The Tenth China-US Dialogue on Strategic Nuclear Dynamics

A CFISS-Pacific Forum Workshop

June 13-14, 2016
Beijing, China

Conference Report

The Pacific Forum CSIS, with the China Foundation for International and Strategic Studies (CFISS), and with support from NPS/PASCC and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, held the 10th China-US Strategic Nuclear Dynamics Dialogue in Beijing on June 13-14, 2016. More than 70 Chinese and US experts, officials, military officers, and observers met in their private capacities to discuss US-China strategic relations with an emphasis on its nuclear dimension. Our off-the-record discussions covered comparative assessments of military developments in the Asia-Pacific region and their implications for US-China strategic relations, the relationship of nuclear weapons and cyber and outer space, each country’s relations with Russia and their effect on nuclear dynamics (in particular arms control), regional nuclear challenges, the role of nuclear and strategic capabilities in military alliances, and strategic stability and reassurance. Key findings from this meeting include:

The tone of the meeting was more positive than anticipated. Despite repeated references to tensions in US-China relations and a defense of China’s actions in the South China Sea (SCS), most Chinese sought areas of agreement, avoided pointed criticism of US behavior, and eschewed the usual talking points. There was almost no mention of Xi Jinping pronouncements, the “new type of major country relations,” Japan militarism, or Taiwan. There was effort to put ideas on the table and find solutions (albeit mostly aimed at reassuring China). The discussion on space and cyber focused on identifying areas of overlapping perspectives and opportunities to cooperate. A continuation of break-out sessions (this time on North Korea and Iran) permitted more focused discussion.

Chinese interlocutors seemed more comfortable this year using Strategic Stability as the organizing principle for the US-China relationship. Mutual vulnerability – an assured Chinese second-strike capability – remains an essential component. Discussion of “asymmetric strategic stability” suggested the Chinese have found some way to differentiate the term strategic stability from its (problematic) Cold War origins and were aimed at reassuring the US that China was not seeking parity.

Typically, Chinese interlocutors stressed that Strategic Stability can be interpreted two ways: broadly, to encompass the entire range of relations between the two countries, or narrowly, to just include its nuclear dimensions. Chinese colleagues stressed repeatedly that tensions in the broader relationship (read: South China Sea) could impact strategic stability, even though our nuclear relations currently remain stable, due to China’s minimum deterrence policy.

Chinese participants worried about the prospect of increased US reliance on nuclear weapons if the regional conventional military balance shifted in China’s favor. They also expressed concern that developments in Europe may lead the US to increase its reliance on nuclear weapons, indirectly impacting China. They worried the next US administration (regardless of who wins) would reverse the current US stated commitment toward reduced reliance on nuclear weapons.

Despite the cordial tone, many US questions (some longstanding) remain unanswered. The Chinese still can’t/won’t articulate a level or threshold at which China had “enough” nuclear weapons,” a prerequisite for easing concerns about a “sprint to parity” by Beijing if the US and Russia continue arms control efforts, but did ask what assurances the US side seeks in this regard. The transparency discussion generally avoided old arguments and complaints. 

While details regarding the ongoing reform of the People’s Liberation Army remain sketchy, Chinese participants said its aim was to create a “much more capable fighting force” with parallel structures to the US (which should make cooperation easier). Several Chinese participants noted that Beijing will not remain passive in the face of US actions, which they increasingly view as attempts to contain China or undermine its re-rise. As one military expert noted, “if the rebalance is meant to alarm China, it has succeeded. If it is meant to engage and include China, it has not succeeded.”

While Chinese interlocutors were not as insistent as in the past on the need for the US to adopt a No-First Use (NFU) policy, they repeatedly noted its advantages and floated the possibility of a bilateral China-US NFU pledge. They asserted that China-Russia relations are more stable than China-US relations because they have a bilateral NFU arrangement. Despite US insistence to the contrary, at least one Chinese reiterated that the absence of a US NFU policy was akin to a strategy for preventive nuclear war. Chinese discussion concerning Prompt Global Strike, THAAD, anti-submarine warfare (including unmanned systems), and nuclear force modernization reflected this assessment.

Generally speaking, Chinese participants voiced little concern about Russian behavior. There was no worry about Russia’s violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Agreement (INF) as Chinese participants insisted that Russia’s existing force structure could already threaten China and no additional weapons were needed. They dismissed concerns about the Russian embrace of ‘escalate to de-escalate’ within its military posture, arguing that the approach was primarily a logical fix to Russian conventional weakness, comparable to the US policy of ‘flexible response’ during the Cold War and argued it was a temporary policy shift, from 2001 to 2010.  The discussion of the Russian view of "deescalating" was fairly sophisticated, differentiating between "a first limited use and a first strike" and highlighting challenges to credibility in such a tactic.

Throughout the discussion, on- and off-line, Chinese interlocutors evinced concern directly and indirectly about US missile defense and regarded it as a threat to strategic stability, although the threat seemed more political (tightening or integrating US alliances) than operational, although such concerns remain: one Chinese made indirect reference to the SMIII2a regional interceptor now in US-Japan co-development; we are sure to hear more about this in the future.

While the tone was generally polite, all denounced the planned deployment of THAAD to South Korea and disregarded US assurances about its potential impact on Chinese nuclear capabilities. When presented with unclassified technical specifics, the Chinese raised a range of follow-on questions suggesting that they have deeply analyzed the issue. They cited their own assessment of THAAD being capable of intercepting thousands of missiles in the future. They expressed interest in the time interval the radar could detect initial burn stages of Chinese missiles, arguing the increased observation time would help refine U.S. Shared Early Warning. They asked if THAAD could be rapidly reoriented if employed in the forward deployed vice fire control mode and also inquired about the number of THAAD batteries needed to defend the ROK and how these systems would interoperate with ROK ballistic missile defenses.

Several Chinese participants argued that THAAD was foisted upon South Korea by Washington. US participants explained that Seoul’s calculus had changed as a result of greater assertiveness by North Korea, Beijing’s failure to rein in Pyongyang, and Beijing’s own hardline diplomacy. On a more positive note, some Chinese proposed ways to enhance reassurance, suggesting that there may be room to alleviate Beijing’s concerns (or even that they may be looking for a face-saving way to get beyond their stated objections). Our Chinese interlocutors left the meeting better informed about THAAD but remain unconvinced.

Chinese participants argued that they faced a difficult dilemma dealing with North Korea. While sanctions could eventually bring the North back to the negotiating table, this could take some time (two years being most frequently cited).  In the interim, delaying engagement allowed Pyongyang to develop new nuclear and missile capabilities. Nonetheless, they insisted that Beijing was prepared to strictly enforce sanctions and to “bring the DPRK to the brink of collapse,” but asked “what then?” The hope was that Pyongyang, when faced with a hard choice between economic development and continued development of nuclear weapons, would be compelled to finally agree to put denuclearization on the table, but creating another crisis was the anticipated first response.

While patience with the Kim Jong Un regime is clearly wearing thin, the Chinese have not yet fully taken on board the “game-changing” impact an operational North Korean nuclear warhead-equipped ballistic missile would have on Washington’s strategic calculus. Some Chinese participants argued that Chinese support for UNSCR 2270 should yield US concessions on issues that are important to Beijing, such as SCS disputes. US participants stressed the DPRK denuclearization was also in China’s interest and that quid pro quos were neither necessary nor appropriate.

Of note, several Chinese suggested that Six-Party Talks participants resume negotiations on the basis of the Sept. 19, 2005 Joint Statement. If “all parties” were not ready to accept that statement, a seat at the table should be left for Pyongyang but the talks should proceed without the DPRK; this was a significant change from previous Chinese reactions to five-party dialogue proposals. Chinese interlocutors continued to promote their “dual approach” to dialogue, involving simultaneous discussions on denuclearization and a peace accord (involving the DPRK and ROK plus China and the US).

On Iran, both sides were largely on the same page, arguing that the nuclear deal was a significant achievement that would help manage the Iranian nuclear situation going forward, but that managing the deal narrowly as well as the broader opportunities it provides would require proactive action by all parties. Chinese participants made two provocative comments. First, they noted that some non-governmental Chinese analysts have argued the deal actually disadvantages China, since it will lose business and political influence in Iran as the deal opens doors for others. Second, they stated that in the aftermath of the deal China had felt marginalized, although they were not specific about why they felt marginalized and what the United States might have done, or might do now, to address the issue.

There is still little clarity or consensus on either side about the impact of cross-domain operations on strategic stability and deterrence. While there is broad agreement that cyber and space attacks on command and control facilities could be seen as an indication of a strategic attack, there is no consensus on where the threshold is or what constitutes an appropriate response. Still, there was a shared and more nuanced view of the role of cyber.  Both sides saw some degree of cyber (or more broadly, electronic) warfare as increasingly integrated in operations.  But how easily we might separate a set of more escalatory options was more problematic (for both sides).  More generally, both sides would benefit from determining how combining cyber and space assets with other conventional capabilities might impact strategic stability.

Despite a decade of attempts by the US to explain the meaning, purpose, and content of extended deterrence (ExD) commitments, Chinese interlocutors remain troubled by the concept and its implementation. While more nuanced (and less combative), they still fear that ExD targets China and worry that it emboldens countries under the nuclear umbrella to take risks and challenge China. Moreover, Chinese seem to equate ExD exclusively with nuclear responses (overlooking the conventional force dimension) and at times seemed to associate ExD with the deployment and use of tactical nuclear weapons, while inquiring if/how ExD applied to “grey zone” conflicts.

Throughout the meeting, Chinese participants made concrete suggestions as to how the US could reassure China; the US could invite Chinese officials to inspect an operational THAAD battery or share radar data, or refrain from developing and deploying antisubmarine warfare systems that would put at risk Chinese strategic naval assets. Yet the Chinese did not appear reassured by steps taken by US delegates to address previous concerns, remained generally unreceptive to offers for track one technical briefings, and offered few if any suggestions as to how China could and should reassure the US.

Next steps: We remain hopeful that we can continue to build on this Track 1.5 process to help move the overall strategic relationship in the cooperative direction that both countries affirm is their goal. A working draft focused on nuclear, space, and cyber capabilities, their interactions, and implications for strategic stability was circulated at the end of the meeting as an initial effort to draft a joint statement on ‘rules of the road’ prior to our next meeting. An informal working group is also being created focused on Korean Peninsula crisis management, to identify common objectives and a possible shared vision. The Chinese side seemed slightly more optimistic regarding eventual track one dialogue and continues to see this dialogue as fueling that process. The next meeting is tentatively planned for early 2017, with a focus on recommendations for the incoming US administration.

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