China–US Nuclear Relations: From Securitization to Trust Building

Wagener 2023 Sino US Nuclear Relations
US aircraft above a carrier and destroyer in the South China Sea.  | Photo: U.S. Pacific Fleet/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED)
21 Dec 2023

China and the United States do not only compete for political, military, economic and technological hegemony; they have also securitized virtually every aspect of this rivalry. For China, security has been the overarching domestic and foreign policy paradigm since President Xi’s Comprehensive National Security” strategy. For the US, former President Trump’s characterization of the Belt and Road Initiative as a China Threat” was indicative of a securitization strategy that has continued under the Biden administration. 

Such emphases on security as the all-encompassing rationale for action significantly limit the range of policy options available and can lead to a downward spiral in terms of trust. As this process is taking place amid an escalating nuclear arms race, it entails an even more serious danger.

Departing from its longstanding commitment to minimal deterrence,” Beijing now seeks the status of a nuclear great power. It has been rapidly expanding its nuclear arsenal and appears poised to catch up to the US in terms of deployed nuclear warheads by the mid-2030s. Washington, meanwhile, is investing in modernizing its offensive and defensive nuclear capabilities. Consequently, any US – Chinese military conflict in the Indo-Pacific will risk escalating into nuclear war. Dan Smith, director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, is right to warn of one of the most perilous nuclear eras humankind has ever faced.

Fragile Arms Control: The Urgency and Utility of Confidence-Building Measures

Present efforts to mitigate these risks cannot count on the eroding global architecture of nuclear arms control and disarmament. US – Russian treaties like the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and New START have been terminated or face uncertain renewal. China refuses to join negotiations as the third main nuclear pole until its capacities equal those of the US. Although the long-term goal should be to include China in revitalized comprehensive arms control treaties, for now this is not realistic. In the meantime, less formal Confidence-Building Measures (CBMs) offer a feasible avenue to reduce nuclear tension between the US and China. 

CBMs are supposed to foster transparency and reduce suspicion between states, thus preventing misperceptions that might lead to a conflict escalation. In the long run, this cultivated trust can also lay the groundwork for conversations on more comprehensive nuclear arms control. Given the small window of opportunity to regulate the (nuclear) weaponization of emerging technologies like AI and machine learning, CBMs are therefore urgently needed. At a minimum these should include permanent political and military hotlines as well as vital information exchange. More ambitious measures could also involve reciprocal invitations to observe each other’s military activities.

The Securitization Dilemma and Ways Forward

Yet in practice, Sino – US CBMs are in decline. Despite the buildup of alarming incidents – like warship near-collisions or the balloon episode – even seemingly straightforward measures like permanent backchannels are underdeveloped. While Beijing recently implemented emergency hotlines with US military allies Singapore and Japan, it suspects that CBMs with the US might increase the potential for a military confrontation. This reflects the mutual securitization dilemma in US – China relations: every action is interpreted as yet another security threat – on the Chinese side, even proposals for (nuclear) trust-building.

Setting up CBMs will require breaking this deadlock. In this regard, the US – Chinese meetings on nuclear affairs in early November represented a modest glimmer of hope. If the dialogues were to enter a more advanced stage, representatives could look to discuss shifts in the broader strategic US – Chinese framework. Traditionally, China follows a no first use” doctrine, which means it will refrain from using nuclear weapons except in retaliation to a nuclear attack. The US, which currently maintains the right to a first strike, could offer a reciprocal no first use declaration to China. Implemented correctly, this would calm bilateral relations and thereby pave the way for further stabilization through CBMs. Moreover, it would consolidate China’s commitment to its own no first use doctrine, which some perceive to be wavering. Nonetheless, neither the US Nuclear Posture Review nor Xi’s nebulous plans foresee substantial dialogue on such large-scale matters.

Nuclear De-Risking”: A European Contribution

Disrupting the mutually assured distrust will thus require more engagement from third-party actors like the European Union. Earlier in 2023, the concerns of US allies had already encouraged Sino – US dialogue on military and nuclear friction, but the European Commission’s primary response to the unfolding confrontation still remains economic de-risking” from China. However, given the gravity of a potential nuclear escalation, the EU would be well advised to intensify efforts on nuclear de-risking. Not only can it develop creative approaches to facilitate CBMs between the US and China, but it can also wield its political and diplomatic influence to promote dialogue between the two countries. An initial step would be to build a more unified European voice that can jointly remind nuclear powers of their urgent responsibility to maintain nuclear peace.

Of course, any conceivable initiative on cooling Sino – US (nuclear) tempers will carry the inherent risk of failure. Yet, considering what is on the line, the far greater risk lies in not allocating more resources toward such efforts.