This week the Biden administration will meet with officials from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to discuss an arms control and non-proliferation agenda. The administration is expected to advance a program of nuclear arms control with the PRC in the face of what has been described as a “strategic nuclear breakout.” The Biden team will argue that engagement with the PRC will advance strategic stability, the absence of either side to race for nuclear superiority. Historically, the PRC has been loath to enter arms control talks. In the past, the reason why was that it was so weak. China was a minor player in a realm dominated by the Soviet Union and the U.S. The fact that it now entertains commencing talks with the U.S. demonstrates that it is far more powerful than in the past and perceives arms control as a tool to advance the PRC’s pursuit of its national security and political warfare objectives.
Their unstated but fundamental strategic objectives are to weaken U.S. national security. The PRC seeks to hinder the ability of the U.S. to respond to the PRC prodigious nuclear expansion in numbers of nuclear weapons, delivery vehicles, and in their nuclear infrastructure, including the ability to produce fissile material and manufacture and maintain nuclear weapons. The fact that the PRC and the U.S. are in arms control talks only serves to sustain the illusion of engagement.
Taking a page from the Soviet Union’s playbook, the PRC will respond to any critique of its rapid nuclear expansion as threatening progress in arms control. The Soviets got a lot of mileage out of this tactic and the PRC will too. No doubt, soon their negotiators will be threatening to walk of out of arms control talks if they do not get what they want in this or in other issue areas. Fear that they might do so will prevent any criticisms of the PRC’s gross human rights violations, the genocide against Muslims in Xinjiang, or advancing necessary military, economic, and political steps to combat the PRC’s expansion and the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) chokehold on the Chinese people. For the Biden administration and its domestic allies, it would be difficult to imagine a greater catastrophe than if PRC were to leave these talks.
The Biden administration has touted the advantage of engagement and is now using it as a justification for arms control talks with the PRC. At the same time, these talks will be employed to restrict the growth and modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and infrastructure. For instance, in a speech in June 2023, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan emphasized “the United States does not need to increase our nuclear forces to outnumber the combined total of our competitors in order to successfully deter them.” As such, it has been a Sisyphean task to take even the smallest steps towards U.S. nuclear arsenal growth or modernization with such illogic. These talks will make it that much harder as any modernization will be characterized as threatening the “arms control process” and prospect of improving relations with the PRC.
The political warfare objectives are salient too. Now the PRC stands as the undisputed rival of the U.S., just as the Soviet Union was. For American audiences, this is difficult to grasp but in the Communist world so important to the PRC’s dictator Xi Jinping, this is immensely important. The PRC is now seen as having surpassed the USSR in the Communist pantheon. What is more, the U.S. came to the PRC and begged for talks, which indicates U.S. weakness. These messages will be advanced by the CCP to the Chinese people and to all global audiences as another indication that the future belongs to the PRC and the rules, norms, and principles of the 21st Century will be set by Beijing, not Washington.
The incoherence of the Biden administration’s effort to establish strategic arms control with the PRC is revealed by the Pentagon’s October 2023 release of the annual report to Congress, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2023. This report noted that the PRC’s nuclear forces are conducting an alarming and breathtaking expansion of its capabilities and infrastructure to support nuclear weapon production and maintenance. Just in numbers alone, the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) has expanded all types of ballistic missiles from short range to intercontinental, ground launched cruise missiles, submarine launched ballistic missiles, and hypersonic missiles.
The report notes the PLARF has “probably” completed the construction, begun in 2021, of its three new solid-propellent ballistic missile fields in 2022, which will contain at least 300 new Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). The growth of the PRC’s ballistic missile capabilities would allow it to conduct conventional as nuclear strikes against the American homeland. Despite Jake Sullivan’s assertions from June, the DoD report also notes that the PRC has adopted a dangerous “launch on warning” posture called “early warning counterstrike” where warning of an attack causes a PRC counterstrike before there are any detonations on PRC soil. This confirms the PRC’s nuclear infrastructure is robust in contrast to the U.S.’s with plutonium, uranium, and tritium production able to sustain the rapid expansion of the PRC’s nuclear arsenal.
The report acknowledges the PLARF “possessed more than 500 operational nuclear warheads as of May 2023—on track to exceed previous projections,” which is a back-handed admission of the previous year’s report which had underestimated the number of PLARF nuclear warheads at 400. It is rather curious that in the very next sentence the report estimates the PRC will only have “over 1,000 operational nuclear warheads by 2030,” as if their previous years of underestimating the PRC’s nuclear force levels never occurred and do not impact their assessment for the future.
The Pentagon has also noted that the PLA continues to engage in dual-use (both civilian and military applications) biological activities and chemical weapons developments including pharmaceutical-base agents and toxins, and concerningly that the U.S. cannot certify that the PRC has met its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) to eliminate its chemical weapons capabilities, while the U.S. has destroyed the last of its chemical weapons. There is also concern that it may be violating the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). Thus, the PRC may already have contravened these two international conventions, which is of concern for reasons of deterrence of biological or chemical weapons use, as the U.S. cannot match the PRC’s capabilities without threatening nuclear escalation in the event of a chemical weapons attack.
Given these facts, it is undeniable that the PRC has made a clear break from its self-proclaimed “no first use” policy and is now well on the path to achieving nuclear superiority over the U.S., thus by definition strategic stability does not exist. Second, the fact that the PRC has very likely abrogated compliance with the BWC and CWC is another demonstration that the PRC has a proven track record of violating international agreements and certainly will violate any reached by the Biden administration. Just ask the people of Hong Kong, Tibet, Muslims in the PRC, the states of the South China Sea, or a host of other false promises made by the CCP since 1949.
There is a serious rot in Washington as this administration presses Israel to negotiate with Hamas who murdered and raped innocent Israelis on October 7. Now the same people are asking the U.S. people to accept arms control negotiations with a similar regime that lies, cheats, and murders its way to global domination.
While Moses only brought down Ten Commandments from Mt. Sinai, had he brought an Eleventh, the Biden administration would hope beyond all measure that the Lord’s command would be that engagement with PRC must continue. PRC-U.S. arms control talks now join trade with the PRC, investment in it, and rescuing the CCP now when it is supremely vulnerable from the colossal cost of its own actions, as core pillars of Biden administration’s engagement policy. Moreover, arms control talks offer the Biden administration great optics and so will aid in the 2024 campaign and offer a good shot at winning a Nobel Peace prize. The fact that it is a political and military weapon wielded by the PRC to hurt U.S. national security is precisely Beijing’s objective and reveals the strategic absurdity of arms control with Communist China.
James Fanell is a government fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, a retired captain in the U.S. Navy and a former director of intelligence and information operations for the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Bradley A. Thayer is Director of China Policy at the Center for Security Policy. He is the coauthor with Lianchao Han of Understanding the China Threat.