Deterrence or Dominance? The Escalating Nuclear Arms Race Between The US and China

After a five-year hiatus, the US and China took a tentative step towards thawing relations by holding in informal talks on nuclear arms control in March as reported in Reuters. These backdoor discussions, shrouded in secrecy, aimed to address growing anxieties on both sides. A key concern for the US was China’s commitment to its long-standing policy of “no-first use” of nuclear weapons and “minimal deterrence”. This means possessing only enough nukes to deter an attack, not to achieve nuclear dominance.
American officials reportedly sought assurance that China would not resort to nuclear threats, especially in a potential conflict over Taiwan, which China claims as its territory. China’s representatives offered assurances, stating they were confident of winning a conventional fight over Taiwan without resorting to nuclear weapons. However, Reuters says, this pledge comes at a time of rapid nuclear expansion by China. The Pentagon estimates China’s nuclear arsenal has grown by over 20% in just two years which, coupled with the lack of modernisation efforts and transparency, fuels US suspicions about China.

Tong Zhao at Foreign Affairs argues that China’s rapid nuclear expansion under President Xi Jinping is driven by a desire for geopolitical leverage and a response to perceived threats from the United States. This buildup, projected to reach 1,000 warheads by 2030, diverges from China’s historically restrained nuclear strategy. US policymakers, concerned by this shift, need to understand China’s motivations, which are rooted in the belief that nuclear strength will force Washington to respect China’s rise and strategic interests. The author contends that Xi’s approach is based more on political intuition than military necessity, leading to a dangerous escalation in nuclear rivalry. The US should seek dialogue with China to address mutual security concerns and establish fair, stable rules for regional conduct, thereby preventing a worsening arms race and fostering mutual understanding. The author emphasises that cooperative measures, rather than unilateral military responses, are crucial for de-escalating tensions and ensuring long-term security.

Informal nuclear arms control talks between the US and China mark a significant but cautious step towards easing bilateral tensions. Despite China’s assurances of adhering to its “no-first use” policy and relying on conventional military strength over Taiwan, the rapid expansion of its nuclear arsenal raises legitimate concerns. This development underscores the necessity for transparency and mutual trust in addressing these issues. The US must prioritise clear communication and sustained diplomatic efforts to mitigate misunderstandings and prevent an escalation of nuclear rivalry. It is crucial for both nations to engage in meaningful dialogue that acknowledges each other’s security concerns and fosters cooperation over competition. Establishing a framework for mutual restraint and transparency will not only help stabilise the regional power balance but also contribute to global security. The path forward lies in cooperative measures that build confidence and limit the impetus for further nuclear buildup.

The nuclear history between the United States and China has evolved significantly from the Cold War to the present day, reflecting shifts in geopolitical dynamics and strategic priorities. Initially, after China’s first nuclear test in 1964, the US’s primary nuclear focus remained on the Soviet Union. During this period, China maintained a modest nuclear arsenal under a “no-first use” policy and a strategy of minimal deterrence. This approach was designed to ensure a credible deterrent without the need to match the expansive arsenals of the US or the Soviet Union, thus avoiding an arms race and reducing the risk of nuclear escalation.

In the post-Cold War era, as the US modernised its arsenal, China perceived a growing need to do the same to maintain credible deterrence. Under President Xi Jinping, China has embarked on a rapid and substantial expansion of its nuclear arsenal, marking a significant shift in its nuclear strategy. This accelerated build-up reflects China’s strategic response to what it perceives as increasing threats from the US, including advancements in military technology and strategic postures that Beijing views as potentially undermining its security. Xi’s administration has aimed to enhance China’s geopolitical leverage by expanding and modernizing its nuclear capabilities, signaling a more assertive stance on the global stage. This shift has prompted renewed concerns in Washington, as the US grapples with the implications of a more formidable Chinese nuclear force. The rapid expansion of China’s nuclear arsenal under Xi Jinping underscores the urgency for sustained dialogue and transparency between the two powers. Without such measures, the risk of miscalculation and escalation could increase, destabilising not only regional but global security.

China’s escalating nuclear ambitions, and the corresponding anxieties in the United States, underscore a perilous juncture in global security. The revival of informal nuclear arms control talks is a tentative but necessary step towards diffusing this looming threat. However, the stakes are incredibly high. The spectre of a nuclear arms race between two of the world’s most powerful nations could lead to catastrophic consequences, not just for these countries but for the entire planet. Nuclear weapons, with their unparalleled destructive capability, represent an existential threat that transcends borders and ideologies. The mere existence of such arsenals heightens the risk of miscalculation or accidental launch, which could unleash devastation on a scale humanity has never seen.

The concept of nuclear war is not only unfair — it is fundamentally unjust, as it would lead to indiscriminate loss of life, environmental ruin, and long-term global destabilisation. Both the US and China must recognise the gravity of this situation and commit to transparent, cooperative measures to avoid an arms race. The world watches with bated breath, hoping that these deliberations evolve into actions that prioritise mutual security and peace. Only through sustained, earnest efforts can we hope to navigate away from the brink of nuclear catastrophe and towards a more stable and secure future.


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