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There’s a sliver of good US-China news — and it involves nukes

Rare arms control talks come ahead of an anticipated summit this month between Biden and Xi.

At left, Biden smiles, sitting at a long table with papers and pen in front of him, while listening to Xi speak. At right, a large screen shows Xi Jinping, seated at his own table while talking.
President Joe Biden meets with China’s President Xi Jinping during a virtual summit at the White House in November 2021.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

On Monday, the United States and China talked nukes — a rare bit of engagement that offers a teeny, tiny glimmer of optimism amid tensions between the two powers.

The arms control discussions, first reported by the Wall Street Journal last week, and confirmed by the White House National Security Council and State Department, come ahead of an anticipated meeting between President Joe Biden and China’s leader Xi Jinping later this month.

These are the first such talks on nuclear arms control since the Obama administration. And while there is no real expectation of any major breakthrough, it’s still a big deal that the two countries are talking, and talking about nukes in particular — especially given China’s rapid nuclear weapons buildup, the lack of crisis communications between the US and China, and the escalating nuclear threats worldwide, most notably from Russia around the war in Ukraine.

This is also a big deal because of what it signals about the balance of nuclear weapons in the world — who has them, how many, and what risks that raises. China has historically resisted nukes talks on a bilateral and multilateral basis because its arsenal is still a fraction of the US or Russia’s, and it fretted that such transparency would also impose limitations on its own capabilities. “On some level, this is a recognition that China is moving into the category that the United States and Russia — previously the Soviet Union — were in and are in with regard to their nuclear arsenal, and I think that is a significant historical shift,” said Jacob Stokes, senior fellow in the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.

“They’re moving into that reluctantly — backing into it rather than shouting it from the rooftops,” he added. But it still is a signal that the nuclear balance among major powers is shifting, and the architecture around that needs to change, too.

Ambitions for these talks are pretty tempered — this is a bit like the diplomatic equivalent of the US and China dipping their toes into the water. Arms control talks in general tend to take years of painstaking diplomacy (see: the US and Soviet Union/Russia during and after the Cold War) and long-term investment.

Instead, these talks are a way for the Biden administration to gauge China’s nuclear ambitions, and potentially open channels, including for communications on things like missile tests, and laying the groundwork for discussions on mutual restraint and capabilities. According to US officials, these meetings are part of an ongoing effort to keep the lines of communication open with China, and to engage with Beijing on the issue of arms control and reducing strategic risk.

China and the US may be seizing a very small window to engage

These talks are also a signal of a small — and tenuous — easing in US-China tensions in recent months. After the spy balloon incident earlier this year, with relations at a nadir, the US and China have tentatively tried to find openings for dialogue.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to Beijing in June to find some diplomatic openings, and his trip was followed up by visits from the likes of Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Climate envoy John Kerry, and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo. (Also, take with it what you will, but Sen. Chuck Schumer, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, and Henry Kissinger all had fairly recent meetings with Xi.)

These arms control discussions come as Biden and Xi are expected to meet on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit, which begins next week in San Francisco. The exact details of the meeting are still in flux, but the two have an “agreement in principle” to get together at the summit. This anticipated Xi-Biden meeting has prompted a flurry of diplomatic activity, likely including these arms control talks.

And the timing for Xi and Biden to sit down now is narrowing. Hawkishness on China may be a rare instance of bipartisan convergence in Washington these days, but the Biden administration has appeared at least willing to tone down the rhetoric to reduce the risk of outright conflict with Beijing. But with the US presidential election about a year away, even that bit of wiggle room may evaporate; as the campaign heats up, it’s likely that so, too, will the China-bashing. Biden’s actions toward China will also be more closely scrutinized, which could make difficult even minor rapprochement.

The Ukraine war and the Israel-Hamas conflict are consuming a lot of the US’s diplomatic and foreign policy energy, so both the US and China may also feel that talking out of the spotlight might give them a bit more room to maneuver. Beijing, too, is facing a lot of domestic challenges, especially around its economy. US efforts to cut China from advanced technology and encourage other countries to decouple from China likely also make Beijing nervous. Plus, Taiwan has elections in January that could potentially shift its politics and relationship with Beijing, or keep Taiwan on a similar pro-independence path. All of this is converging to bring Biden and Xi together, and that is greasing the wheels for other discussions, including those on arms control — though whether anything will come from it is an open question.

The world isn’t doing great with arms control right now

These US-China nuclear talks are also notable because of the pretty dismal state of nuclear arms control globally.

Russia’s war in Ukraine has raised the specter of nuclear confrontation, and earlier this year Moscow suspended its participation in New START, the last remaining bilateral arms control treaty with the US that was already set to expire in 2026. The Biden administration has indicated it’s willing to work with Russia on nuclear risk reduction in a different format — something Russia hasn’t totally kiboshed outright just yet. But even that kind of diplomacy is unlikely to fully revive the formal US-Russia arms-control regime previously in place, one that put caps on nukes and included robust verification and data-sharing measures.

Meanwhile, the US and China don’t have all that much by way of arms control architecture, even as China continues to build up its nuclear forces and Beijing has been reluctant to open up deconfliction channels with Washington. A recent Pentagon report in October said China increased the number of operational nuclear warheads to more than 500 as of May, and that it plans to hit about 1,500 by 2035. That’s still just a sliver of what the US and Russia have — about 5,000 each, with around 1,500 warheads ready to be launched — but it’s undeniable Beijing is rapidly increasing its forces.

Russia’s saber-rattling and China’s nuke buildup mean the US is potentially facing twin nuclear threats from two adversarial countries. That has intensified calls, especially among Republicans, for the US to respond in kind, and expand its own nuclear arsenal.

The Biden administration has so far resisted this pressure. The US is proceeding with a likely more than trillion-dollar, multi-decade modernization of its nuclear forces, but the Biden White House has continued to emphasize the immediate need for arms control, risk reduction, and diplomacy — including with China and Russia — as part of its nuclear deterrence strategy. But achieving that, especially in such a volatile geopolitical environment, is a much harder task.

Yet these latest nuclear arms talks are at least a glimmer of goodwill, on both the question of arms control and on the US-China relationship. Any transparency on China’s nuclear posture would be a welcome development. Again, these talks are likely more an opening than anything else.

But even with nukes, you’ve gotta start somewhere.

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