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Updated: Jan 18, 2011
US-China Summit Visit Offers Opportunity to Discuss Nuclear Issues
As Hu Jintao visits the US this week, President Obama has a unique opportunity to move forward disarmament agenda.
Authors: Dr. Jeffrey Lewis
Posted: January 18, 2011
Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to Washington this week offers an unusual opportunity for President Obama to move forward on his signature foreign policy agenda item—ridding the world of nuclear weapons. Further progress on this front will depend, in large part, on the cooperation of the People's Republic of China.
The centerpiece of the Administration's approach to China on arms control, disarmament and nonproliferation has been a proposal for a dialogue on "strategic stability." Previous Administrations, however, have also sought the elusive goal of getting China to open up about its nuclear weapons with little success. If President Obama is to succeed where his predecessors failed, he should use his conversation with President Hu to change the terms of discussion.
A major part of the problem is a massive gulf between how Americans and Chinese think about nuclear weapons. This gulf reflects tremendous cultural, historical and political differences. Yet the two sides have found a way to work around tough problems before. In the famous Shanghai Communiqué, the two sides managed to focus on areas in which they agreed: That there was one China and that Taiwan was part of it. This did not solve all the problems in US-China relations, but it placed them in the context of our broader interests and paved the way for full diplomatic relations.
The United States and China need to do the same thing with nuclear weapons — negotiate a communiqué that establishes, broadly, a common set of principles for strategic and regional stability. One approach would be for the United States to express that it does not seek to deny China's the security of its nuclear deterrent, in exchange for China stating that it does not seek either numerical parity with US nuclear forces or to otherwise use its nuclear weapons to undermine US defense commitments to allies like Japan. Such an agreement would still leave a lot of things for each side to disagree about — including ongoing China's modernization of its nuclear forces and the US development of missile defenses — but it would place those disagreements in the broader context of a mutual commitment to stability.
The key to moving forward is finding a way for the President to express that the United States seeks stability with, not nuclear dominance over, China. The problem has been that Chinese leaders have tended to insist that the United States adopt a "no first use" of nuclear weapons pledge — a non-starter for any US president with even a minimal instinct for political survival. Americans, in response, often suggest that a better way to build trust would be for China to be more transparent about its military capabilities. Chinese leaders balk at the request for transparency, asking why China should reassure an American leader who reserves the right to start a nuclear war. As a result, US and Chinese officials argue endlessly about "no first use" and transparency, without ever getting around to discussing where they might agree.
President Obama, in his face-to-face meeting with President Hu, has the opportunity to break this cycle. It is the same opportunity sensed by President Reagan — frustrated by his inability to move beyond talking points ossified by years of bureaucratic talking points — when he complained to Gorbachev, he said "Why can't we just sit down and talk things out, man to man?" President Obama has a unique opportunity to make the case to Mr. Hu that the United States could consider a range of political assurances in exchange for reciprocal commitments by China and a willingness to abandon the tired formula of "no first use."
Chinese President Hu Jintao with U.S. President Barack Obama
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