Tuesday 14 Aug 2018 | 19:07 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 14 Aug 2018 | 19:07 | SYDNEY

The urgency of regional nuclear arms control


Raoul Heinrichs

1 May 2008 11:15

The New America Foundation recently hosted an event here in Washington, moderated by the Arms Control Wonk himself, Jeffrey Lewis, on the nuclear dimension of Sino-US relations. The presenters, Darryl Press and Keir Lieber, have published a number of provocative articles on the topic (see here, here and here). Boiled down, their observations are predicated on the idea that the US has either achieved or is fast approaching nuclear primacy, a condition in which Washington could be very confident in its ability to destroy China’s intercontinental range strategic nuclear forces in a pre-emptive first strike. According to Press and Lieber, the strategic implications of American nuclear supremacy are a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, by providing the President with a much wider range of strategic options, formidable US ‘counter-force’ capabilities may provide strong incentives for Chinese leaders to build trust and confidence, and enhance their lines of communication to Washington to avoid dangerous misunderstandings and potentially spiralling strategic crises. Moreover, should a crisis erupt, America’s overwhelming nuclear superiority may help to contain conflict at the conventional level by discouraging Chinese leaders from taking potentially destabilising steps, such as putting China’s strategic nuclear forces on high alert.

On the other hand, however, the current nuclear disparity could inject a dangerous level of instability in to Sino-US relations, particularly in the context of a high stakes crisis involving Taiwan. First, US leaders, cognisant of their relative nuclear advantage, may be tempted to think of nuclear weapons not simply as a means of deterring nuclear attacks, but as a ‘useable’ instrument in America’s war-fighting arsenal. Second, just knowing that the US could viably launch a disarming first strike may make the Chinese leadership very jittery in a crisis, provoking, at worst, a dangerous ‘use it or lose it' mentality in Beijing. The more likely possibility, however, is that Beijing may feel compelled to enhance the survivability of its force by dispersing it and putting it on high alert, which could in turn be inadvertently read in Washington as an indicator of imminent Chinese first use. And finally, in order to redress the prevailing nuclear imbalance, China may well accelerate the modernisation of its strategic nuclear forces, developing in particular those technologies such as multiple warheads, road mobility, and submarine launched ballistic missiles which provide Beijing with an assured means of retaliation.

Though I tend to be a little more sanguine about the stability of the Sino-US nuclear balance, the dangers of strategic nuclear competition between the US and China are not lost on Kevin Rudd; at least they weren’t in 2007. According to this piece from August last year, Rudd sees an emerging nuclear arms race in Asia as a ‘core challenge’ for Australian diplomacy, noting that: 

China is modernising its strategic nuclear arms and it's engaging in general force modernisation. The challenge for the US and the region is to engage China in substantive nuclear arms reduction talks...Australia and the region should encourage China to sit down with the US to start this process soon. The alternative is a nuclear arms race across the region, which does not serve Australia's security interests at all.

Hugh White and Rory Medcalf have both made ambitious but realistic recommendations for mitigating the risks of regional nuclear competition, and the good folks at the 2020 Summit rated reinvigorating Australia’s disarmament diplomacy as a top tier priority. It will be interesting to see, then, whether engaging the US and China on arms control is added to DFAT’s already busy schedule, or whether, in government, it has become something of a ‘non-core’ challenge for Rudd.