Former Secretary of State James Baker has long believed we should talk directly to our enemies as well as our friends. Before that, President Richard Nixon thought it made sense to be talking directly to the Soviet Union about limiting the most dangerous kinds of weapons — and this resulted in the laborious negotiation of intricate nuclear arms control agreements and their implementing protocols. Even President Reagan became something of an arms-control believer during his second term with the conclusion of the INF Treaty with the Soviet Union in 1987.
Proposed here is that arms control negotiations with China could now be a sound idea for us — and we should be exploring the proposition as a part of a comprehensive new policy.
This would be a very controversial step, especially for critics of arms control: They maintain that arms control — especially with the former Soviet Union — was never a good idea for us, whether in concept, practice or otherwise.
The primary reason was that the Soviets always cheated — in fact, they developed cheating scenarios as part of their arms control strategies and new weapons development. While we knew this, we seemed oblivious to it, and often agreed to goofy verification regimes rigged to facilitate wide-scale Soviet cheating.
In fact, when I “did” arms control in the 1980s, the more candid Soviet arms controllers told me they assumed we cheated as well: They refused to believe we wouldn’t cheat on a matter so fundamentally important to our national security.
We didn’t, of course, and Congress would never have funded such projects even if we had wanted to try them. But again, most Soviets thought our Congress did whatever the Pentagon wanted and that all our national security news reporting was under control of the government, as was theirs.
Cheating is the most serious problem with any kind of arms control, most recently demonstrated with the multilateral Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or “NPT.” Rather than to limit the spread of nuclear weapons technology, this treaty has served primarily as diplomatic cover for clandestine nuclear weapons programs in several countries. North Korea and Iran are perhaps the best current examples.
We should, therefore, begin with the proposition that if we decided to negotiate arms control agreements with China we should assume the same degree and intensity of deception we got from the Soviets. China, like the Soviets, won’t want us knowing much about their military capabilities — especially their strengths or weaknesses.
But, does this mean that arms control with China is a fundamentally bad idea for us? Maybe not. There are dramatic differences between our present relationship with China and our relationship with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
In fact, a whole different set of incentives drives the basic relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China: They can be summed up in one word — trade. There never was an economic relationship with the Soviet Union during the Cold War — they never produced anything we or anybody else wanted to buy. Our “relationship” then with the Soviets was based solely on a military and political competition for superpower status and influence in Europe, and not at all on an economic symbiosis. Put simply: We didn’t sell 747s to Russia and we didn’t buy consumer goods from them.
Contrasted with this, we have hundreds of billions of dollars of trade with the PRC: We are their biggest world market — by far — for the stuff they make. And they know it. In fact, it is the main reason we are so important to them: In short, they want and need our business, and we want and need theirs. It is, quite simply, the most important part of our relationship with China.
This kind of relationship offers the best possibilities for “real” arms control, the kind that actually saves money and allows “market economies” a real choice between guns and butter. While the PRC economy still has deep elements of state control, especially in banking, the basic forces that drive it are supply, demand, costs and the profit motive.
What other issues, could be part of a comprehensive arms control and national security dialogue between the U.S. and the PRC?
Several come to mind, e.g., Taiwan and North Korea. And, there are other regional incentives that could serve as reasons for the PRC to behave differently on a whole range of issues that interest us, including their economic and monetary policies.
Who could oppose comprehensive national security discussions with the PRC? Surprisingly, a lot of our friends, new and old, would probably not be happy if we resolved our major differences with the PRC. Why? A comprehensive PRC-U.S. political and economic settlement could create the world’s dominant East-West relationship, rendering others far less significant by comparison.
In short, the economic and political benefits of a comprehensive U.S.-PRC security rapprochement are so enormous and offer both parties so many opportunities for future cooperation and development that we should now be thinking how to begin such a dialogue with the Chinese.
Daniel Gallington was a member of the U.S. Delegation to the Nuclear and Space Talks with the former Soviet Union and writes on national security.