In a significant development on the international stage, China and the United States are poised to engage in rare and pivotal nuclear arms control talks, marking a historic return to diplomatic discussions on this critical matter. These discussions, scheduled for next week, will be led by Mallory Stewart, a distinguished senior representative from the U.S. State Department, and Sun Xiaobo, the esteemed head of China’s arms control department within the foreign ministry.
The announcement comes on the heels of a high-profile visit to Washington by China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, underscoring the gravity and importance of these forthcoming negotiations. While both the U.S. State Department and China’s embassy in Washington have yet to provide specific details on the timing and format of the talks, the international community watches with keen interest.
This diplomatic endeavor harkens back to a statement made by U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan in 2021, where he highlighted the mutual agreement between the Chinese and U.S. presidents to “begin to carry forward discussion on strategic stability.” This phrase alludes to Washington’s concerns regarding Beijing’s escalating nuclear arsenal, a matter of paramount significance in the context of global security.
However, it is essential to clarify that these talks will not resemble the traditional formal arms reduction negotiations that the United States has historically conducted with Russia. Despite this, U.S. officials have expressed their growing frustration with China’s perceived reluctance to engage in discussions aimed at mitigating nuclear weapons risks.
The Pentagon’s October report asserted that China possesses over 500 operational nuclear warheads and is projected to exceed 1,000 warheads by the year 2030. This significant build-up underscores China’s growing nuclear capabilities. Yet, China’s stance has been that the United States maintains a substantially larger nuclear arsenal. In fact, when considering the global nuclear landscape, Russia and the United States together possess nearly 90% of all nuclear weapons worldwide, with the U.S. estimated to have over 3,700 warheads.
Notably, under the New Start treaty, both Moscow and Washington have committed to restricting their strategic nuclear warheads to no more than 1,550. However, in February 2023, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared Russia’s intention to suspend its participation in this treaty.
These arms control discussions are poised to transpire just before a potentially crucial meeting between the U.S. President, Joe Biden, and the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, scheduled for November in San Francisco. Nonetheless, important details regarding this meeting are yet to be finalized.
In the context of rapidly deteriorating relations between China and the United States following an incident in which a suspected Chinese spy balloon was downed over the United States in February, this flurry of diplomatic engagements reflects a significant effort to salvage the relationship between these two global powerhouses.
Daryl Kimball, the Executive Director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association, anticipates that the forthcoming arms talks will primarily concentrate on enhancing transparency regarding each nation’s nuclear doctrines and creating more effective crisis communication channels. However, achieving substantial progress may be a time-consuming and challenging endeavor, demanding concessions from both sides.
As the world watches with bated breath, these discussions will play a pivotal role in shaping the future of nuclear arms control and international security.