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US and China hold informal nuclear talks, eyeing Taiwan

The United States and China resumed semi-official nuclear arms talks in March for the first time in five years, with Beijing’s representatives telling the United States they would not resort to nuclear threats over Taiwan, according to two U.S. representatives who attended.

The Chinese delegation offered reassurances after U.S. negotiating partners expressed concerns that China might use or threaten to use nuclear weapons if it were defeated in a conflict over Taiwan.

Beijing considers the democratically ruled island to be its territory, a claim denied by Taipei.

“They have told the US side that they are absolutely confident they can win a conventional fight for Taiwan without using nuclear weapons,” said David Santoro, an academic and US organiser of the Track Two talks, details of which were first reported by Reuters.

Participants in Track 2 talks are usually former government officials or academics who can speak authoritatively about a government’s position, even if they were not directly involved in determining that government’s position. Government-to-government negotiations are known as Track 1.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet on November 15, 2023 at the Filoli Residence in Woodside, California. AP

The two-day discussions, held in a conference room at a Shanghai hotel, were attended by about a half-dozen representatives from Washington, including former government officials and academics.

Beijing sent a delegation of scholars and analysts, including several former PLA officers.

In response to questions from Reuters, a State Department spokesman said Track 2 talks could be “useful.” He said the State Department was aware of the March meetings but did not participate.

Such talks cannot substitute for formal negotiations that “require participants to speak authoritatively on issues that are often highly compartmentalized within the (Chinese) government,” the spokesman said.

A Chinese nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine was spotted during a military display in the South China Sea on April 12, 2018. Reuters

Members of the Chinese delegation and Beijing’s Defense Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

The informal talks between the nuclear-armed powers come amid a standoff between the United States and China over key economic and geopolitical issues, with leaders in Washington and Beijing accusing each other of negotiating in bad faith.

The two countries briefly resumed track-one talks on nuclear weapons in November last year but negotiations have since stalled, with senior U.S. officials expressing frustration with China’s response.

The Pentagon estimates that China’s nuclear arsenal will grow by more than 20% between 2021 and 2023, and said in October that China would also consider using nuclear weapons to restore deterrence if “the defeat of conventional forces in Taiwan” threatened the Chinese Communist Party’s control.

Military vehicles carrying DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missiles pass through Tiananmen Square during a military parade in Beijing on October 1, 2019. Reuters

China has never renounced the use of force to maintain control over Taiwan and has stepped up military activity around the island over the past four years.

The Track 2 talks are part of a two-decade-old dialogue on nuclear weapons and posture that has been stalled since the Trump administration cut off funding for it in 2019.

Semi-official talks on a range of issues, including security and energy, have resumed since the COVID-19 pandemic, but nuclear weapons and nuclear posture were only discussed in detail at the Shanghai conference.

Santoro, who runs the Hawaii-based think tank Pacific Forum, said recent talks had shown “dissatisfaction” on both sides but that delegations had reason to continue discussions, with further talks planned for 2025.

William Alberk, a nuclear policy analyst at the Henry Stimson Center think tank, who was not involved in the March talks, said the Track 2 negotiations were beneficial at a time when U.S.-China relations are at a low.

When it comes to nuclear weapons, “it’s important to continue the dialogue with China without any expectations,” he said.

On May 23, 2024, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense spotted a Chinese guided missile destroyer sailing over Taiwan. AP

No first time use?

The Pentagon estimated last year that Beijing has 500 operational nuclear warheads and could deploy more than 1,000 by 2030.

By comparison, the United States and Russia have 1,770 and 1,710 operationally deployed nuclear warheads, respectively. The Pentagon has said much of Beijing’s arsenal will likely be held at a higher readiness level by 2030.

Since 2020, China has also been modernizing its arsenal, beginning production of next-generation ballistic missile submarines, testing hypersonic glide vehicle warheads, and conducting regular nuclear maritime patrols.

With land, air and sea weapons, China possesses the “nuclear triad” characteristic of any major nuclear power.

A key point the U.S. side wanted to discuss, Santoro said, was whether China still adheres to the no-first-use and minimum deterrence policy it has followed since developing its first nuclear bomb in the early 1960s.

Minimum deterrence refers to possessing enough nuclear weapons to deter an adversary.

China is also one of only two nuclear powers that have pledged not to start a nuclear war, the other being India. Chinese military analysts speculate that the no-first-use policy is conditional and that nuclear weapons could be used against an ally of Taiwan, but this remains Beijing’s stated stance.

Santoro said the Chinese delegation told the U.S. delegation that Beijing maintains these policies and that “we have no interest in achieving nuclear parity with you, much less superiority.”

The Pentagon estimated last year that Beijing has 500 operational nuclear warheads and could deploy more than 1,000 by 2030. AFP via Getty Images

“‘Nothing has changed, it’s business as usual, you’re just exaggerating,'” Santoro said, summing up Beijing’s position.

His account of the discussions was corroborated by Lyle Morris, a security scholar at the Asia Society Policy Institute and fellow US representative.

Santoro said a report on the talks was being prepared for the U.S. government but would not be made public.

“Risk and uncertainty”

Bonnie Jenkins, the U.S.’s top arms control official, told Congress in May that China had not responded to nuclear weapons risk reduction proposals put forward by the United States in formal talks last year.

China has not yet agreed to further intergovernmental talks.

A Taiwanese F-16 fighter jet passed through Taiwan’s airspace at an undisclosed location in May 2024. Taiwan Ministry of National Defense/Handout/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

A State Department spokesman told Reuters that Beijing’s “refusal to engage substantively” in talks on building up its nuclear arsenal called into question “its already vague ‘no first use’ policy and nuclear doctrine more broadly”.

Santoro and Morris said China’s Track 2 delegation did not discuss details of Beijing’s modernization efforts.

Alberque said China’s arsenal expansion, which includes anti-ship cruise missiles, bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarines, exceeds the requirements of a nation committed to minimum deterrence and a no-first-use policy.

Morris said China’s arguments revolved around the “survivability” of Beijing’s nuclear arsenal in the event of a first strike.

According to the U.S. delegation, the Chinese side described its efforts as a deterrence-based modernization plan to counter U.S. developments such as improved missile defense capabilities, enhanced surveillance capabilities and strengthened alliances.

The United States, Britain and Australia signed a deal last year to share nuclear submarine technology and develop new submarines, while the United States is currently working with South Korea to coordinate a response to a possible nuclear attack.

China’s talking points revolved around the “survivability” of Beijing’s nuclear arsenal in the event of a first strike. AP

U.S. nuclear weapons policy includes the possibility of using nuclear weapons if deterrence fails, but the Pentagon has said it would only consider doing so in extreme circumstances, without providing details.

“One Chinese representative pointed to studies which suggest China’s nuclear arsenal remains vulnerable to a U.S. attack and does not have sufficient second-strike capability,” Morris said.