U.S.-China Nuclear Talks Stymied by Distrust and Miscommunication

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The two powers are struggling to come together on a shared policy for their nuclear weapons, with everything from mixed messaging to shoddy translations making cooperation harder and a deal less likely

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Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei gives a speech in Beijing / Reuters

Poor communication and divergent goals are hampering efforts by China and the United States to improve their understanding of each other's nuclear-arms policy, issue experts said on Wednesday.

In more than 10 years of bilateral talks on their respective nuclear-weapons programs, the United States and China are frequently "like chickens talking with ducks," according to Gregory Kulacki, a senior analyst in the Union of Concerned Scientists' Global Security Program. Neither side really believes or comprehends what the other is saying, he said.

"It's like an old couple stuck in a bad relationship that neither one really wants to leave," Kulacki said. "They both know what the problem is and they just don't have the energy to argue about it anymore."

Kulacki contends the crux of the problem lies with Washington's insistence that Beijing be more transparent about the size and capabilities of its nuclear arsenal.

China counters it is already more transparent than the United States about its deterrent posture as it has a declared absolute no-first-use policy while Washington has only pledged not to conduct nuclear strikes on states without atomic arsenals of their own that are also in good standing with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Estimates of the size of China's nuclear arsenal range from approximately 155 to 240 warheads. Beijing is projected to have as many as 75 long-range nuclear-capable missiles in addition to 120 intermediate- and medium-range missiles, the U.S. Defense Department said in a 2011 assessment of China's armed forces.

Comparatively, the United States possesses 1,790 fielded long-range nuclear warheads and 822 deployed ICBMs, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and nuclear bombers, according to figures compiled in September by the State Department. As of May 2010, the United States had declared a total nuclear arsenal of 5,113 active and reserve warheads.

Unlike the United States, China keeps its nuclear warheads separate from launch vehicles, according to an official Chinese military textbook.

The Obama administration has publicized the number and types of warheads held in the U.S. nuclear stockpile but Beijing argues that providing similar information would make its nuclear weapons more vulnerable to a potential disarming first strike by the United States.

"Beijing claims that it cannot talk about those things because it's essential to their strategy for [the United States] not to know," Kulacki told a Washington audience at a forum on improving U.S.-Chinese nuclear discussions.

However, the Obama administration is unsatisfied with that stance and argues that a no-first-use pledge would be small comfort in a moment of crisis when lives are at stake, he continued.

This distrust in turn is insulting to Chinese representatives at bilateral nuclear talks, which have been taking place at varying levels for years.

Beijing views the U.S. insistence on more transparency in nuclear stockpile numbers as an attempt to shift the focus away from China's urging that the United States declare a no-first-use policy, according to Kulacki, who has spent years encouraging and facilitating dialogues between U.S. and Chinese analysts on nuclear arms control issues.

In the October issue of Arms Control Today, Kulacki wrote, "it is difficult for Chinese analysts to appreciate why a country with overwhelming conventional military superiority is unable to make a basic confidence-building commitment that a much weaker China finds acceptable."

It was only this May that the first official senior-level strategic security talks were held between the two powers. Other meetings have been at the less formal levels.

One notable success of these informal discussions by U.S. and Chinese arms-control specialists was the 2006 agreement to write a bilingual glossary of nuclear-weapons terminology with mutually accepted definitions, Kulacki said.

Faced with an impasse on the no-first-use issue, the Obama administration is seeking to engage in nuclear discussions with the People's Liberation Army's Second Artillery rather than with the Chinese Defense Ministry, which is more of a "military-diplomacy place" and not a decision-making body, according Li Bin, a noted expert on nuclear-disarmament issues in China.

"I think DOD is right to find someone else to talk with," Li told forum attendees. However, the Second Artillery, which has responsibility over China's nuclear missiles, is not the right body to be talking with, he said.

Unlike the U.S. Strategic Command, the Second Artillery is not particularly active or experienced in nuclear dialogues, said Li, a senior associate in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Nuclear Policy Program. With time, officers from the Second Artillery could be ready to take part in security talks; until then, Li recommended the United States reach out to the Chinese nuclear-weapon laboratories for informal people-to-people exchanges.

Not wholly trusting of the answers they are receiving from the Chinese Defense Ministry on its nuclear deterrent posture, U.S. security planners have turned to poring over internal Chinese military literature, which is now published by a large number of state institutions.

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Rachel Oswald is a staff writer for Global Security Newswire.

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