Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has been in Beijing this week for a round of meetings with senior Chinese officials, including presumptive paramount leader Xi Jinping. One topic that will most likely not be on the Panetta-Xi agenda is nuclear weapons. Which is weird.
Oh sure, every now and again the topic makes it onto the agenda, such as in 2006, when Presidents George W. Bush and Hu Jintao agreed on the importance of nuclear dialogue, or in 2007, when the topic was placed on the agenda for the annual Defense Consultative Talks. But these instances are, by and large, the exception.
Anyone who has attended a nongovernmental U.S.-China dialogue on nuclear issues will recognize a familiar pattern. The Chinese usually note that until the United States joins China in promising not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons first, there isn't much to say. The U.S. response is usually that such promises are worthless, and in any event, the Chinese are not transparent enough for us to believe their pledge. The Chinese response is to ask what sort of rocket scientist would be transparent when being threatened with nuclear weapons. Everyone breaks for tea, then has at it again. There is little reason for Panetta and Xi to waste everyone's time re-enacting this particular scene.
Whether you like the phrase "no first use" or not, the Chinese have a point about starting this discussion without nuclear threats.
If you know one thing about nuclear weapons, it is probably the eminently sensible moral from the movie WarGames: Regarding thermonuclear war, "the only winning move is not to play." Well, that's Hollywood. As recently declassified documents on the Carter administration's nuclear strategy make clear, the illusion of the winning move has been a reliable part of U.S. thinking about nuclear weapons. As long as the United States holds out the prospect of fighting and winning a nuclear war against China, the dialogue is going nowhere.
There are some voices suggesting that the administration should find a way to make clear to Beijing that China's small stockpile of a few hundred nuclear weapons is plenty and that we aren't likely to start any nuclear wars, at least not unless we really have to. Last month, the secretary of state's International Security Advisory Board (ISAB) began circulating draft copies of a report, "Maintaining U.S.-China Strategic Stability," that recommended "mutual nuclear vulnerability should be considered as a fact of life for both sides."