Defense officials will conduct a new round of informal but official nuclear weapons talks with China in the near future focusing on the "red lines" used by both sides in readying strategic forces in crises, according to U.S. officials.
The latest round of the so-called "Track Two" nuclear talks is cloaked in secrecy to avoid upsetting Congress, which in 2000 imposed legal limits on official military exchanges with China involving nuclear forces.
The talks also come amid new tensions over intelligence reports indicating China provided North Korea with road-mobile launchers for a new long-range missile.
Officials said the talks are called Track Two—a term normally used to describe unofficial international meetings—because China has rejected repeated Pentagon offers in the past decade to conduct official strategic nuclear talks.
The upcoming nuclear talks also follow the strategically damaging security failures of U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories in the 1990s. Through exchange programs with China, the U.S. government has said it lost secrets to China on all deployed U.S. nuclear warheads through espionage.
"It shows the level of naivete about strategic dialogue with China that still exists after that scandal," said a defense official familiar with past nuclear talks.
Beijing’s communist government employs extreme secrecy for all issues related to its strategic nuclear forces, which the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Second Artillery Corps operate.
The Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) is paying for the talks; they will be managed by Christopher Twomey, a professor at the Center on Contemporary Conflict at the Naval Postgraduate School at Monterey, Calif. Twomey declined to comment and referred questions to the Pentagon.
A second defense official told the Free Beacon that the Track Two talks with China have been held annually since 2004 and include "non-governmental experts from think tanks and universities in China."
"The objectives of these meetings have included enhancing American awareness of Chinese nuclear strategies and capabilities, identifying key divergences in national interests, and increasing transparency regarding Chinese thinking," this official said.
"The goal is to understand China’s view of nuclear weapons, domestic debates in China shaping those views, and the degree to which there is change in strategy, doctrine, and force posture in Beijing," the second official added.
The meetings also seek to deal with "misperceptions regarding each side's nuclear strategy and doctrine, and to highlight potential areas of cooperation or confidence-building measures that might reduce the dangers of such misperceptions," the second official said.
The seventh meeting of the talks called the U.S.-China Strategic Dialogue is scheduled to be held from June 7 to 10 in Maui, Hawaii. The names of all participants from China and the United States could not be learned.
Past talks have included discussion of sensitive topics related to the deployment, alert status, and readiness of U.S. nuclear forces. China’s military officers, who take part in the talks posing as "academics," have offered no details on Chinese nuclear forces, according to past conference participants.
The talks come as the Obama administration is considering deep unilateral cuts in strategic nuclear warheads and China is engaging in a major nuclear buildup that includes three new strategic missiles and signs that it will add multiple warheads to its current single-warhead strategic missile force.
An official who took part in past meetings of the nuclear dialogue with the Chinese said the talks are part of policy efforts by pro-China officials to try to convince U.S. military and defense officials that China is not a threatening nuclear-armed power.
American participants were informed in past sessions that China must be granted "understanding and forgiveness" for its nuclear secrecy, instead of discussing the notion that the PLA is hiding or deceiving the United States about its arsenal and its plans for using it, the first official said.
A 2008 State Department cable made public by Wikileaks supports that view. It quoted a Chinese official, He Yafei, as saying the reason Beijing refuses to discuss its nuclear forces is that the communist and military leaders believe any discussion with the United States will undermine the deterrent value of the nuclear arsenal.
"The U.S. side reveals much about its nuclear forces and crisis operations; the Chinese reveal nothing about their red lines," said the first official.
Also, during a dialogue session in 2007, a PLA rear admiral, Yang Yi, said publicly that the United States had promised to provide China with help in developing a reliable replacement warhead, a modernized, long-lasting warhead program of the Energy Department that was killed by Obama administration anti-nuclear officials in 2009.
Larry Wortzel, a China specialist and former defense attache in Beijing, said any talks with China should include discussions maintaining strategic stability by protecting strategic warning systems used to alert missile or nuclear crises.
The talks should discuss mutual avoidance of "blinding an opponent by destroying his intelligence, surveillance, and warning assets," a capability China is developing with its anti-satellite missiles and lasers, Wortzel said in an email.
"The Soviets were as serious as we were about trying to avoid nuclear war and escalation," he said. "They believed discussions on these issues were useful and built both confidence and mutual understanding."
However, "the Chinese avoid these topics at all costs," Wortzel said.
"One reason is they want the United States to be afraid of a nuclear ‘hair trigger’ in Beijing. But Chinese military folks and academics are very aware of the U.S.-Soviet dialogue. That is why I think some form of Track Two can be useful with China," he said.
Past participants in the talks currently hold senior positions within the Obama administration. One is White House National Security Council China specialist Evan Medeiros, who was a key figure in killing the planned sale of new F-16 jets to Taiwan and is considered a key pro-China activist.
Another is Brad Roberts, currently deputy assistant defense secretary for nuclear and missile defense policy, who favors conciliatory policies toward China and its military and strategic forces buildup.
Past talks also have included discussion of arms proliferation, a topic expected to be raised during the upcoming meeting.
China is under investigation by the Obama administration over the disclosure at a military parade in Pyongyang April 15 of what appears to be a Chinese-made transporter erector launcher carrying a new North Korean ICBM.
U.S. officials and private analysts say the road-mobile launcher appears to be a version of the "WS" launcher made by the Academy of the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation.
If confirmed, the proliferation of a strategic nuclear missile launcher to a rogue state would present new problems for U.S.-China relations.
A State Department spokesman said last week that the department does not doubt China’s claim that it has not violated U.N. sanctions on North Korea by exporting the launcher.
Richard Fisher, a specialist on China’s military, said government-funded Track Two talks with China "reflects the frustrations and rates of return seen in the longer running effort to promote military-to-military dialogue."
"China is not going to tell us anything or show us anything until it serves their political or intimidation goals," Fisher said.
Fisher said China's apparent sale of missile launchers and perhaps solid rocket technology to North Korea "should approach a Cuban missile crisis-level of concern for Washington, but we are still paying for Track Two dialogues that promise nothing."
"China is getting away with nuclear proliferation murder, and so far, all the administration seems prepared to do is fund another conference for academics," Fisher said.
The talks also come amid new indications that the size of China’s nuclear arsenal, currently thought to include around 300 to 400 strategic nuclear warheads, could be much larger.
China’s 3,000 miles of tunneling and underground nuclear facilities indicate that the number of warheads in China’s arsenal could be orders of magnitude larger than current U.S. intelligence estimates, Georgetown University professor Phillip Karber, a former U.S. arms control official, recently argued based on an extensive open-source intelligence project.
U.S. intelligence agencies insist they have not underestimated the Chinese nuclear force and know the locations of most weapons.
Former State Department China specialist John J. Tkacik said the Track Two talks with China produced no two-way information exchanges.
"For all the U.S. knows, China has vastly increased its nuclear weapons delivery systems," Tkacik said in an email.
Tkacik said U.S. allies in Europe have urged the Obama administration to expose China’s nuclear buildup with the goal of prompting a more open posture from Beijing, but the U.S. government has balked from doing so.
"So with that kind of record, I don’t see these Track Two dialogues as anything more than the American delegates negotiating with themselves while the Chinese look on with amusement," Tkacik said.
The Pentagon’s latest annual report to Congress on China’s military said Beijing is expanding its nuclear forces both quantitatively and qualitatively, adding new missiles and multiple-warhead systems.
The report said China is believed to have 75 long-range strategic missiles, including new road-mobile DF-31 and DF-31A ICBMs and a new submarine launched JL-2 missile.
Professor Twomey, the main dialogue organizer, suggested in a 2009 article in Arms Control Today that the United States might give up certain nuclear modernization plans, such as improved accuracy for Trident II missile warheads, in exchange for "tacit restraint" by Beijing in its nuclear modernization. He also favors the U.S. adoption of China’s "no-first-use" policy of forswearing the first use of nuclear arms in a conflict.
Twomey also wrote in 2007 that nuclear weapons would form a backdrop for any future tensions or conflict between Beijing and Washington.
Any move by China’s military to place strategic missiles on alert, mate stored warheads on missiles, or send missile submarines to sea during a crisis could lead to an escalation and even nuclear conflict, he stated.
Key potential conflict areas between the United States and China include Taiwan, North Korea, Japan, and other regional maritime claims. Any conventional clash could escalate into a nuclear exchange, and thus an understanding of China’s nuclear threshold is needed, Twomey wrote.
A key figure behind the scenes in the nuclear talks is Greg Weaver, a former Senate Democratic staff member and currently a senior policy official at the U.S. Strategic Command.
Weaver is known by associates to be part of the so-called "benign China" school of officials that for decades has minimized the threat posed by China’s military modernization. Weaver said through a spokesman that he was invited to the upcoming nuclear talks but otherwise declined to comment.
Weaver was also a major player in President Obama’s controversial strategic nuclear review that tasked the Pentagon with considering unilateral strategic warhead cuts to as low as 300 to 400 warheads.
That plan is being opposed by national security specialists in Congress who say it would put U.S. force levels even with or below the warhead levels of China.
China’s military has repeatedly rejected U.S. calls for holding formal nuclear talks. In 2006, then-President Bush specially asked Chinese President Hu Jintao to send the head of the Second Artillery Corps to the United States for nuclear talks.
To date, the Chinese general has not engaged in this type of unofficial meeting, allowing officers from the Second Artillery Corps to take part disguised as representatives of official think tanks in China.