politics

US pushes arms-control talks as China’s nuclear arsenal grows

US pushes arms-control talks as China’s nuclear arsenal grows

TAIPEI : Washington is pushing for arms-control talks with China as the country, long an atomic also-ran, has rapidly expanded its nuclear arsenal with more warheads and more weapons to carry them. U.S. officials say President Biden and his counterpart, Chinese leader Xi Jinping, this week agreed at a virtual summit to explore talks on what White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan described as “strategic stability. Beijing didn’t mention any such developments in its description of the meeting. A Chinese official briefed on the matter told The Wall Street Journal that the two sides could start a so-called Track II dialogue, among nongovernment defense analysts and academics. China has about 350 nuclear warheads, according to the Pentagon’s latest annual assessment of Chinese military power. That is a fraction of the 3,750 warheads the U.S. has stockpiled. But the Pentagon says China is on track to have 1,000 warheads by the end of the decade. Beijing has also developed missiles and other systems that can carry the warheads, the Pentagon says. A test of a hypersonic glide vehicle in August demonstrated a new way that Beijing could seek to evade U.S. missile defenses—in what Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, described as a near “Sputnik moment. All of that makes for a Chinese nuclear arsenal more likely to survive an initial nuclear exchange in a full-blown war and potentially useful in a more limited conflict. What worries the Pentagon, U.S. officials and defense experts say, is that Beijing has yet to publicly explain the reasons for its buildup. “At the basic level, the U.S. wants to understand what’s going on in China and what’s the basic motivation behind China’s expansion, said Zhao Tong, a Beijing-based nuclear-arms expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. As with Washington’s arms control dialogue with Russia, Mr. Zhao said, “there are no easy solutions. China’s Defense Ministry has said little about its nuclear weapons. The Defense Ministry and Foreign Ministry didn’t respond to requests for comment. In the past, spokespeople for the Foreign Ministry, when asked about media reports and scholarly commentary in the West pointing to more missile silos, have said they are unaware of any increase. They have referred to the hypersonic-missile test, earlier reported by the Financial Times, as not a missile launch but rather a routine spacecraft test to verify its reusability. U.S. officials say China has long kept its nuclear stockpile at relatively low levels—sufficient to ensure that it could respond to a nuclear strike with nuclear weapons of its own. But some analysts believe Beijing’s concerns about recent U.S. advances in its ability to detect and defend against small numbers of such weapons might be driving its attempts to expand the arsenal. Tension between the U.S. and China over areas such as the South China Sea and Taiwan might also have encouraged Beijing to ensure its nuclear capabilities are strong enough to deter the use of nuclear weapons by its rivals, some analysts say. “Chinese leaders might believe there is some risk of a conventional war between China and the United States, so they may have to increase nuclear deterrence, said Wu Riqiang, an arms-control expert at Renmin University in Beijing. During China’s annual legislative session in March, Mr. Xi called for accelerated construction of high-level strategic deterrence systems, which some analysts have interpreted as a signal that Beijing could be in the early stages of a larger effort to reorganize its nuclear program. Mr. Xi has also overseen moves to build up China’s ability to launch nuclear strikes from submarines and aircraft, and with land-based missiles. “Our sea-based nuclear capabilities need to massively develop, Mr. Xi said during a visit to a submarine base in 2018. On Wednesday, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a bipartisan panel, warned in its annual report to Congress that the scale of China’s nuclear buildup could be intended to support a “new strategy of limited nuclear first use and be used by Chinese leaders to attempt to prevent U.S. intervention in a war over Taiwan. Mr. Zhao at the Carnegie Endowment said that in addition to acquiring a “second strike capability—the ability to withstand an initial nuclear attack and then respond in kind—Beijing could be looking for ways to respond to smaller scale uses of nuclear weapons by adversaries. He said that it can be difficult for nuclear powers, once moving down this road, to determine what capabilities are sufficient. “The competition becomes much more zero sum, he said. According to its own limited disclosures, the Chinese military has for years been developing capabilities to respond faster in the event of a nuclear attack, although independent analysts say neither its motivations nor the extent of such capabilities are clear. U.S. officials say China keeps a portion of its nuclear weapons on high alert, and that it has conducted exercises since 2017 involving launch-on-warning responses, where radar and satellite data can be used to launch a retaliatory strike before nuclear weapons from an enemy hit. In 2018, the official newspaper of China’s Ministry of Science and Technology reported that China has two types of remote sensing satellites for ballistic missiles. The following year, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin said Moscow was helping China develop an antimissile early-warning system. Last year, Yang Chengjun, a retired Chinese senior colonel who had served in the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force, wrote in a domestic media article that China could carry out an early-warning nuclear counterattack within minutes. Still, reports on Rocket Force exercises by Chinese state media, including by the People’s Liberation Army Daily, haven’t disclosed whether the weapons used are nuclear or conventional. “It is clear that [China’s] security establishment has come to the conclusion that it needs a more robust nuclear posture, said David M. Finkelstein, a retired U.S. Army officer and director of China and Indo-Pacific security affairs at CNA’s Center for Naval Analyses, a federally funded think tank in Virginia. “But why that is so is still open to question. Even with the two countries’ leaders agreeing to talks, analysts don’t expect any major breakthroughs in the foreseeable future. The U.S.-China relationship, despite signs of thaw on issues such as climate change, remains full of mistrust over a range of contentious topics, including Taiwan, Hong Kong and industrial policy. The U.S. has for years called on China to send officials rather than independent experts to meet and discuss nuclear issues, but Chinese officials have been reluctant to engage. A Track II format would represent a step back from previous nuclear-arms meetings between the two countries. Between 2004 and 2019, analysts from China and the U.S., as well as officials, met in a nonofficial capacity, though the talks ultimately fell apart, said Mr. Zhao, who participated in some of the earlier meetings. U.S. participants later expressed frustration that China was slow in scheduling talks in Beijing, and sending delegates that were too low-ranking, he said. Download.

politics 2021-11-18 Livemint