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US-China Nuclear Talks Address Taiwan Concerns Amidst Strategic Reassurances

United States and China held semi-official nuclear arms talks for the first time in five years in March, as reported by ‘The Hindu’ on Thursday. During these discussions, Chinese representatives assured the US that they would not use nuclear threats regarding Taiwan. This reassurance came after the US expressed concerns about China using nuclear weapons […]

United States and China held semi-official nuclear arms talks for the first time in five years in March, as reported by ‘The Hindu’ on Thursday. During these discussions, Chinese representatives assured the US that they would not use nuclear threats regarding Taiwan. This reassurance came after the US expressed concerns about China using nuclear weapons if it faced defeat in a conflict over Taiwan. The conflict over Taiwan goes back to when China had claimed sovereignty over Taiwan since it’s independence from British in 1949. However, the island has opposed it, asserting it’s right to autonomy.

David Santoro, who organized the talks for the US, said Chinese delegates were confident they could win a traditional war over Taiwan without nuclear weapons. Track Two talks, like this one, are informal discussions involving non-governmental representatives from different countries to address mutual concerns and build trust. These discussions took place for over two days in a Shanghai hotel, with US participants including former officials and scholars, and the Chinese delegation made up of scholars and former military officers.

A US State Department spokesperson said that while Track Two talks can be helpful, they cannot replace formal negotiations, which need participants to speak authoritatively on very specific issues. The United States Department of Defense had raised concerns about China’s growing nuclear arsenal, which had grown by over 20% from 2021 to 2023. It also noted that China might use nuclear weapons to restore deterrence if it faced a military defeat in Taiwan.

The recent Track Two talks are part of a well-established dialogue on nuclear weapons that had stopped after the Trump administration cut funding in 2019. These semi-official discussions resumed after the pandemic and focused on security and energy issues, with the Shanghai meeting specifically discussing nuclear weapons and policies.

William Alberque, a nuclear policy expert at the Henry Stimson Centre, stressed the need to keep talking with China despite low expectations, especially given the current US-China tensions. Last year, the US Department of Defense estimated China had 500 nuclear warheads, which could exceed to 1,000 by 2030, compared to 1,770 and 1,710 for the US and Russia, simultaneously. China is updating its arsenal with new ballistic missile submarines, hypersonic warheads, and regular nuclear sea patrols which can result in the formation of a “nuclear triad.”

During the talks, a key topic was whether China still followed its no-first-use and minimal deterrence policies, which began in the early 1960s. Minimal deterrence means having just enough nuclear weapons to prevent attacks. China, like India, has pledged not to start a nuclear war. However, some Chinese military analysts suggest that the no-first-use policy might be conditional and could involve using nuclear weapons against Taiwan’s allies.

Santoro reported that Chinese delegates reassured their commitment to China’s no-first-use nuclear policy and stated that China is not attempting to match or surpass the US in nuclear capabilities. This statement was confirmed by US delegate Lyle Morris. A report on the discussions is being prepared for the US government but it will remain confidential.

Bonnie Jenkins, the top US arms control official, mentioned that China had not responded to proposals for reducing nuclear-weapons risks raised during last year’s formal talks. China has also not agreed to more government-to-government meetings. A State Department spokesperson added that China’s refusal to engage raises questions about its unclear no-first-use policy and overall nuclear strategy.

During the Track Two discussions, the Chinese delegation did not provide details about their nuclear modernization efforts. Alberque noted that China relies on “risk and opacity” to counter US nuclear superiority and sees no need for detailed talks. China’s expanded arsenal includes anti-ship cruise missiles, bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and submarines, which go beyond what a state with a minimal deterrence and no-first-use policy needs.

US delegates said Chinese talking points focused on ensuring their nuclear weapons would survive a first strike. They claimed their modernization efforts are meant to deter and cope with US missile defenses, surveillance, and stronger alliances. Washington’s nuclear policy allows for the use of nuclear weapons if deterrence fails, but only in extreme situations.

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Modernization of nuclear weaponsNuclear weaponsTaiwan conflictTDGThe Daily GuardianUS China