Recommendations for U.S.-China Cooperation on Reducing Nuclear Risks

By the Nolan Center Team

This week, on November 15th, U.S. President Joe Biden and China’s President Xi Jinping are set to meet in San Francisco. This follows U.S.-China nuclear talks held on November 6th, which marked an important step forward for both nations. The delegations were led by Mallory Stewart, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, and Sun Xiaobo, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Director-General of Arms Control, in Washington. The increase in official talks between the two nations is encouraging.

While we should maintain modest expectations for the planned Biden-Xi meeting in San Francisco, the meeting occurring and going relatively smoothly will be a significant mark of progress in itself. As there will be numerous high-stakes and pressing issues on the table, nuclear issues may or may not be a focus. For now, a win for both nations would be the two government leaders agreeing to hold regular nuclear dialogues. 

Official progress is giving way to another positive trend: an increase in U.S. civil society organizations sharing ideas about potential areas of future dialogue (and possibly cooperation). Many draw from a rich array of historical examples, and many show creative, new approaches. 

While our nations’ officials continue working hard behind the scenes, it will be important for nongovernmental organizations to keep developing and sharing ideas in the public realm and in private discussions. For the CSR team, we see many areas of common security interests between the United States and China that should be explored, and other existing areas of cooperation that are actively developing new ideas. For now, to contribute to the ongoing public discourse and reaffirm that there is no shortage of constructive topics our nations could discuss, this post will compile several things we’ve written about in the past.  

Preventing security dilemmas and lowering risks of miscalculation

To frame our approach, Christine Parthemore and Andrew Facini wrote in January that the United States and China should consider prioritizing steps that would contribute to:

  • Preventing worsening security dilemmas for both countries, and 
  • Reducing ambiguities that could heighten risks of miscalculation.

There are numerous steps that would help accomplish these objectives and be security wins for both nations, including an array of steps to avoid entanglement and the blurring of conventional and nuclear systems. Below are some key ones recommended by CSR.

Preventing the spread of tactical nuclear weapons

As part of an ongoing team-wide analytical effort to draw attention to qualitative changes in nuclear arsenals over time, in August we issued a report on tactical nuclear weapons. For decades, nuclear weapons states made strong, stabilizing progress in reducing the range of so-called tactical nuclear weapons capabilities that exist in the world. These countries recognized the risks of introducing these weapons to units closer to a potential front line with other ongoing tactical missions and also lowering the threshold for nuclear weapons use by having “more acceptable” “lower” yield weapons. Yet today, there is a real risk that nations may reverse the progress made in reducing these nuclear risks. 

Tactical nuclear weapons could be a valuable area for future dialogue, as China’s longstanding nuclear doctrine does not call for them. Now is the time to prevent their spread in the Indo-Pacific. Indeed, there are concerns that current efforts on Capitol Hill to establish a U.S. program of record for a new tactical system may cause China to consider fielding tactical nuclear systems out of a belief that they too have a “deterrence gap.” 

Whether or not the world sees an end to tactical nuclear weapons or a new rise in their numbers and prominence is one of the most consequential questions we face today. As the UN Secretary General has stated, “The so-called ‘tactical’ use of nuclear weapons is absurd. Nuclear-armed countries must renounce the use of these unconscionable weapons – anytime, anywhere.” The United States and China have a window of opportunity to help lead the world in this direction—perhaps beginning with a normative statement echoing the Secretary General.  

Putting the” N” back in INF

Additionally, longtime international security leader and CSR Board member Hon. Rose Gottemoeller has proposed that China and the United States may have common incentives to discuss measures that would build on the now-defunct U.S.-Russian Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty but focus only on nuclear capabilities (putting the N back in INF, as she has described it). Additionally, in her September 2022 testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gottemoeller also suggested that the United States and China could engage regarding the need to always have a person “in the loop” regarding nuclear weapons.

Halting the nuclear arming of cruise missiles

Based on several years of discussions on the subject (including in Beijing) along with our colleague John Gower, in 2019, Andy Weber and Christine Parthemore wrote an article called “Cruise Control: The Logical Next Step in Nuclear Arms Control?” Nations moving fully away from nuclear arming of cruise missiles should be on the long-term cooperation table for numerous reasons we explore in the article. Even in the near term, this may be a subject of interest for China given that their nuclear deterrent is so far entirely ballistic missile-based (as is also the case for the United Kingdom and others).   

This direction regarding air-launched cruise missiles would require U.S. (and therefore NATO) changes to current plans and postures. But this leaves two types for potential discussion: neither the United States nor China currently has ground-launched nuclear-armed cruise missiles, and the nations could continue this (even based on political agreement) as a sign of mutual restraint. 

This is also the case for sea-launched nuclear cruise missiles, which neither nation has today. For the United States, this would mean maintaining the approach set by the most recent Nuclear Posture Review that reversed the Trump administration’s attempt to revive it despite more than two decades of bipartisan presidential direction to have a strong U.S. nuclear deterrent that did not include these weapons.   

Improving crisis communications

Crisis communication is an area that Sahil Shah and John Gower have explored in detail. The ability for leaders from the United States and China to speak securely at a moment’s notice in the lead up to or during a crisis or conflict is essential. Current communication links must also be tested against new technologies that could undermine the integrity of the systems involved. The United States and China could consider reviving the 2020 Crisis Communications Working Group to talk through how to make existing and any newly created channels fit for purpose. They could also feed any lessons learned into ongoing P5 discussions on the same topic. 


Any of the above steps would help advance the two broad goals of preventing worsening security dilemmas for both countries, and reducing ambiguities that could heighten risks of miscalculation. All of them together would make a very strong and promising foundation for collaboration between the two nations on these critical, and potentially existential, issues. We look forward to continuing to develop additional ideas, and help elevate good ideas on other relevant steps coming from other colleagues in the field, so help support the hard official work that we hope the two nations continue.  


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