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

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.

"We're looking for the worst kind of thing we can find," Kulacki said.

It is difficult for U.S. analysts to discern which authors are credible and actually speak for decision-makers in the Chinese government, he added. This had led to instances in which U.S. researchers have assumed that musings found on personal websites of private Chinese citizens or poorly sourced international news stories about rumored changes in China's nuclear posture represented Beijing's actual thinking, according to the specialist.

Kulacki blamed much of the United States' misreading of Chinese nuclear-weapons policy on the "debilitating bad" quality of U.S. government translations of military texts and other sources.

Official U.S. translations of Chinese nuclear-weapons terms misidentify parts of speech, obscure the correct identification of the subject of the sentence, or omit key phrases -- all of which significantly interferes with the ability to interpret the text's meaning, he said.

"The translation is abysmal. It's just bad. My guess is they're starting with machine translations and then fixing the English," Kulacki said. "This is the reason dialogue is critical. You have to get together at a table and talk about what you actually mean."

In an e-mail message to Global Security Newswire, Pentagon press officer Lt. Col. James Gregory said, "Department of Defense analysis of any U.S.-China strategic issue is based on a variety of sources, both classified and unclassified, to include direct interactions with both PRC [People's Republic of China] government and military officials, as well as authoritative PRC writings.

"When translations are necessary, DOD uses official translations and we do not rely on either private blog sites or unofficial translations," Gregory stated.

A key point of concern for U.S. defense planners is their perception that Beijing has secretly altered its policy of using its nuclear weapons only as a means of deterring attack to also using them as tool of coercion.

In a classified military textbook published in 2003 for use by the Second Artillery, one scenario involves a conventional war between the sides where a superior U.S. force is bombing or threatening to bomb Chinese atomic energy plants, large population centers, and key infrastructure.

In this scenario, Chinese military policy permits Beijing to respond by threatening the United States with a nuclear attack. These threats are to be conveyed through signaling that would gradually be escalated -- beginning with a media propaganda campaign and verbal warnings, followed by nuclear-strike drills, and ending with the naming of which U.S. cities would come under nuclear attack.

"The whole thing is about 'shock and awe' for them," said Kulacki, who has translated sections of the textbook. "The goal is to try to figure a way to knock us off balance, to keep us confused about where things could [lead] to in an escalating scenario" so that the United States decides to halt its conventional-military campaign against China.

Kulacki underlined that the textbook, entitled The Science of Operations of the Second Artillery, clearly states the policy of no first use still holds even in the scenario described above. "If you follow the text, clearly they are talking about bluffing."

The importance and centrality of China's no-first-use posture is addressed repeatedly in the textbook, Kulacki said. "They tell their soldiers over and over again in this text that this is really important, that this is a fundamental part of their strategy," he said.

Kulacki recommended the Pentagon devote more resources to improving its internal Mandarin translation capabilities in order to avoid further misunderstandings of Chinese nuclear and military policy.

"We have a lot of resources that we devote to national security and this is kind of blown over as if it doesn't really matter," he said. "This really matters. It's not glamorous, but it's essential stuff so that when we actually do get together we can [have an actual conversation]."

Li, who is also a professor of international relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing, suggested that the United States continue to support Track 1.5 diplomacy with China. This type of engagement typically involves high-ranking officials or empowered nongovernment officials engaging in informal dialogue.

He also recommended the United States translate another document -- the Chinese military's official glossary book of terminology.

In order to successfully engage with China on its nuclear-weapons policy, Washington needs to make a "long-term investment" in fostering and supporting more U.S. analysts and academics with China-specific language skills, nuclear expertise and cultural understanding, Kulacki said.

This article was originally published in Global Security Newswire, produced independently by National Journal Group under contract with the Nuclear Threat Initiative. NTI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan group working to reduce global threats from nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.