Avoiding the next nuclear arms race

In October 1962, the world held its breath as two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, threatened each other with nuclear annihilation. The Cuban Missile Crisis — which followed a destabilising period in which both countries developed and deployed ever more powerful atomic weapons — is still the closest the world has come to Armageddon.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the world has let itself forget about the terrifying calculus of nuclear deterrence and mutually assured destruction, or how it feels to live under threat of the atomic bomb. But China’s testing of a nuclear-capable hypersonic glide vehicle, revealed by the Financial Times, shows that the risk of a nuclear arms race is greater than it has been for decades.

In one of two hypersonic weapons-related tests, the Chinese vehicle was launched by a Long March rocket, then circled the globe in low-orbit space before cruising down to strike about two dozen miles from its intended target, according to people familiar with the test. Such a system could, if deployed, circumvent US missile defences in Alaska by flying over the South Pole to reach its objective. China denied testing a hypersonic missile, saying it was a routine space launch.

China has some reason to develop such a system. The US and Russia keep enormous nuclear arsenals of 5,000-6,000 warheads, which the US can launch via its “nuclear triad” of land, air and sea-based systems. Washington is modernising its nuclear arsenal and continues to invest in ballistic missile defence. This is destabilising. Even if such defences do not work, an adversary cannot know that for sure, creating doubt about whether its missiles would get through.

In the past, China has maintained a minimum nuclear deterrent — estimated at a few hundred warheads on land-based missiles — with a stance of “no first use” of atomic weapons. But that could be changing as China builds hundreds of new missile silos and moves towards developing a triad of its own. Experts believe Beijing may be shifting towards a posture of “launch on warning”, in which it would hit back as soon as it became aware an attack was under way, instead of absorbing an adversary’s nuclear first strike before retaliating.

Most concerning is the lack of transparency or any framework in which to manage nuclear tensions between the US and China. A situation in which there is doubt about the nuclear capability of one side — and China’s test creates such doubt — forces the other side to plan for the worst possible scenario. The paucity of military dialogue between Washington and Beijing, let alone an arms control treaty, creates risk. Whatever the sensitivity of other issues, it should always be possible to sit down and talk about weapons able to destroy the planet.

Washington should also consider its approach. The test appears to have taken US officials by surprise — not the first time they have underestimated the pace of China’s technological development. If the US seeks to maintain a large military advantage, rather than finding an equilibrium with Beijing, then pursuit of that advantage will also fuel an arms race. In this field, as in many others, the US will need to treat China as an equal.

Ultimately, both the US and the Soviet Union balked at the enormous costs and risks of the Cold War nuclear stand-off. The Cuban Missile Crisis became the first step towards negotiating a framework of arms control. This time, the leading powers must achieve the same result, without first taking the world to the very brink of atomic war.

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