid response” stance with the potential adoption of a launch-under-attack doctrine and new official narratives directing Chinese nuclear forces toward achieving “strategic decisive victories.”
Many Chinese nuclear policy experts find themselves perplexed by the logic and rationale behind this unprecedented nuclear expansion. This confusion raises concerns that the shift in China’s nuclear policy may be more reflective of the top leader’s political instincts rather than a carefully considered strategy aligned with a clearly defined consensus goal within the policy community. In a system of open and free debate, Chinese leaders might have recognized that China’s buildup could trigger U.S. responses, potentially deteriorating China’s security environment. Yet, basic scrutiny of strategic decisions is becoming increasingly challenging.
In the United States, there is a notable underestimation of the disorganized nature of China’s nuclear expansion and the growing issue of policy incoherence within it. Consequently, U.S. strategists often presume that China’s nuclear buildup is underpinned by well-thought-out rationality, clear objectives, and strategic long-term planning. This perception gives rise to prevalent concerns that Beijing’s nuclear growth signals a shift to an offensive nuclear posture, aiming not merely for parity with Washington but possibly for nuclear superiority. Nonetheless, remarks by top Chinese officials indicate a continued preference for asymmetric deterrence, at least for the time being.
Rather than succumbing to worst-case scenario assumptions regarding Chinese nuclear ambitions, the United States would benefit from understanding better the implications of China’s growing policy incoherence for U.S. policy options. The lack of clarity and consistency in Chinese nuclear policy thinking should prompt Washington and the international community to reassess and adjust their objectives and strategies in their interactions with Beijing.
For instance, instead of focusing on arms control measures that Beijing is unlikely to adopt in the foreseeable future, Washington and the international community might be better served by shifting their focus to a new goal: stimulating and encouraging internal policy discussions and debates within China. Fostering a more vibrant internal policy dialogue can act as a safeguard against questionable policy directions and is essential for ensuring democratic, accountable decision-making. Enhancing the quality of internal policymaking has become critical for preventing destabilizing nuclear policies, benefiting China and the global community.
In this context, the United States and the international community can play a constructive role, particularly in empowering Chinese experts. By supporting extensive expert-level dialogues and exchanges, the United States and other countries can assist Chinese experts in gaining a more comprehensive, nuanced understanding of policy thoughts and practices in the United States and other nations. Such insights and expertise could bolster the influence of these experts in China’s internal policy deliberation, enabling them to more effectively challenge and refine prevailing perspectives.
U.S. research institutes and civil society organizations should place greater emphasis on bringing U.S. domestic debates into the Chinese policy arena. A prominent discussion in Washington now revolves around the U.S. response to China’s nuclear expansion. The debate centers on whether U.S. efforts to enhance its nuclear capabilities in response to the Chinese buildup will more effectively deter Chinese aggression and encourage arms control negotiations or if it will result in greater Chinese nuclear expansion.
Exposing Chinese nuclear officials and experts to these internal U.S. debates, including the diverse perspectives of U.S. strategists and how their views are shaped by historical and contemporary evidence, could help Chinese policymakers understand the serious concerns in Washington regarding China’s nuclear path and the intense pressure that the United States faces in reacting to Chinese nuclear advancements. U.S. officials and experts, particularly those advocating a tougher stance on Chinese nuclear policy, should make an active, persistent effort to engage in Chinese-U.S. Track 2 and 1.5 dialogues, which can help convey these complex dynamics and foster a deeper understanding of the strategic considerations at play in an unofficial, less formal environment.
Exposing Chinese experts more widely to this U.S. debate would help draw Chinese attention to the fact that the U.S. response to the Chinese buildup will hinge on whether the United States perceives the buildup as primarily a defensive measure to ensure deterrence or an aggressive move aimed at coercion. Greater awareness of this debate within China could motivate Beijing to offer reassurances to Washington and to elucidate the rationale behind its nuclear expansion, potentially leading to greater nuclear transparency from China.
The U.S. Differential Nuclear Policy
Given China’s strategic competition with the United States and its historical skepticism toward arms control, China is likely to play hardball even if it is somehow compelled to join arms control talks. China’s approach may be more constructive, however, on issues that align more closely with its core interests, such as the no-first-use policy and mutual nuclear vulnerability between China and the United States.
In recent months, Beijing has intensified its emphasis on no first use of nuclear weapons. Its insistence on the United States adopting such a policy toward China is in line with its overarching aim of ensuring a U.S. acceptance of a mutual nuclear vulnerability relationship with China. To Beijing, Washington’s acceptance of either a no-first-use or a mutual nuclear vulnerability stance would indicate a U.S. commitment not to use its nuclear capabilities for coercing China, which is regarded as a key precondition for upholding bilateral nuclear stability and preventing a nuclear arms race.
The United States finds it challenging, however, to accept the concept of mutual vulnerability, such as through a mutual renunciation of the first use of nuclear weapons, even if such an agreement could be reliably verified. Washington harbors concerns that Beijing might exploit such an agreement to carry out strategic non-nuclear attacks that could threaten core U.S. interests. Consequently, Washington believes that it has a legitimate reason to preserve the option of nuclear first use as a deterrent and potential response to such attacks.
Conversely, Washington views the potential first use of nuclear weapons by Beijing, most likely in a conflict over Taiwan, as being driven by a revisionist agenda aimed at coercively altering the territorial status quo and thus unjustifiable. This leads to differing U.S. perspectives on the legitimacy of the potential first use of nuclear weapons by China and the United States. From China’s viewpoint, such a differential U.S. approach is discriminatory in nature and is what motivates Washington to seek nuclear superiority rather than nuclear stability with China.
In the United States, the responsibility of extending a nuclear umbrella to its allies plays a role in justifying its stance on retaining the option of first use of nuclear weapons. Even if the United States did not have this additional responsibility and needed only to ensure its own security, however, there is evidence to suggest that it would still regard its own option of first use as more justifiable than the pursuit of the same option by China, North Korea, or Russia. These countries often interpret this distinction as indicative of U.S. hegemony, whereas many U.S. experts seem to believe that the real reasons for this position are more intricate than mere double standards, stemming from the different behaviors of democratic and authoritarian systems.
The U.S. perspective holds that authoritarian countries are more inclined to initiate unjust wars and pursue revisionist objectives, more impulsive in their threats of nuclear first use, less reliable in adhering to international norms and ethical standards, and more unpredictable in their strategic decision-making. Consequently, the United States sees valid grounds for adopting a different nuclear policy standard toward authoritarian adversaries, underpinned by these perceived distinctions in governance and international behavior.
With regard to Taiwan, a critical flashpoint in Chinese-U.S. military tensions, China admittedly has shown an increasing sense of urgency to alter the territorial status quo, by coercive means if necessary. During the November summit, Xi reportedly told his U.S. counterpart that, on the issue of Taiwan, “peace is all well and good, but at some point we need to move toward resolution more generally.”2 In this context, Washington perceives Beijing’s efforts to deter U.S. nuclear first use in a large-scale conventional invasion as supporting an unjust cause and believes the United States has justifiable reasons to maintain the option of nuclear first use in such a scenario. Such perceptions contribute to the U.S. reluctance to acknowledge a mutual nuclear vulnerability relationship with China.
Besides the matter of nuclear first use, some other aspects of U.S. nuclear policy are formulated in a manner that Washington deems justifiable for itself but not for its adversaries. These include the U.S. pursuit of damage limitation through the development of counterforce strike capabilities.
This differential policy approach is becoming increasingly untenable. As China’s power expands, it is more assertively seeking equal status with the United States and has the resources to develop nuclear strategies and capabilities akin to those of the United States. As Beijing perceives the U.S. differential nuclear policy as a manifestation of U.S. hegemony, it becomes more willing to pressure Washington into recognizing a more equitable nuclear relationship through unilateral buildup. As the two sides continue down the current path, the future of their nuclear relationship becomes increasingly unpredictable.
Theoretically, the United States has three potential responses to address the consequences of its differential policy on nuclear competition with China. The first option involves Washington making a concerted effort to define more precisely the scope of two types of capabilities that it is developing: counterforce damage limitation capability and limited homeland missile defense capability. If Washington can demonstrate successfully to Beijing that its pursuit of counterforce damage limitation and homeland missile defense is genuinely limited in nature and distinctly less extensive than full-fledged capabilities that could undermine the Chinese nuclear deterrent, then China would be more inclined to accept some level of permanent capability asymmetry with the United States.
The second approach involves Washington considering revisions to its nuclear doctrine by relinquishing nuclear employment strategies that it would find problematic if adopted by its peer competitors. This could include restricting the option of nuclear first use and reducing the role of nuclear weapons as a hedge against potential threats from future non-nuclear military technologies.
If Washington is unable to eliminate the differential elements in its nuclear strategy, the third option would be to provide a clear explanation for its stance. When China perceives the U.S. differential policy as rooted in U.S. hegemonic culture, it often responds by sidelining diplomatic and arms control efforts, instead focusing on a unilateral military buildup as a countermeasure. Conversely, if Washington’s rationale is grounded in concerns about its rivals’ lack of credibility or accountability or their specific revisionist policy objectives, this should be more openly and clearly communicated.
A more tailored communications strategy could help draw Beijing’s attention to the need to acknowledge and address these underlying challenges in the bilateral relationship. By recognizing U.S. differential policy while pointing out opportunities for policy changes at the same time, Washington could incentivize Beijing to increase transparency, respond to specific U.S. concerns, and adopt a less coercive approach on regional security issues, including on the issue of Taiwan.
Near-Term Engagement Opportunities
China’s core demand for U.S. acceptance of a nuclear no-first-use or mutual nuclear vulnerability policy faces significant hurdles, intricately tied to the escalating ideological tensions between the two countries and Beijing’s pursuit of coercive security strategies. Given China’s insistence on addressing these issues as a prerequisite for broader nuclear-related security discussions, however, it remains necessary for the United States to engage China on these matters. Fortunately, there are immediate steps both sides can take to engage constructively in ways that are mutually beneficial.
A practical starting point could be to initiate a broad, generic discussion that does not focus exclusively on China and the United States or require either party to modify their existing policies immediately. On the no-first-use issue, the two sides could explore general criteria to assess the credibility of an unspecified nation’s no-first-use policy, including indicators related to its deployed capabilities, operational doctrines, and employment postures. Given the climate of mistrust, neither Beijing nor Washington is likely to be fully reassured by the other’s mere declaration on no first use unless accompanied by additional concrete measures to lend credibility to the declaration. Thus, an essential preliminary step would be to determine if both countries can concur on a set of universal standards for a credible no-first-use policy applicable to any nuclear-armed state.
Examples of potential indicators of credibility might include not deploying low-survivability weapons on rapid-delivery systems near conflict zones; maintaining clear, transparent nuclear doctrines explicitly defining and renouncing nuclear first-use actions; and providing transparency regarding the presence of domestic procedures to check the conformity of political leaders’ nuclear authorization decisions with their declared no-first-use policy. Even if reaching consensus on universal standards proves unfeasible, this exercise could enhance China’s understanding of the difficulties Washington faces in trusting a rival’s no-first-use declaration.
Similarly, on the issue of mutual nuclear vulnerability, Washington could propose to Beijing a broad, generic discussion about the meaning of mutual vulnerability and the elements that define a credible commitment to such a relationship. Comparing China’s main nuclear rivals, China is in a weaker position in the nuclear dynamic with the United States, but is the stronger party in its nuclear relationship with India. In a generic discussion that does not specify countries, China would be encouraged to reflect on the conditions of mutual vulnerability by considering perspectives from both sides of the table, which could help build a more constructive dialogue.
Beyond addressing strategic challenges in their nuclear relationship, China and the United States should strive to clear up specific technical misunderstandings. For instance, the 2023 U.S. Department of Defense report to Congress on China’s military power notes a possible Chinese interest in developing conventional ICBMs. If accurate, such development could further destabilize the Chinese-U.S. nuclear dynamic. It might prompt Washington to expand its homeland missile defense systems to counter Chinese conventional ICBMs, which are perceived as a more immediate threat to the U.S. homeland than Chinese nuclear ICBMs. Yet, the enhancement of U.S. homeland missile defenses could heighten Chinese concerns about the reliability of its nuclear second-strike capability, complicating efforts to maintain bilateral nuclear stability.
What appears to be insufficiently understood in Washington is that, since at least 2020, Chinese experts have been under the impression that the United States was arming some of its ICBMs with conventional warheads.3 This misunderstanding of U.S. policy could be a driving factor behind the reported Chinese interest in developing their own conventional ICBM capabilities.
Similarly, Chinese experts have shown misunderstandings over other specific policy issues. For instance, based on misinterpretation of statements by senior U.S. officials, they believe Washington has been “nuclearizing” hypersonic missiles. In reality, the United States has limited its hypersonic missile development to conventional warheads. Another often-heard claim by Chinese experts is that the United States has been developing space-based land-attack weapons. That is a misunderstanding that likely also has influenced China’s own thinking on the need for similar capabilities and on its overall counterspace strategy.
These misunderstandings could have considerable implications for China’s military and arms control policies. Unlike divergent perceptions about each other’s strategic intentions, however, these specific technical-level misconceptions should be more straightforward to rectify. This can be achieved through a concerted effort to utilize open-source information to clarify details and provide evidence during official and expert-level exchanges. Addressing such seemingly minor issues can go a long way in reducing the intensity of the bilateral arms competition.
3. Tong Zhao, “Managing the Impact of Missile Defense on U.S.-China Strategic Stability,” in Missile Defense and the Strategic Relationship Among the United States, Russia, and China (Cambridge, MA: American Academy of Arts & Sciences, 2023), p. 9.