The United States wants to start talks with China about its nuclear arms programme, the US State Department said on Thursday, after a Pentagon determination that Beijing was expanding its arsenal faster than previously thought.
In a report released on Wednesday, defence officials warned that China’s stockpile of deliverable nuclear warheads could reach 1,000 by 2030, some five times the amount it was estimated to possess last year.
Urging nuclear-armed nations to “act prudently,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a briefing that the new findings suggested that China was “leaving behind its previous nuclear doctrine of limited deterrence”.
Do you have questions about the biggest topics and trends from around the world? Get the answers with SCMP Knowledge, our new platform of curated content with explainers, FAQs, analyses and infographics brought to you by our award-winning team.
The remarks came after Beijing repudiated the Pentagon report and insisted it was committed to keeping its nuclear force at the “minimal level required for national security”.
Highlighting previous, unheeded appeals from the US for the two sides to begin nuclear talks, Price said that Washington remained “ready and willing to do that and we’ve made that known to PRC authorities.”
Offering a possible blueprint for US-China talks is a strategic arms control dialogue between the US and Russia, restarted this year after a summit between US President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.
Calling that dialogue “constructive and useful”, Price said: “It is our hope, it is our intention to engage in an arms control dialogue with the PRC as well, given what we know to be true of all countries that possess these weapons and the responsibilities we have.”
But China has rejected calls to join either a trilateral pact with the US and Russia or a bilateral dialogue with Washington, saying that the onus is on the US to first reduce its own stockpile.
Concerns in Washington about China’s nuclear capabilities have grown in recent weeks after a report by the Financial Times that Beijing tested a hypersonic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead into orbit, thus potentially avoiding traditional missile defences.
Biden’s chief military adviser described the test as something close to a “Sputnik moment” for the US, while the administration accused Beijing of “deviating from its decades-long nuclear strategy based on minimum deterrence”.
China denied the reports, calling the launch a “routine test” of a space vehicle with no military purpose.
Foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said at a briefing on Thursday that China remained committed to its “no-first-use” policy, and said that the world’s top nuclear threat was the US.
While the Pentagon estimated that China’s nuclear warhead stockpile numbered in the low 200s last year, the US arsenal currently stands at around 3,750, according to the State Department.
Beijing has previously expressed willingness to engage with Washington on nuclear arms control, but only on the condition that the US scale down its arsenal to match that of China’s.
“China urges the US to earnestly assume its special and primary responsibilities towards nuclear disarmament, and drastically and substantively reduce its nuclear stockpile in a verifiable, irreversible and legally binding manner to uphold global strategic equilibrium and stability,” said Wang.
The jostling over nuclear weapons joins a host of other flashpoints in the US-China relationship, ranging from US allegations of human rights abuses by Beijing, tit-for-tat sanctions, trade tariffs and flaring tensions in the Taiwan Strait.
The US is thought to be discussing with allies some kind of response to Beijing’s hosting of the upcoming Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games over China’s treatment of ethnic minority groups in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, though Price did not answer questions about a possible boycott on Thursday.
“We continue to have profound concerns about the situation in Xinjiang and a number of other issues pertaining to human rights in the PRC,” said Price, who also expressed concerns about reports that foreign correspondents in China have been denied access to covering Olympic preparations there.
Biden and Xi are expected to meet virtually before the end of this year, following a number of high-level engagements in which officials have discussed ways to prevent competition from spilling into unintended conflict.
More from South China Morning Post:
This article US repeats call for arms control talks with China as Beijing accelerates nuclear programme first appeared on South China Morning Post