In early November the United States and China held their first talks on nuclear security and arms control since 2019. The talks came ahead of a much anticipated meeting between President Biden and President Xi in San Francisco.
There were no tangible outcomes from these initial nuclear security talks, but the fact that they happened at all is a sign of progress according to my guest today Rachel Elizabeth Whitlark. She is an Associate Professor in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a Nonresident senior fellow in the Forward Defense practice of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. She is also author of the book All Options on the Table: Leaders, Preventive War, and Nuclear Proliferationwhich includes archival research on how past US administrations approached the Chinese nuclear program. And as you will see from our conversation, that history is instructive for understanding why China may be seeking to expand its nuclear program today.
This is an excerpt of our conversation, edited for clarity
Rachel Elizabeth Whitlark: The first thing I want to say is that in a world of horrible news, and often horrible nuclear news, it’s quite a sea change to have even a tiny glimmer of some positive signs in the nuclear portfolio. And I would put even the little that we know so far about these recent discussions sort of in that category of potentially good news.
So at least what I have seen publicly discussed is that there was a meeting earlier between the Assistant Secretary of State, Mallory Stewart, and her Chinese counterparts on some arms control and nuclear nonproliferation discussions. These conversations were described by the United States as “constructive,” and it seems as though they focused on the need to open and maintain channels of communication between the United States and the Chinese, and work to responsibly manage the bilateral relationship.
You know, previously there hasn’t been much in terms of transparency or substantive engagement, really, if any, on practical matters to help us manage and reduce the myriad risks that exist in the nuclear and space domains. And so the news is suggesting there were constructive conversations that were geared towards promoting stability, strategic stability in the relationship, helping to one day avoid arms race dynamics and manage the competition between the United States and China so that it doesn’t become a broader conflict. And I think it’s worth saying out loud that we can think of this development as part of seemingly joining this sort of growing high level engagements that the Biden administration is having on a variety of substantive areas with China. So we’ve seen Secretary of State Blinken and National Security Advisor Sullivan, Commerce Secretary Raimondo and others engaging on security and also economic conversations with their Chinese counterparts. So I think we can understand this particular arms control and nonproliferation meeting sort of in that broader context of the US and China talking more about these important matters.
Mark Leon Goldberg: Do you foresee there to be a potential arms control agreement between China and the United States? Obviously not anytime soon, but if there is one, what are some of the key asks from both sides that you foresee being key points in a potential agreement– if we ever get there?
Rachel Elizabeth Whitlark:I would say in the near term my hope is that the Biden-Xi meeting is going to offer more concrete news and sort of elaboration of some of the things that I hope are going to happen sort of immediately. We’ve heard noise about the two parties being open to the possibility of military-to-military communication. We don’t have a direct line of communication or at least an active, direct line of communication between Washington and Beijing. And I think even if we got news about concrete steps in that small vein, that would be progress.
The way that I’m inclined to think about arms control generally is that even small steps can actually beget more meaningful steps in the future. So for many reasons, I’m sort of suspicious that the current environment is one that is going to be inclined towards any real major substantive conversations with a treaty level or big agreement level between the United States and the Chinese — and certainly not between the United States and the Chinese and the Russians. I just don’t think, given everything else going on in the world, that the time is now. But my hope is that as time goes on, there will be more meaningful conversations that can serve to maybe concretize the rules of the road, for example, where the cyber domain meets the nuclear domain, or to have some common understandings about how we are approaching autonomous capabilities in as much as they could interact with or interfere in the nuclear domain. So I think we would benefit greatly from having some productive conversations on those matters.
Longer term, it’s not clear to me that there’s any conversation that could happen that would successfully cause the Chinese to roll back their nuclear program, certainly not in the near term. But I would be inclined to think favorably about really anything that can help mitigate the worst escalation risks or opportunities for mistakes, dangerous mistakes to be made more broadly. I think there is hope to one day include China in broader discussions about disarmament or just general information sharing between and across the permanent five members of the Security Council, all of whom have nuclear weapons. I think we could benefit from more dialogue, more risk reduction, information sharing and verification mechanisms across all parties, sort of in line with what the United States and Russia had before the contemporary period. So maybe my expectations are sort of managed, but my hope is that we’ll be able to see progress in some of these directions, hopefully at some point in the future.
Mark Leon Goldberg: Based on what you’re saying, it seems to me that having talks for the sake of having talks is a good thing in this context, just because there has been such little dialogue between the Chinese and the United States on nuclear issues. This is in contrast to decades and decades of talks between the United States and the Soviet Union and Russia. So you can understand each other and have certain points of reference, whereas with the Chinese there has been just so little dialogue that the risk of misunderstanding is so high. Just having these talks in the first place is itself a win in the nuclear security context.
Rachel Elizabeth Whitlark: I totally agree. I mean, just having those conversations and identifying counterparts and being humans in the room talking about these important matters, even if there’s not some treaty at the end of the day, to my mind, exactly as you said, is very important in and of itself. There is so much room for misperception and so much possibility for accidents and escalations. And the last thing we want to be doing is stumbling inadvertently to a nuclear exchange. And I think the Chinese would wholeheartedly agree with that perspective. So if we only think of arms control and progress in the nuclear domain as coming in the forms of treaties that need Senate ratification and the rest, no, I think we’re missing a lot of really, really important stuff that hopefully will set the stage for those kind of events down the line. But there’s a lot of meaningful work just communicating and having dialogs and working towards building an understanding of what the other is doing.