China and the United States view each other as potential adversaries with mixed motives and divergent value systems, yet both can benefit from cooperation to reduce the risk of war, avert arms races, and prevent proliferation or terrorist access to weapons of mass destruction. The two countries have more common interests, fewer ideological differences, and greater economic interdependence than the United States and the Soviet Union had during the Cold War. In principle, arms control broadly defined, i.e., cooperation to reduce the likelihood of war, the level of destruction should war occur, the cost of military preparations, and the role of threats and use of force in international relations, could be at least as important in this century as it was in the last. In practice, though, China’s rise as a strategic power has not been matched by a corresponding increase in the kinds of cooperative agreements that helped keep the costs and risks of superpower competition from spiraling out of control. Why not?
This paper argues that because China’s strategy rests on different assumptions about security and nuclear deterrence than U.S. strategy does, its ideas about arms control are different, too. China has historically put more value on broad declarations of intent, behavioral rules, and self-control, while the United States has prioritized specific quantitative limits on capabilities, detailed verification and compliance mechanisms, and operational transparency. When progress has occurred, it has not been because China finally matched the United States in some military capability, or because Chinese officials and experts “learned” to think about arms control like their American counterparts do. Rather, it has happened when Chinese leaders believed that the United States and other countries with nuclear weapons were moving toward its ideas about security cooperation--hopes that have repeatedly been disappointed.
Understanding Chinese attitudes toward security cooperation has gained added importance under the Trump administration for two reasons. Trump’s national security strategy depicts China and Russia as equally capable antagonists facing the United States in a “new era of great power competition,” so the feasibility and desirability of mutually beneficial cooperation with China have become more urgent questions. The costs and risks of coercive competition will keep growing until both sides accept that they outweigh whatever benefits might accrue from trying to maximize power and freedom of action in a tightly interconnected world.