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With an eye on Taiwan, the US and China resume negotiations on the use of nuclear weapons after 5 years

The United States and China resumed semi-official nuclear weapons talks in March for the first time in five years, with Beijing’s representatives telling their U.S. counterparts they would not resort to atomic threats toward Taiwan, according to two American delegates.

Chinese officials offered assurances after their US counterparts expressed concerns that China could use, or threaten to use, nuclear weapons if it faced defeat in a conflict over Taiwan.

Beijing views the democratically governed island as its territory, a claim rejected by the Taipei government.

“They said alongside the US that they were absolutely convinced that they would be able to win a conventional fight over Taiwan without using nuclear weapons,” said scholar David Santoro, US organizer of the Track Two talks, details of which are being reported by Reuters for the first time.

Participants in Track Two talks are often former officials and academics who can speak with authority about their government’s position, even if they are not directly involved in defining it. Negotiations between governments are known as Track One.

Washington was represented by about half a dozen delegates, including former officials and academics, at the two-day discussions, which took place in a hotel conference room in Shanghai.

Beijing sent a delegation of academics and analysts, which included several former People’s Liberation Army officers.

A State Department spokesperson said in response to Reuters questions that Track Two negotiations could be “beneficial.” The department did not participate in the March meeting, although it was aware of it, the spokesperson said.

Such discussions cannot replace formal negotiations “which require participants to speak with authority about issues that are often highly compartmentalized in government circles [chineses],” the spokesperson said.

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

The informal discussions between the nuclear-armed powers took place with the US and China at loggerheads 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, but those talks have since stalled, with a senior U.S. official publicly expressing frustration with China’s ability to respond.

The Pentagon, which estimates that Beijing’s nuclear arsenal has increased by more than 20% between 2021 and 2023, said in October that China “would also consider nuclear use to restore deterrence if a conventional military defeat in Taiwan” threatened the Party’s dominance. Communist China (CCP).

China has never renounced the use of force to bring Taiwan under its control and, over the past four years, has intensified military activity around the island.

The Track Two negotiations are part of a two-decade dialogue on nuclear weapons and posture that broke down after the Trump administration withdrew funding in 2019.

Following the Covid-19 pandemic, semi-official discussions on broader security and energy issues resumed, but only the Shanghai meeting addressed weapons and nuclear posture in detail.

Santoro, who heads the Hawaii-based Pacific Forum think tank, described “frustrations” on both sides during the latest discussions, but said both delegations saw reasons to continue talking. More discussions were being planned in 2025, he said.

Nuclear policy analyst William Alberque of the Henry Stimson Center think tank, who was not involved in the March discussions, said the track two talks were useful at a time of glacial relations between the US and China.

“It is important to continue talking to China without any expectations,” he said, when nuclear weapons are at issue.

military power

The US Department of Defense estimated last year that Beijing has 500 operational nuclear warheads and will likely field more than 1,000 by 2030.

This compares to 1,770 and 1,710 operational warheads deployed by the US and Russia, respectively. The Pentagon has said that by 2030, many of Beijing’s weapons will likely be maintained at higher levels of readiness.

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

Weapons on land, in the air and at sea give China the “nuclear triad” – a hallmark of a great nuclear power.

A key point the American side wanted to discuss, according to Santoro, was whether China still maintained its no-first-use and minimum deterrence policies, which date back to the creation of its first nuclear bomb in the early 1960s.

Minimum deterrence refers to having enough atomic weapons to deter adversaries.

China is also one of two nuclear powers – the other being India – that has committed not to initiate a nuclear exchange. Chinese military analysts have speculated that the no-first-use policy is conditional — and that nuclear weapons could be used against Taiwan’s allies — but it remains Beijing’s stated position.

Santoro said Chinese delegates told U.S. representatives that Beijing has maintained these policies and that “’we are not interested in achieving nuclear parity with you, let alone superiority’.”

“’Nothing has changed, as always, you are exaggerating,’” Santoro said summarizing Beijing’s position.

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

A report on the discussions is being prepared for the U.S. government but will not be released, Santoro said.

Risk reduction

Top US arms control official Bonnie Jenkins told Congress in May that China had not responded to nuclear weapons risk reduction proposals that Washington raised during formal talks last year.

China has not yet agreed to new meetings between governments.

Beijing’s “refusal to engage substantially” in discussions about its nuclear buildup raises questions around its “already ambiguous stated “no first use” policy and its nuclear doctrine more broadly,” the spokesperson said. State Department voice to Reuters.

China’s Track Two delegation did not discuss details about Beijing’s modernization effort, Santoro and Morris said.

Alberque of the Henry Stimson Center said China relies heavily on “risk and opacity” to mitigate US nuclear superiority and that there is “no imperative” for Beijing to have constructive discussions.

China’s expanded arsenal – which includes anti-ship cruise missiles, bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarines – has exceeded the needs of a state with a policy of minimum deterrence and no first use, Alberque said.

Chinese talking points revolved around the “survivability” of Beijing’s nuclear weapons if it suffered a first strike, Morris said.

US delegates said the Chinese described their efforts as a deterrence-based modernization program to deal with developments such as improved US missile defenses, better surveillance capabilities and strengthened alliances.

The US, Britain and Australia last year signed a deal to share nuclear submarine technology and develop a new class of boats, while Washington is now working with Seoul to coordinate responses to a potential atomic attack.

Washington’s policy on nuclear weapons includes the possibility of using them if deterrence fails, although the Pentagon says it would only consider doing so in extreme circumstances. It did not provide details.

A Chinese delegate “pointed to studies that stated that Chinese nuclear weapons were still vulnerable to US attacks – their second-strike capability was not sufficient,” Morris said.

(Reporting by Greg Torode in Hong Kong, Gerry Doyle in Singapore and Laurie Chen in Beijing; additional reporting by Michael Martina in Washington; Editing by Katerina Ang)

Source: CNN Brasil

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