Opinion | China’s Nuclear Ambitions Have Changed the World


It’s true that it’s not an easy time for trust-building exercises; the current level of mistrust between Chinese and American military intentions is deep. Speaking to Congress in March, Gen. Anthony Cotton, commander of all U.S. nuclear forces, suggested that China’s rapid nuclear expansion indicated its no-first-use policy was no longer credible. The Pentagon wrote in an October report that, despite China’s rhetoric, Beijing might consider using nuclear weapons first anyway during a crisis if it came down to the survival of Mr. Xi’s regime, such as defeat in a war with Taiwan. It also remains unclear how exactly China would respond if its nuclear forces were hit during a conflict. Would that trigger Beijing’s nuclear use? “Unknown,” the Pentagon said in the report.

Talking through these points of contention may help Beijing and Washington understand and appreciate the factors that go into formulating the finer points of each other’s nuclear policy. The very process of dialogue and diplomacy can help the Chinese hear American concerns, and vice versa. Given the widening gulf of fear and suspicion between the two nations around Taiwan, there is no better moment for them to sit down and discuss what constitutes a credible no-first-use commitment.

It may be that an unequivocal no-first-use pledge ends up being impossible. The talks may not result in a deal anyone can agree upon, and even if a deal were to be reached, it would be impossible to verify, meaning it would be more symbolic than substantive. But that doesn’t mean Washington shouldn’t take up Beijing’s invitation. In the increasingly endangered world of nuclear diplomacy, discussions on one treaty can still set the table for another. New START, the only remaining major arms control agreement between the United States and Russia, was built on the foundation of the original START I, which was signed two decades earlier.

Under Mr. Xi, China appears to have left its policy of minimum deterrence behind. If the Biden administration is serious about arms control, it’s time to look for common ground with Beijing to build new agreements for a safer future.

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