Dr. Amal Mudallali
The Americans and the Chinese faced off last weekend at the Shangri-La Dialogue security conference in Singapore. They accused each other of “bullying” and of having a “Cold War mentality,” letting the growing tension in the Chinese-American relationship spill over from the waters of the Taiwan Strait to the halls of the conference.
These are not two ships passing in the night, they are ships crossing each other’s path in an attempt to establish each their own red lines. As the defense officials of both countries were exchanging rhetorical volleys, there were reports of an “unsafe” Chinese naval maneuver, according to the American military. It stated that a Chinese ship had cut across the path of an American destroyer as it passed through the international waters of the Taiwan Straits, forcing it to slow down to avoid a collision.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu shook hands at the conference but did not have a meeting, as the Chinese side turned down a White House request, according to the American side. This was not the first time the Chinese had refused an American request for a meeting or a chance to communicate. Austin stressed in the meeting the “necessity” of dialogue with China, saying it is not a “reward.” He also expressed his concern that Beijing “has been unwilling to engage more seriously on better mechanisms for crisis management between our two militaries.” While Austin touted expanded military partnerships in the region, the Chinese defense minister, who is under US sanctions, called the formation of new security partnerships in the region “small cliques.”
Li said Western “freedom of navigation” patrols in the Taiwan Straits are a “provocation,” differentiating between what he called “innocent passage” in the straits and attempts “to try to use those freedoms of navigation to exercise hegemony of navigation.” Despite reports of a secret visit by CIA Director Bill Burns to China last week, the lack of communication between the two powers is hampering efforts to reduce the risks to global security and stability, including a potential nuclear conflict. In a speech to the Arms Control Association annual meeting last week, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, who was fresh from a meeting with Chinese diplomat Wang Yi in Vienna, outlined the US strategy to deal with the post-Cold War world order, especially the nuclear and arms control challenges. The US is eager to bring China to the table to engage on the future of nuclear stability and arms control because it says it is not interested in a new cold war or an arms race.
Sullivan said there were “deep” and “substantial” cracks in the post-Cold War nuclear foundation and that the US was trying to fashion a new strategy to “prevent an arms race” and “reduce the risk of misperception and escalation.” Experts say that the US is finding out that, in this new world, it has to deal with a three-way nuclear race and competition along with Russia and China. This is at a time when the old arms control architecture that the US built at the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union is crumbling, with just one leg remaining – the New Start treaty. Any new arms control regime, the US believes, has to include China to be effective. But China, which has always been outside the arms control process of the Cold War era, does not see eye to eye with the US on this subject, or on any aspect of new American-Chinese engagement, including what the agenda of any potential dialogue with the US should include.
The US wants to decouple the arms control agenda from the wider Chinese-American relationship, as it did with the Russians during the Cold War. Sullivan lamented the erosion of “an era where nations could compartmentalize the issues of strategic stability” and “leaders chose transparency even during times of tension.” This was the “foundation of nuclear stability and security that we’ve depended on for decades.” But this foundation is eroding at a time when new strategies are needed to reduce the risk of nuclear conflict, the US national security adviser added. While he pointed to Russia as the source of “major cracks” in this foundation, it is China that seems to be more frustrating to the US, as Sullivan noted that Washington has seen “a change in approach” from Beijing.
“Unlike Russia,” he said, China has “thus far opted not to come to the table for substantive dialogue on arms control. It has declined to share the size and scope of its nuclear forces, or to provide launch notifications. And it has not shown much interest in discussions regarding the changes it is making to its nuclear forces.” Sullivan added: “Simply put, we have not yet seen a willingness from (China) to compartmentalize strategic stability from broader issues in the relationship. And that compartmentalization, as I noted before, has been the bedrock of nuclear security – indeed strategic stability – for decades.” Even when proposing to negotiate with Russia on the future of New Start ahead of its expiration in 2026, Sullivan warned that any limits the US agrees to with the Russians “will of course be impacted by the size and scale of China’s nuclear buildup.” The US is “ready to engage China without preconditions, helping ensure that competition is managed and that competition does not veer into conflict,” he added. While Washington hoped that China would be willing to engage on “strategic nuclear issues,” Chinese experts pointed to a lack of understanding on the US side, of both China and the Chinese decision-making process, leading to more tension in the relationship.
At the Arms Control Association conference, Tong Zhao, a senior fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that there has been a change in the country’s nuclear policy that reflects the changing China. He identified two factors that are driving China’s policy, “fear and ambition.” These are “two sides of the same coin,” he explained, adding that the US is “not understanding the fear part.” The American experts at the conference remarked that this fear factor is a mirror image of the fear in Washington, which makes a conversation between the two powers all the more critical. While the Federation of American Scientists puts the number of nuclear warheads that China possesses at more than 400, Sullivan said that, by 2035, China is “on track to have as many as 1,500 nuclear warheads, one of the largest peacetime nuclear buildups in history.” The New Start treaty limits America and Russia to the deployment of 1,550 nuclear warheads each. The New York Times observed that, “if Beijing hits that number, America’s two biggest nuclear adversaries would have a combined force of over 3,000 strategic weapons, which can reach the United States.” This must be what keeps American officials awake at night.
The problem between the US and China is also that of approach. Tong said China prefers a multilateral approach, which has more chance of succeeding, adding that China “is holding the dialogue on arms control hostage to progress on the political dialogue and the relationship (with Washington).” The meeting with Wang in Vienna must have had an impact, because Sullivan gave a nod to multilateralism when he announced that the US was “willing to engage in new multilateral arms control efforts, including through the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the P5.” He said the US was under “no illusions” that it would be easy to agree the necessary risk reduction and arms control measures, but it does “believe it is possible.” There would be nothing more heartening to the world than seeing the P5 working together to reduce nuclear risk and reach a robust new arms control regime. If they do it at the UN, it would be even better because multilateralism matters.