As China Speeds Up Nuclear Arms Race, the U.S. Wants to Talk

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The nuclear relationship with Russia, he noted, is “far more mature, has a much deeper history to it.” After the summit meeting between Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi, he added, it is time to begin such conversations with China. “It is now incumbent on us to think about the most productive way to carry it forward,” he said.

In a sense, this is the revival of an old fear in Washington: In 1964, Lyndon Johnson was so worried about the rise of another nuclear rival that he considered, but ultimately rejected, plans to conduct a pre-emptive strike or covert sabotage on China’s main nuclear testing site at Lop Nor.

But China’s decision to maintain a “minimum deterrent” for the past six decades — a nuclear force large enough to assure that it could respond to a nuclear attack, but not nearly the size of America’s or Russia’s — largely knocked its nuclear program off the Pentagon’s list of top threats. Now, its recent moves, from building new missile silo fields to testing new types of advanced weapons, come just as Mr. Biden’s aides are deep into an examination of American nuclear strategy that will be published in coming months.

The review, which every new administration is required to undertake in its first year or so, will contain key decisions — including whether to go ahead with a modernization plan that by the last comprehensive estimate, four years ago, looked likely to cost 1.2 trillion dollars over the next 30 years. The future of those plans has been the subject of furious lobbying campaigns, especially among the nation’s top defense contractors.

Earlier this month the Pentagon concluded that the size of the Chinese nuclear arsenal may triple by 2030, to upward of 1,000 warheads. But the administration’s concern is not just the number of weapons — it is the new technology, and particularly how Chinese nuclear strategists are thinking about nontraditional nuclear arms.

When the Chinese launched a hypersonic missile in July, circling the globe once and then deploying a maneuverable glide vehicle that could zig and zag on an unpredictable path and deliver a weapon anywhere on earth, Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared that the U.S. was “very close” to a “Sputnik moment.” But in the weeks since, American officials have been reluctant to say what, exactly, about that experiment so rattled them — beyond the fact that it revealed a technological sophistication that they did not know the Chinese had achieved.

The hypersonic nature of the missile — meaning it can move at more than five times the speed of sound — was the least interesting element of the test. All nuclear missiles go at least that fast. But the stubby glider it released — which could hold a nuclear warhead — was designed to evade the United States’ primary missile interceptors, which can operate only in outer space. (In recent weeks, the Pentagon issued a contract for design work on technology to intercept the gliders, but that would be years away.)

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