After months of troubled relations, and then some tentative steps to bridge the gap between the United States and China, there is one glaring omission: American and Chinese military leaders still don’t communicate with one another directly. That’s important because those lines of communication are the best way to avoid the kind of misunderstandings or overreactions that can lead to actual conflict. That’s why it’s encouraging that the countries plan to meet on Monday to discuss arms control.
The talks come at a perilous moment for the systems of global controls, painstakingly built over decades, to avoid nuclear conflict. The landmark Cold War-era treaties between the United States and Russia have fallen by the wayside, one by one, with few meaningful restraints remaining and even less good will to negotiate successor agreements. The last major agreement, New START, expires in February 2026.
This week, the Russian government said it was formally withdrawing from the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, though it said it would continue to abide by the terms of that agreement. The United States, for its part, is in the midst of upgrading its own nuclear weapons.
As the United States and Russia lose their safeguards, the Chinese government is expanding its nuclear arsenal. For decades, the People’s Liberation Army has felt secure with a few hundred nuclear weapons. But over the past few years, the government began a building spree that, if it continues, would leave China with an arsenal of 1,500 nuclear weapons by 2035, according to an estimate released last month by the Pentagon. Currently, the United States and Russia have about 1,670 deployed weapons each, with thousands more in storage.
Arms races tend to acquire a self-sustaining momentum. The danger of the Chinese expansion is that the United States and Russia may each feel that they then need to expand their own arsenals to match the combined total of the other two powers. That’s a formula for the construction and maintenance of arsenals without end.
Such competition would be alarming even if the relations between these three superpowers were otherwise harmonious. Throw in unpredictable points of tension around trade, the military buildup in the South China Sea, the future of Taiwan, the war in Ukraine, espionage in cyberspace and a dozen other fault lines, and the nuclear buildup risks triggering a global crisis with little margin for error and few offramps.
The world has faced such peril before. Some of the most alarming moments of the Cold War came as a result of misunderstandings. That was the rationale for establishing a hotline between Washington and Moscow in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis, to give leaders immediate access to each other, day or night. One such line of communication exists between the United States and China but is not in use, despite years of quiet pressure on Beijing to answer calls.
China’s apparent willingness to now consider an arrangement to open lines of military-to-military communication is welcome news. In addition to a hotline, the United States and China should also agree to provide each other with basic information about test missile launches, as America and Russia have done for years. This kind of visibility and sharing of information is critical for all nations to distinguish between routine tests and potential first strikes, to avoid catastrophe by accident. A terrifying secret of the Cold War was that nuclear war was avoided, on several occasions, by chance.
That helps explain why the Biden administration has placed a high priority on restarting international cooperation on arms control, even as the world seems more chaotic than ever. “We’re under no illusions that reaching risk reduction and arms control measures will be easy,” Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, said in a speech this summer. “But we do believe it is possible.”
Mr. Sullivan also launched a pre-emptive strike against hawks in the United States, noting in that speech that the current arsenal of nuclear weapons is sufficient to deter both Russia and China, even if the number of their weapons grows. In the cold logic of nuclear game theory, having enough nuclear weapons to launch a devastating counter strike is sufficient to deter a first strike.
That’s important to keep in mind when politicians begin to fearmonger about a new missile gap as a justification for more weapons. Americans are rightly worried about the possibility that today’s existing conflicts will turn into even worse regional or global conflagrations. Ukraine is defending itself against Russia, a country that has not ruled out the use of nuclear weapons. Israel’s war against Hamas risks drawing in Iran, a rogue state that is close to recognizing its nuclear ambitions. And North Korea continues to improve its rogue nuclear weapons program, now possibly capable of striking the United States. Yes, these are all destabilizing. But against that backdrop, adding more nuclear weapons to the mix only raises the stakes even further, and will not make the United States safer.
It is also in the best interests of both the Americans and Chinese to begin talks on how to integrate artificial intelligence into national defense. The Biden administration took an early step in understanding the challenges the new technology will pose in an executive order issued this week. At the bare minimum, nations should require that humans do — and always will — make the ultimate call to launch nuclear weapons. “The prospects that the unconstrained advance of A.I. will create catastrophic consequences for the United States and the world are so compelling that leaders in governments must act now,” as Henry Kissinger and Graham Allison wrote last month in Foreign Affairs.
Expectations for the low-level talks are modest. But any dialogue between nuclear armed powers is welcome and, if history is a guide, progress often begets progress when managing the world’s most destructive weapons. It is far easier to head off an arms race before it starts than to do so after it has spun out of control.