opinion | Lessons from the Cold War in preventing an arms race between the United States and China

The United States and Russia have been working together since Cuba to avoid new nuclear crises. The world’s first nuclear arms race offers two important lessons for how to prevent a second: First, the United States and China should avoid trying to constrain new technologies and focus on ensuring mutual nuclear predictability. Second, they must be prepared for a long way, because agreeing to joint measures to enhance this predictability is far from clear. Fortunately, both countries have more experience with nuclear diplomacy than the United States and the Soviet Union, which provides cause for hope.

Realistically, both the United States and China are likely to avoid 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 strategic ICBMs. The Soviet Union emerged from under this freeze by deploying additional warheads atop ground-launched missiles — independently targetable multiple return vehicles, or MIRVs. This violated SALT I’s ethos, if not letter, and undermined strategic stability by giving Russia an advantage.

Although many in the US shouted it wrong, it wasn’t long before the US deployed its MIRVs on high-precision submarine-launched missiles. Now, in theory, the United States had the upper hand in the nuclear stability contest, because its underwater missiles could survive and retaliate against a surprise Russian attack.

It became clear that restricting technologies, such as new types of missiles, would be difficult. Instead, the United States and the USSR came up with the idea that the weapons themselves should be controlled and reduced. Device items can be monitored or destroyed during the weapon reduction process, but the technology that goes into them cannot be used.

However, as both sides have learned, “control” of arms can mean different things in arms control negotiations. It can be practical, such as restricting where weapons are deployed, or numerical, such as placing ceilings on missiles and warheads. It also has a checking element for it; In fact, the Russian word for verification is “Контроль” – a guarantee of implementation of agreed measures.

Which brings us to the second lesson of the US-China strategic stability process: patience is key. Control and reduction may seem obvious, but it took more than a decade for the United States and the Soviet Union to agree to this path. Verification that included on-site inspections had always been difficult for the Soviet Union, which did not like the idea of ​​foreign inspectors searching for sensitive nuclear deployment sites. Although cuts are more pronounced, they were not very common in the Russian General Staff or the Pentagon. It wasn’t until President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev met in Reykjavik in 1986 that our two countries began to take deep cuts in nuclear weapons seriously.

When US-China talks begin, US negotiators should be prepared to hear some old complaints about how the US is undermining strategic stability, with missile defenses undermining China’s nuclear deterrent or high-precision conventional missiles capable of destroying China’s nuclear weapons. Objectives. The US side, in turn, will want to hear clear explanations of China’s multifaceted nuclear developments.

Both sides will have to deal with these complaints, but fortunately, it won’t take the years of effort that it took in the Cold War. The United States has enough experience in nuclear diplomacy, including with China, to avoid this outcome. After all, the Obama administration has continued many paths of strategic stability with Beijing, including at the military level.

Although China is a relative newcomer as a nuclear competitor, it also offers valuable experience, having been involved in talks with the United States and international regimes such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The nuclear-weapon states under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons – France, the United Kingdom, the United States, China and Russia – meet regularly to discuss stability; They will do it again in Paris in early December. In other words, it should be possible to make faster progress with China than in the old days with the Soviet Union.

Russia can help by having its own stability discussions with China. It would not be possible, nor particularly desirable, to put the three countries together in one room: America’s separate nuclear agenda with Russia is far more advanced, despite the two nations’ turbulent relationship, with a working group already in training to pursue the following- on New Start Treaty.

The relationship with China is not mature, and the Chinese also do not have the nuclear parity that the United States and Russia enjoy. So we should not expect them to jump into the nuclear arms reduction negotiations. US officials He reportedly acknowledged this fact after Biden’s conversation with XiHe said that formal arms control negotiations were not a realistic goal “because Beijing will not accept restrictions on its nuclear arsenal unless it is closer to par with Washington and Moscow.”

Instead, based on my discussions with Chinese experts, I anticipate a broad stabilization agenda, including discussions of conventional nuclear strategy, doctrine, and power status. Just as the 1970s and 1980s provided more clarity about the USSR’s nuclear intentions, we need to understand more about China’s goals in its nuclear modernization — while also being prepared to speak frankly about ours. Our overriding goal must be to avoid an arms race.

One opportunity to make progress more quickly than the United States and the Soviet Union did would be to share information and eliminate misconceptions about new technology, rather than move to reduce them. For example, the two sides could discuss the danger of cyber attacks on nuclear command and control; Missile Defense Update. Or the effects of hypersonic missiles. China may also be willing to engage early in areas where it has more equal capacity, such as assets in space. Advances in this area will be particularly timely, given the Chinese FOBS testing in the summer and the Russian anti-satellite test just last week.

Of course, we do not yet know how seriously the Chinese take this process. At times in the past, stability dialogues with Beijing seemed to add up to all the conversation and no results. If the Chinese are serious, both countries may win in terms of predictability and security. If they don’t, the United States will have more reason to see malicious intent in their actions.

While the Chinese nuclear propulsion is concerning, there is no need to panic. The United States has more than 4,000 nuclear warheads. Even if the Chinese quadrupled their strength, they would only have a quarter of that. We have time to understand each other’s nuclear strategy and the strength of the situation.

In the end, the most significant development was that Biden and Xi had taken ownership of the Strategic Stability Dialogue. That will motivate their governments To end the current nuclear silence between Washington and Beijing. If we can spark a good discussion and help the Russians, we will be on the path to avoiding a new arms race. Fortunately, history shows that this outcome is largely possible, if we work hard to achieve it.

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