US questions China’s no-first-use nuclear call given buildup

By Thomson Reuters May 15, 2024 | 2:38 PM

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – China has not responded to U.S. nuclear-weapons risk-reduction proposals and Washington has questions about Beijing’s call for no-first-use talks while China continues to build up its arsenal, the top U.S. arms control official said on Wednesday.

Under Secretary of State Bonnie Jenkins told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee the U.S. estimates China currently has 500 operational nuclear warheads and will probably have more than 1,000 by 2030.

She said U.S. officials met with Chinese counterparts last November to discuss arms control and proliferation, their first such talks in nearly five years.

“The meeting enabled a preliminary discussion on potential measures for managing and reducing risks,” she said. “Unfortunately … the PRC has declined a follow-on meeting and has not provided (a) substantive response to risk-reduction suggestions we put forward,” she said, using the acronym for the People’s Republic of China.

Referring also to Russia, Jenkins said China’s nuclear buildup “raises the specter that United States may soon face two expansionary and significantly nuclear-armed peers.”

“Beijing’s development of a larger, more diverse nuclear arsenal is deeply concerning, and raises questions about the trajectory of the PRC nuclear weapons program,” she said.

Jenkins was asked about China’s call in February for states with the largest nuclear arsenals to negotiate a treaty on no-first-use of nuclear weapons against each other or to make a political statement in this regard.

She said it was the first time the U.S. had heard such a proposal from China, underscoring the need for nuclear talks.

“The proposal is one that we hadn’t had a conversation with them about, we didn’t know about and so we just have questions,” she said.

“Our questions are, quite frankly, how does an idea for no-first-use really fit within their ongoing process of building up nuclear weapons? And how sincere are they … ?”

Jenkins said Washington does not currently have a no-first-use policy, but did have one of not using weapons first on countries that abide by the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Asked if the U.S. had not ruled out the idea of discussing a mutual no-first-use policy with China as part of an overall negotiation on nuclear weapons, Jenkins said:

“What I’m saying is that we had not heard anything about this, so we would have to take it back, think about it within the interagency, but we are not at this point entertaining the idea and we are not changing our policy right now.”

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; editing by Jonathan Oatis)