Reviews | What Biden and Xi can learn from the Cold War nuclear arms race

The United States and Russia are working together from Cuba to prevent further nuclear crises. The world’s first nuclear arms race offers two important lessons on how to avoid a second: First, the United States and China should avoid trying to limit new technologies and focus on mutual nuclear predictability. Second, they must be prepared for a long way, because agreeing on common measures to promote this predictability is far from straightforward. Fortunately, both countries have more experience with nuclear diplomacy than the United States and the USSR, which gives cause for hope.

Realistically, the United States and China are likely to escape any restrictions on new nuclear technologies. The United States and the USSR learned this the hard way in the 1970s, when the first strategic arms limitation agreement, SALT I, froze the deployment of new intercontinental strategic missiles. The USSR emerged from this freeze by deploying additional warheads on ground-launched missiles – multiple re-entry vehicles or MIRVs that can be independently targeted. It violated the spirit of SALT I, if not the letter, and undermined strategic stability by giving Russia an advantage.

Although many in the United States cried foul, the United States quickly deployed its own MIRVs on high-precision submarine-launched missiles. Now, in theory, the United States had the upper hand in the struggle for nuclear stability, since its missiles, hidden underwater, could survive and retaliate against a surprise Russian attack.

It became evident that it would be difficult to limit technologies, such as new types of missiles. Instead, the United States and the USSR came to the idea that the weapons themselves should be controlled and reduced. Physical elements can be monitored or destroyed in a weapon reduction process, but the technology that composes them cannot.

Yet, as both sides have learned, “controlling” guns can mean many different things in an arms control negotiation. It can be operational, like constraining where weapons are deployed, or digital, like setting caps on missiles and warheads. It also includes an element of verification; indeed, the Russian word for verification is “Контроль” – ensuring that the agreed measures are implemented.

Which brings us to the second lesson for the US-China Strategic Stability Process: Patience will be key. Control and reduction may seem simple, but it took more than a decade for the United States and the USSR to accept this path. Verification involving an on-site inspection has always been difficult for the Soviet Union, which disliked the idea of ​​foreign inspectors snooping around sensitive nuclear deployment sites. The cuts, although simpler, were not very popular either in the Russian general staff or in the Pentagon. It was not until President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev met in Reykjavík in 1986 that our two countries began to take deep cuts in nuclear weapons seriously.

When the US-China talks begin, US negotiators should be prepared to hear long-standing complaints about how the US is undermining strategic stability, through missile defenses that undermine Chinese nuclear deterrence or conventional missiles. very precise capable of destroying the Chinese nuclear power. targets. The US side, in turn, will want to hear a clear explanation of China’s multifaceted nuclear developments.

Both sides will have to deal with these complaints, but luckily that won’t require the years of effort it took during the Cold War. The United States has enough experience in nuclear diplomacy, including with the Chinese, to avoid this outcome. After all, the Obama administration has pursued several avenues of strategic stability with Beijing, including military to military.

China, while relatively new as a nuclear competitor, also brings valuable experience, having participated in talks with the United States and in international regimes such as the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Ban Treaty. testing. The nuclear weapon states under the NPT – France, UK, US, China and Russia – meet regularly to discuss stability; they will do it again in Paris at the beginning of December. In other words, it should be possible to progress faster with China than in the past with the Soviet Union.

Russia can help by organizing its own stability talks with the Chinese. It will not be possible, nor particularly desirable, to put the three countries in the same room: America’s separate nuclear agenda with Russia is much further advanced, despite the countries’ difficult relations, with an already working group. continuing to monitor. on the treaty at New START.

The relationship with China is not as mature, and the Chinese do not have the nuclear parity that the United States and Russia do. They should therefore not be expected to engage in negotiations on nuclear reduction. American officials would have recognized this fact after the Biden-Xi conversation, claiming that a formal arms control negotiation is not a realistic goal “because Beijing would not accept limits on its nuclear arsenal unless it is closer to parity with Washington and Moscow” .

Instead, based on my discussions with Chinese experts, I expect a far-reaching stability program, including discussions of traditional nuclear strategy, doctrine, and strength position. Just as the 1970s and 1980s brought more clarity to the USSR’s nuclear intentions, we need to better understand China’s goals in its nuclear modernization – while also being prepared to speak frankly about our own. Our primary objective must be to prevent an arms race.

An opportunity to move faster than the US and the USSR might be to share information and eliminate misperceptions about new technologies, rather than strive to limit them. For example, the two sides could discuss the danger of cyberattacks against nuclear command and control; modernization of missile defense; or the implications of hypersonic missiles. China might also be willing to engage early in areas where it has more equal capacity, such as space assets. Progress in this area would be particularly welcome, given the Chinese FOBS test this summer and the Russian anti-satellite test last week.

Of course, we don’t yet know how seriously the Chinese will take this process. Sometimes in the past, stability dialogues with Beijing seemed to come down to all talk and no results. If the Chinese are serious, both countries can gain predictability and security. If they are not, the United States will have more reason to see malicious intent in its actions.

While China’s nuclear surge is worrisome, there is no need to panic. The United States has over 4,000 nuclear warheads; even if the Chinese quadruple their strength, they will only have a quarter. We have time to understand each other’s nuclear strategy and force posture.

Ultimately, the most important development is that Biden and Xi made the strategic stability dialogue their own. This will motivate their governments to end the current nuclear silence between Washington and Beijing. If we can get a good discussion going and the Russians help us, we will be on the right track to avoid another arms race. Fortunately, history shows that this result is eminently possible, if we work hard at it.


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