The Obama administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) contained a number of passages addressing the U.S.–China strategic relationship. Lora Saalman, associate at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, presented her research on the reactions of Chinese experts to these passages and to the NPR as a whole. Drawn from more than twenty discussions with key members of China’s arms control establishment, as well as Chinese media outlets and journals, Saalman assessed how Chinese experts view U.S. nuclear policy and the Obama administration’s renewed focus on nuclear arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament. 

Overall Assessment

Among Chinese arms control experts, the NPR is “generally seen as a positive move,” Saalman said. However, the experts and members of the media expressed some concerns about the NPR and the Obama administration’s nonproliferation efforts.

Strategic Stability and Mutual Vulnerability

  • Strategic Stability: Several statements in the NPR stress the need for the United States to maintain strategic stability with Russia and China. Strategic stability is defined roughly as a relationship in which neither side has the opportunity or incentive to destroy all of their opponent’s nuclear forces.

  • Nuclear Asymmetry: While U.S. experts are exploring ways to build strategic stability with China, Saalman questioned whether or not Chinese experts were convinced that this could be achieved under conditions of nuclear asymmetry. Currently, the United States has approximately 1,500 deployed warheads, while China is estimated to have several hundred.

  • Russia: The fact that Russia and China are mentioned together in the NPR’s discussion of strategic stability suggests that the United States accepts mutual deterrence and vulnerability with China, as it does with Russia. However, Chinese experts tend to resist being characterized as a “little Russia,” much less the premise that the United States would, in fact, accept mutual vulnerability with China.

  • No Longer a Target: Optimistic experts say China’s inclusion in discussions of strategic stability might suggest that China is no longer listed as a potential target of a nuclear strike, and reveals possibilities for meaningful confidence-building measures.

  • A Possible Adversary: Other experts with whom Saalman spoke expressed a more pessimistic view, however, suggesting that the United States still sees China as an adversary, and may use the notion of strategic stability to maintain the current power asymmetry between Washington and Beijing.

Strategic Stability vs. Strategic Trust

The NPR calls for increased transparency of U.S. and Chinese nuclear forces. However, Chinese experts disagree about the benefits and goals of transparency.

  • Transparency: While U.S. leaders see transparency as a confidence-building measure, Chinese experts see transparency as a byproduct of “strategic trust,” Saalman explained. They view U.S. demands for transparency at this stage as a potential threat to China’s relatively small nuclear arsenal and mobile missile forces.

  • Other Issues: Chinese experts advocate greater engagement between the two powers, but argue that China’s leaders are unlikely to participate unless missile defense, nuclear submarine deployments, conventional weapons advances, Taiwan, and other issues important to Beijing are placed on the table.

  • Idealism vs. Realism: China supports the ideal of nuclear disarmament, but a number of experts told Saalman that bringing China into the U.S.–Russian arms reductions process at this stage remains unrealistic and premature.

  • Stability and Trust: Saalman noted a primary difference between the two countries frequently cited by Chinese analysts is that the United States urges transparency first, followed by strategic trust. For, the Chinese, transparency follows strategic trust.

Slogans vs. Sincerity

Chinese experts question the extent to which the NPR and the Obama administration’s approach to nuclear policy represent a sustainable shift in U.S. policy, Saalman said. Some Chinese experts see contradictions between U.S. political rhetoric and the technical reality.

  • Modernization: The United States plans to “modernize” its nuclear arsenal but simultaneously criticizes China’s efforts to improve the survivability of its nuclear forces through mobility, decoys, camouflage, and missile improvements.

  • Overall Changes: The United States and Russia have taken steps toward disarmament but overall force structures and the U.S. strategic nuclear triad has not changed. Chinese experts suspect U.S. leaders lack the political will to pursue deeper cuts.

  • Rhetoric and Reality: Chinese experts told Saalman that while U.S. rhetoric favors strategic stability, U.S. actions in the South China Sea that include surveillance of China’s nuclear submarines, as well as plans to arm nuclear-capable ballistic missiles with conventional warheads, undermine strategic stability and make it difficult for China to be transparent about its nuclear forces.

  • Long-term Change: Chinese experts also doubt the ability of renewed U.S. focus on arms control and disarmament to survive a change in presidential administration or other domestic priorities, Saalman said. As such, technological cooperation and controls that take advantage of the current political momentum offer greater sustainability than political rhetoric.

The Way Forward

Based on her research, Saalman recommended that the United States should consider placing the following issues on the table in its talks with China to build “strategic trust” and ultimately “strategic stability”:

  • Clarification of definitions and terms in the NPR, in particular that of “strategic stability” vis-à-vis China, to reduce ambiguities that may lead to alternative interpretations

  • Specific proposals for technical cooperation and controls that promote sustainability beyond political rhetoric attached to one administration

  • Technological constraints on missile defense, similar to those explored with Russia, that will mitigate the ability to use such systems against China

  • No-First-Use discussions in a private bilateral forum or multilateral forum, including de facto nuclear weapons states such as India and Pakistan

  • Conventional weapons development controls and discussions on such programs as Prompt Global Strike

  • U.S. nuclear submarine deployments in the Pacific and monitoring via ocean surveillance vessels

  • The status of Taiwan and questions over the U.S. use of nuclear weapons in “extreme circumstances”

  • The U.S. nuclear umbrella and missile defense cooperation with Japan and other nations

  • Enhanced scientist cooperation and discussion of the Cox Report on alleged Chinese espionage at U.S. nuclear weapons facilities