US-China Strategic Nuclear & Space Security Dialogue

January 28-30, 2013
Beijing, China

Conference Report

7th China-US Dialogue on Strategic Nuclear Dynamics

The Pacific Forum CSIS, with the China Foundation for International and Strategic Studies, and with support from NPS PASCC and DTRA, held the 7th China-US Strategic Nuclear Dynamics Dialogue on Jan. 28-29, 2013. Some 80 Chinese and US experts, officials, military officers, and observers along with eight Pacific Forum Young Leaders attended, all in their private capacity. The level of the Chinese delegation was relatively senior, consistent with last year’s meeting, and included several active duty “two-star” officers, and significant participation from the Second Artillery. They joined two days of off-the-record discussion of nuclear policies, current proliferation challenges, cross-domain deterrence, crisis management, and prospects for bilateral cooperation. Key findings from this meeting include:

There is a certain edge, both in the room and in the overall bilateral relationship, caused by increased Chinese assertiveness toward its neighbors (US view) and/or the US ‘rebalance’ toward Asia and its impact: an increased willingness by China’s neighbors (especially US allies) to challenge its territorial sovereignty (Chinese view). Some Chinese argued this increasingly competitive environment made it more difficult to discuss sensitive nuclear issues.

Nonetheless, mutual familiarity generated by past meetings allowed for a generally positive, cooperative dialogue, especially when examining areas of potential future cooperation, common concerns, or definitions and/or protection of “common goods.” Both Chinese and US participants see value in track 1.5 and track 2 discussions of strategic nuclear and related policy issues as a means of laying the foundation for discussions at the official level and of reinforcing progress at track 1, if and when it gets started.

Chinese participants did not emphasize traditional concerns. There was almost no mention of Taiwan, no calls for the US to adopt a No First Use policy, and few complaints about US intrusions into China’s EEZ. The AirSea Battle, hotly debated at our last meeting, never came up at all. Instead, The 2013 Defense Authorization Act has become the latest US policy action cited as “proof” of American hostile intent. Chinese participants cited specific provisions that “target” China, in particular the call for a study of tunnels allegedly hiding large numbers of Chinese nuclear weapons. Since President Obama signed this legislation into law, it is viewed as his policy as well. In a carefully crafted statement, one very senior retired Chinese official with long experience in nuclear weapons development flatly and publicly denied that China is concealing nuclear weapons in tunnels.

Chinese participants acknowledge progress on nuclear arms control and security during the Obama administration’s first term and appeared optimistic about greater progress – additional US-Russia reductions, CTBT ratification – in a second term. Americans seemed less optimistic, citing domestic political constraints in Russia and the US.

Chinese and US participants agree on the value of a wider dialogue rather than a narrow focus on nuclear dynamics. Discussions of missile defense, space, cyber, and conventional weapon dynamics are worthwhile, as well as a discussion of interactions between them. Beyond that, Chinese participants – consistent with previous engagements – worried that discussing “deterrence” or focusing on the bilateral nuclear arena reinforced competitive elements in the relationship.

Chinese participants seemed to understand and acknowledge that American policy tacitly accepts mutual nuclear vulnerability between the US and China, but expressed concerns that the US was moving toward acquiring the capability to neutralize China’s deterrent (through advanced long range conventional munitions and “multilayered” missile defense). There was occasional reference to the US desire for ‘absolute security’ at the expense of China and others.

China continues to attach the highest priority to maintaining a credible second strike capability. While committed to maintaining a modest minimum deterrent force, the size of the force will ultimately be determined by US capabilities to neutralize China’s second strike.

Chinese participants continue to insist that the US and Russia have special responsibilities for advancing nuclear arms control and disarmament agendas given the size of their arsenals. US participants did not challenge Chinese views that it is “premature” for China to join such a dialogue but did stress the negative impact Chinese policies and lack of transparency have on the prospects for further US-Russia reductions, given concerns in both nations about a Chinese “sprint to parity.”

Chinese participants seemed reluctant to accept that Chinese nuclear policies, lack of transparency, and their continued buildup (which they feel is justified) play an important role in discouraging the next round of US-Russia cuts. They acknowledged that it would be appropriate for China (and the other nuclear weapons states) to join arms control talks “after one or two more rounds of US and Russian reductions.”

Some Chinese participants still argue that US nonproliferation policy is based on double standards by focusing on nuclear developments in Iran and the DPRK, while ignoring Israel and India. (The Chinese seldom mention Pakistan.) North Korea was acknowledged as a problem for both sides. Unlike in the past, there were few if any references to the Six-Party Talks as the solution.

Chinese and US participants agree on the overall goal of nonproliferation; they disagree on how to achieve it or its priority; Chinese acknowledge it is a lower priority for China than for the US. China endorses engagement, dialogue, and peaceful means, while the US is prepared to use a broader range of tools, including sanctions. There was little discussion about how to judge what actions count as noncompliance or how to respond to such instances.

A few Chinese participants emphasized the destabilizing effects of extended deterrence (ED), and noted that United States has sought to strengthen ED through its rebalancing policy. US participants stressed that ED has stabilizing effects and nonproliferation benefits for the Asia Pacific. As usual, Chinese participants were generally critical of US alliances in Asia, although more than in the past, they acknowledged ED’s role in keeping Japan (among others) non-nuclear.  China prefers a more inclusive cooperative Asia-Pacific security framework.

There is great suspicion in China about US rebalancing. It is widely thought to be directed against China. It is seen by many, especially among the general public and academic/military communities, as a cover for containment, an aggressive US posture in Asia, and (especially when combined with ED) the empowerment of allies to challenge China. Chinese elite are more inclined to make the distinction between rebalancing “being about China” and “being opposed to China,” and thus see both challenges and opportunities in the US approach. Despite its stated focus on the three “Ds” (diplomacy, development, and defense), most Chinese participants view the rebalance primarily through a military lens; several suggested that the US needed to “rebalance the rebalancing” (i.e. make adjustments and concessions to Chinese complaints).

One constant theme was concern about the potential for third parties to drag the US and China into conflict. Chinese acknowledged this applied to North Korea on their end, but focused on Japan and the Senkaku/Diaoyu issue; the Philippines and Vietnam were occasionally identified as well. There was little worry that these potential conflicts would escalate to the nuclear level, however.

Chinese participants are particularly unhappy with the US position on the Senkaku/Daioyutai dispute and consider the US to be siding with and encouraging Japan. They were particularly critical of Secretary Clinton but have expressed higher hope for incoming Secretary of State Kerry, citing his confirmation remarks as more balanced and sympathetic to Chinese concerns.

Chinese participants provided strong rhetorical endorsement of mil-mil exchanges, including on nuclear issues, but cautioned about identifying “appropriate topics” for such a dialogue, underscoring the need for joint agenda development. Consistent with past discussions, they offered no insights as to how to get such talks started.

According to some Chinese participants, China still resists an official bilateral nuclear dialogue for fear that it could be modeled on the ‘adversarial’ approach of US-Soviet talks. There are also concerns that opening a strategic dialogue with the US would require China to make immediate concessions on transparency. Fresh discussions and fresh approaches on transparency and each other’s expectations and fears regarding this concept are needed.

As in previous seminars, Chinese participants, both privately, and even in the open discussions, stated that the Second Artillery is only an operational organization, stressing that it plays no role in developing China’s nuclear policies. While this did not preclude it from participating in bilateral nuclear dialogue, its focus would be more on operational and procedural issues.

Chinese and US participants recognize the dangers of cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure. This could be one area of discussions on reassurance and a code of conduct. Some Chinese consider the Stuxnet attack on Iranian nuclear facilities an example of the use of offensive cyber-capabilities. They characterized it as an attack on Iran’s nuclear complex and worry that it has set a dangerous precedent for such attacks.

Chinese participants expressed a willingness to further study crisis management and are looking for specific CM scenarios. It was suggested that we study a nuclear crisis between two other nuclear powers – India-Pakistan – rather than ones involving the US or China more directly. 

There was strong support for a continuation of the dialogue, including a willingness to include a nuclear scenario table top exercise, perhaps focused on India and Pakistan. Future topics for this dialogue could include a deeper dive into options for multilateral arms control, especially within the P5; cross-domain deterrence and protection of “common goods”; crisis management (especially the identification of potential nuclear crises); greater understanding of key military capabilities based on technology rather than rumors or suspicions; an examination of the dangers of cyber-attacks; how signaling does and doesn’t work (perhaps using the Korean and Vietnam Wars as examples); and the development of Joint Principles for Mutual Strategic Reassurance. Discussion on just what is meant by Xi Jinping’s desire for a “new type of great power relationship” would also be beneficial; the Chinese made frequent reference to the term but could not adequately define it. The Chinese also continue to express interest in deepening their understanding of a range of nuclear arms control verification practices.

The main US messages were: let’s stay focused on common interests; let’s get going at track 1; let’s explore common challenges together at the conceptual level (e.g., offense/defense stability, cross-domain escalation, etc.); let’s focus on future cooperation rather than past grievances and examine what can be done rather than dwell on what can’t be done.

General observations: Chinese participants could be divided into two categories: an inner core of veterans who were pragmatic and forward thinking, and an outer tier who seemed to still be rehearsing superficial talking points. Among the inner core, there was a clear sense of progress and cautious optimism for broader and deeper dialogue both at track 1.5/2 and track 1, despite some mild disappointment over the current state of strategic relations. While some old themes keep stubbornly returning (absolute security, double standards, etc.), they stimulated discussion on both sides about what progress has been made and many inner core interlocutors joined their American colleagues in offering explanations and counter-arguments.

Inaugural China-US Dialogue on Space Security

The Pacific Forum CSIS, with support from NPS PASCC and DTRA, held the inaugural US-China Dialogue on Space Security on Jan. 30, 2013. Some 40 Chinese and US experts, officials, and observers along with eight Pacific Forum Young Leaders joined a half day of discussion of space policy; all attended in their private capacity. Key findings from this meeting include:

The tone of the meeting was very positive and both sides made a number of suggestions regarding enhanced bilateral cooperation on space issues.

Nonetheless, the first Chinese speaker stressed that Chinese feel “repeatedly humiliated” by US legal and administrative restrictions on space cooperation and this feeling is a powerful obstacle that must be addressed before formal discussions can move forward. US participants emphasized that these Congressional restrictions involve NASA activities and do not prevent the opening of dialogue and cooperation with other US governmental agencies dealing with space issues.

Chinese participants acknowledged “generally positive” changes in US space policy from the Bush administration to the Obama administration. They stressed that unlike the United States, China is still a “student” when it comes to space. They also insisted that there is no question that Beijing is determined to act responsibly. Chinese expressed appreciation for the space debris data and conjunction/collision warnings provided by the USAF.

Chinese participants believed that, in principle, Beijing is now willing to engage in bilateral dialogue on space cooperation (previously it had stated an interest in multilateral dialogue only). Topics of discussion could include the identification of shared perceptions and objectives, mutual assurance, and an understanding of each sides primary interests and concerns, along with more specific issues like space debris, cooperation to avoid collision in space, and scientific and technological cooperation. When US proposals begin with or focus on space debris, Chinese tend to see this as an attack on their ASAT test or capabilities.

Chinese participants played down concerns about ASAT tests, arguing that they have low-level technology and that the issue should be addressed via multilateral talks. One Chinese also highlighted that the United States only expressed a willingness to engage in a space dialogue after China’s ASAT test, suggesting that the US goal may be to limit Chinese capabilities. The USAF X-37B was again cited as a Chinese concern, due to its alleged ability to “catch and cripple” satellites.

A Chinese expert cited concerns about the security of China’s limited deterrent and suggested that the US make a unilateral pledge not to deploy space-based weapons. Some Americans dismissed space based weapons as very unlikely, both for technological and financial reasons.

Chinese participants suggested that the United States is resisting the Russian and Chinese proposal for a space arms control treaty because it seeks dominance in and the weaponization of space, despite the shift in US policy with the Obama administration. They also indicated a Chinese willingness to discuss the contents of their proposal in Geneva, including the possible addition of a ban on tests of ground-based systems. The recognition that outer space security includes ground elements [e.g., ground stations] as well as space, and that there should be discussions on constraining offensive activities in space, such as ASATs was another welcome note as China has in the past been rather cool toward restrictions on activities vs. on deployments.

US participants explained that Washington’s concerns about a space treaty are primarily linked to the impossibility of verifying compliance, and to doubts that Russia and China would enforce compliance, given their failure to do so in the nonproliferation realm. The Chinese sought to finesse the issue by saying that if scientists really tried, they could come up with an answer.  They also asserted that space verification is “important but not indispensable,” pointing out that other treaties like the Outer Space Treaty were also not verifiable, and the United States could always withdraw from the Treaty if it felt it had to. 

Escalation control is critical in space. Several participants suggested that more thought be given to a No First Use pledge regarding space weapons and, in the interim, other forms of control or regulation should be adopted.

While Chinese participants listed several specific objections to the EU’s international code of conduct – lack of formal mandate, too much emphasis on space debris while ignoring other issues – they generally agreed that the process should move forward with other efforts (including those aimed at a treaty).  They stated more than once that China is “open” to a space code of conduct, one calling it “of great importance,” and acknowledged that they are discussing with the EU its code of conduct proposal.  This is a noticeable shift in the Chinese posture from a few years ago.

Chinese participants highlighted that a number of countries in Asia are investing in space programs, notably India and Japan. As a result, multilateral discussions are also important. Our biggest common interest, globally, is avoidance of armed conflict in space.

There was general agreement that this space dialogue was useful and should be continued.