On Tuesday, November 15, U.S. President Joe Biden held a phone call with President Xi Jinping of China. In a small but important step, the two leaders agreed to consider pursuing discussions on nuclear arms control. As national security adviser Jake Sullivan described, “The two leaders agreed that we would look to begin to carry forward discussions on strategic stability.”
This is a historically difficult challenge given that China has significantly lower numbers of nuclear weapons than the United States and Russia. Yet all 3 countries, and others, are facing increasing nuclear risks, which are growing even more complex by the evolution of emerging technologies and other factors. This should provide a platform for arms control options that reduce security risks to all 3 nations.
Sullivan affirmed that details remain to be developed, yet even with this indicator toward discussions there is a sign of hope—and many options for next steps. For some options, experts from the Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) have engaged with Chinese experts and officials in the past, including in Track 1.5 meetings in Beijing and elsewhere.
To begin, as we wrote at the time of the Biden-Putin summit in summer 2021, the elevated focus on strategic stability and risk reduction is the appropriate framing. This applies to the United States and China relationship as well. As our colleague Rear Admiral John Gower has emphasized in recent years, refocusing on strategic stability and risk reduction can guide us in the direction of practical steps toward progress.
Looking forward, the United States should consider arms control measures for which China would only need to agree not to pursue new nuclear capabilities—not relinquish existing capabilities.
Leading this list are nuclear-armed cruise missiles. Progress may need to begin with measures focused on different methods of delivery: A nuclear-only agreement following the past Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty may be the lowest-hanging fruit, if it is also tailored only to cruise missiles and setting aside for now the ballistic missile systems that are more core to China’s security calculations. China, the United States, and Russia could all agree not to arm such systems with nuclear warheads. Former U.S. arms control negotiator Rose Gottemoeller has explored this idea deeply in a 2020 article.
Agreements regarding sea- and air-launched nuclear cruise missiles could follow, which would both require policy changes by the United States and Russia (though ones we argue would reduce risks and enhance strategic stability for both nations) but not require China to give anything up from its current arsenals.
Further discussions could focus on limiting, avoiding, and eliminating other dual-capable systems, new and novel nuclear capabilities, and nuclear systems that many consider more useful in warfighting rather than solely for deterrence. U.S.-China talks could also center on declarations of restraint regarding the roles of nuclear weapons in each nation’s policies, and hypothesize how various arms control concepts could be verified.
CSR experts have discussed many of these ideas as part of our work to develop ideas for the future of arms control. Some resonated well with Chinese officials and experts over the years—and we hope CSR can play a role in updating our unofficial conversations in ways that support official progress in our respective nations’ future discussions.
The way toward this recent step with China was paved by a shift in the U.S. policy landscape: increasing bipartisan convergence that the future of arms control should look different from the past—in particular, in building beyond the bilateral US-Russia (and prior Soviet-US) paradigm.
The CSR and its Nolan Center team have been advocating for getting creative in designing future arms control concepts for years, including expanding the parties at the table, and we’ve seen that conversation spreading. It was even enshrined in the Democratic Party Platform in 2020, despite pushback within the party that the bilateral paradigm should be the primary or sole focus of arms control in the coming years.
This is a small but important signal, including given that it comes at such a tense time. I hope the Biden administration leans heavily into making strategic stability talks with China a reality in the coming months.
Christine Parthemore is the CEO of the Council on Strategic Risks.