China must reduce its nuclear arms to reassure the world
A major objective of arms control is that it can promote stability in the relations between states. By entering a treaty, or by unilaterally reducing its armaments, a state signals its acceptance of the status quo. A country willingly limits a class of weapons or the number of its nuclear arms, for example, to demonstrate to others that its ambitions are limited and it supports strategic stability.
Unfortunately for international peace and the security of its neighbors, China’s rapid growth of its nuclear arsenal — doubling its nuclear arsenal in about the past decade and on a trajectory to double it again in the next decade — is deeply troubling. This hurried, dramatic increase suggests that China’s ambitions are not limited but are expansionistic, and that it rejects strategic stability by undertaking the secretive and accelerated growth of its arsenal.
Unchecked, this unprecedented growth of armament could compel a response from its nuclear neighbors and the United States, which has shown remarkable restraint thus far. Additionally, China’s actions might compel Japan to go nuclear to protect Tokyo’s interests against a formidable nuclear power. To avoid an arms race, the international community and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) need to consider the strategic consequences of Beijing’s dangerous buildup of its nuclear forces.
To reassure the global community, China should exercise a moratorium on the production of nuclear weapons and its development of hypersonic missiles. Second, China should unilaterally reduce its strategic and tactical nuclear weapons and number of ballistic missiles to signal its interest in strategic stability. Third, China should embrace arms control and enter into transparent agreements with India, Russia or the United States, to demonstrate its support for strategic stability in nuclear arms and acceptance of international norms.
Adopting these measures would permit China to demonstrate that it does not want to threaten its neighbors or commence an arms race, and that it accepts the value of arms control — including the need to advance confidence-building measures to augment international stability. These major steps would also convey that China is a status-quo power. Fundamentally, ending nuclear weapons production, reducing its nuclear arms in a verifiable manner, arresting its development of hypersonic missiles and forging binding arms control agreements would allow China to signal its benign intentions.
In turn, this could have an important stabilizing effect on states concerned with China’s increasing power. These actions would help address, to a considerable degree, other countries’ security concerns about China, particularly given Beijing’s widespread human rights abuses, including the crackdown on its Muslim minority in Xinjiang and its suppression of the popular movement in Hong Kong.
Reassuring other states of its peaceful intentions and stake in strategic stability is especially important, given China’s tremendous growth of economic and military power and the demonstrable concern by states in South, Southeast and East Asia about China’s aims and objectives. China’s neighbors — Russia, to be sure, but also the ASEAN states, India, Japan and Taiwan — would be reassured by China’s acceptance of strategic stability and arms control norms. This act would be a major step forward for China, and would open the door to further arms control agreements and the possibility of reducing tensions in the Indo-Pacific.
Were China to take these steps, there would be direct costs to China. Its arsenal would be fettered by its own measures and by potential treaty requirements. Of course, that is precisely the advantage of taking these steps. The value of demonstrating that China supports the status quo is in China’s long-term national security interests and will promote stability in international politics. In turn, this will provide China with more security than could be provided by its military forces. Conveying that it is a status-quo power — willing to forsake its immediate advantage in a particular category of weapon system for longer-term security — would be supremely helpful in dampening the risks of conflict and security competition.
China can demonstrate its increasing acceptance of international norms and acceptance of strategic stability. Other states would be reassured by these measures, permitting China to recognize that arms control can play a stabilizing role in its relationship with other states, just as arms control did during the Cold War. Were China to take these steps, the potential is there for it to contribute to a stable international order founded on transparent confidence-building measures, rather than arms races and nuclear competition.
Bradley A. Thayer is a professor of political science at the University of Texas-San Antonio and the co-author of “How China Sees the World: Han-Centrism and the Balance of Power in International Politics.”
Lianchao Han is vice president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China. After the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, Dr. Han was one of the founders of the Independent Federation of Chinese Students and Scholars. He worked in the U.S. Senate for 12 years, as legislative counsel and policy director for three senators.