HONG KONG: The United States and China resumed semi-official nuclear arms talks in March for the first time in five years, with Beijing’s representatives telling US counterparts that they would not resort to atomic threats over Taiwan, according to two American delegates who attended. The Chinese representatives offered reassurances after their US interlocutors raised concerns that China might use, or threaten to use, nuclear weapons if it faced defeat in a conflict over Taiwan.

“They told the US side that they were absolutely convinced that they are able to prevail in a conventional fight over Taiwan without using nuclear weapons,” said scholar David Santoro, the US organiser of the Track Two talks.

Participants in Track Two talks are generally former officials and academics who can speak with authority on their government’s position, even if they are not directly involved with setting it. Government-to-government negotiations are known as Track One.

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

Beijing sent a delegation of scholars and analysts, which included several former Peoples Liberation Army officers.

A State Department spokesperson said in response to questions that Track Two talks could be “beneficial”. The department did not participate in the March meeting, though it was aware of it, the spokesperson said. Such discussions cannot replace formal negotiations “that require participants to speak authoritatively on issues that are often highly compartmentalised within (Chinese) government circles”, the spokesperson said.

The informal discussions between the nuclear-armed powers took place with the US and China at odds over major economic and geopolitical issues, with leaders in Washington and Beijing accusing each other of dealing in bad faith. The two countries briefly resumed Track One talks over nuclear arms in November, but those negotiations have since stalled, with a top US official publicly expressing frustration with China’s response. The Pentagon, which estimates that Beijing’s nuclear arsenal increased by more than 20 per cent 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 CCP rule.

The Track Two talks are part of a two-decade nuclear weapons and posture dialogue that stalled after the Trump administration pulled funding in 2019.

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

No first-use?

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

That compares to 1,770 and 1,710 operational warheads deployed by the US and Russia, respectively. The Pentagon said that by 2030, much of Beijing’s weapons will likely be held at higher readiness levels. Since 2020, China has also modernised its arsenal, starting production of its next-generation ballistic missile submarine, testing hypersonic glide vehicle warheads and conducting regular nuclear-armed sea patrols.

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

Published in Dawn, June 22nd, 2024

Opinion

Editorial

Afghan challenge
Updated 15 Jul, 2024

Afghan challenge

Foreign states must emphasise to the Afghan Taliban diplomatic recognition and trade relations all depend on greater counterterrorism efforts.
‘Complete’ justice
15 Jul, 2024

‘Complete’ justice

NOW that the matter of PTI’s reserved seats stands resolved, there are several equally pressing issues pertaining...
Drug fog
15 Jul, 2024

Drug fog

THE country has an old drug problem. While the menace has raged across divides of class and gender, successive ...
Miles to go
Updated 14 Jul, 2024

Miles to go

Some reforms agreed with the Fund are going to seriously impact economic growth and fresh investments, at least in the short term.
Iddat ruling
14 Jul, 2024

Iddat ruling

IT was a needless, despicable spectacle which only ended up uniting both conservatives and progressives in ...
Cricket shake-up
14 Jul, 2024

Cricket shake-up

SOMEONE had to take the blame and bear the brunt of the fallout from Pakistan’s disastrous showing at the T20 ...