US considers missile launch notification framework with China

    WORLD  11 December 2023 - 13:53

    The US is weighing a proposal to exchange missile launch notifications with China, a senior State Department official told Nikkei Asia, after the leaders of the two powers agreed to stabilize the tense relationship in November.

    According to the White House, US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping resolved to address key issues including arms control and nonproliferation when they met in California last month, directing their senior officials to follow up.

    The senior US official said that Washington hopes to hold talks on arms control with China early next year. Launch notification is one of the concrete measures under consideration within the US government, the official said.

    "The reason launch notification is so important is because we would have a reciprocal obligation to clarify what we're doing," the official said. "The fact that China has it with Russia demonstrates they appreciated the significance of the stabilizing nature. That's what we are trying to build on."

    The official rejected China's assertion that the two powers need to establish trust before advancing to firm steps. The U.S. and China should take initial confidence-building measures such as launch notification to help create that trust, the official argued.

    While declining to comment on the details of the U.S. proposal, the official indicated that a similar bilateral pact between the US and Russia, known as the Ballistic Missile Launch Notification Agreement, would be a model for a U.S.-China notification framework.

    The agreement signed in 1988 during the Cold War requires each country to let the other know about plans to launch strategic missiles, such as intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). It is designed to show that an upcoming missile launch is not a sneak nuclear strike.

    While the relationship between Washington and Moscow has severely deteriorated due to the war in Ukraine, Russia continues to give the US prior notification of such missile tests, suggesting that even the Kremlin recognizes the importance of avoiding miscalculations and unintended reactions.

    James Acton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that the US should make a specific and detailed proposal on the missile notifications to gauge China's position.

    "While it's difficult to be optimistic, I believe a launch notification agreement would be in the interests of both China and the United States," Acton said. "One important step is for each state to identify behavior that it would find particularly threatening and might spark escalation. Agreements, such as a launch notification regime or to regulate satellite operations, would also be helpful."

    One of the challenges for the US is that the Chinese delegation might not be fully empowered to discuss Washington's concerns.

    The State Department official said that although the US shared agenda items in advance of working-level talks on arms control in November, there were several issues that the Chinese participants were not authorized to address. There were no participants from the Chinese Ministry of National Defense and People's Liberalization Army, according to the U.S. official.

    The Pentagon has warned that China has developed ICBMs and SLBMs to discourage the US from intervening in any conflict in the western Pacific by threatening to strike the US homeland.

    In October, the Department of Defense said in its annual report that China likely constructed at least 300 silos for ICBMs in 2022 and had begun loading missiles into some of them. It also assessed that Beijing had deployed longer-range SLBMs to Jin-class ballistic missile submarines, meaning that the missiles would be able to target the continental US from waters off the coast of China.

    Chad Sbragia, a research staff member at the Institute for Defense Analyses and a former senior Pentagon official for China, said that China's participation in arms control talks could be a "double-edged sword."

    While welcoming the chance for risk reduction, Sbragia noted that "with the growth of China's overall, comprehensive, national power, and certainly their own military capacities, defense and security capacities, is that they now have the confidence to be able to sit down across the table from the United States."

    "With equal capacities or near-equal capacities ... they can now engage in those things because they're confident that they're not bargaining or negotiating from a weaker position," he continued.

    China had rejected US requests to discuss arms control until recently, apparently because Beijing believed that its nuclear arsenal was inferior to that of the US The previous Donald Trump administration proposed three-way talks on nuclear disarmament with Russia and China, but faced resistance from Beijing.

    During the prospective arms control talks, norms on the military use of artificial intelligence would be another key subject, according to the U.S. official.

    This year, the Biden administration rolled out comprehensive principles on responsible application of military AI. The US argues that humans should be involved in the decision to operate and use nuclear weapons.


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