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Then serving as U.S. vice president during the Obama administration, Joe Biden met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in 2013. (Photo: Getty Images)

Dems Urge Biden to 'Reduce Nuclear Weapons Risks' in Summit With Chinese President

"China's test of an orbital bombardment system is only a 'Sputnik moment' if we let it result in a new arms race," lawmakers say, highlighting the United States' massive stockpile.

Jessica Corbett

Four congressional Democrats on Thursday urged U.S. President Joe Biden to make reducing nuclear weapons risks a "top priority" in his upcoming virtual summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, emphasizing the important context of the United States' huge arsenal.

The message to Biden from Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) as well as Reps. Don Beyer (D-Va.) and John Garamendi (D-Calif.) came a day after the Pentagon projected that China's cache of deliverable nuclear warheads could increase fivefold to 1,000 by 2030.

"The nuclear weapons stockpiles of both the United States and Russia are several times [the] size of China, even with the latest Department of Defense projection," notes the letter from the four Democrats, who co-chair the Nuclear Weapons and Arms Control Working Group.

"Nonetheless, China's latest test of a hypersonic glide weapon, its reported construction of 250 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) silos, and its refusal to date to engage in nuclear risk reduction talks," the letter adds, "are a mounting national security concern."

Though Biden and Xi have exchanged verbal blows in recent days over the Chinese leader's decision to skip the ongoing COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, the lawmakers still pointed to coordination on the climate emergency as a potential model.

"We applaud your administration's efforts to seek cooperation with Beijing on the existential threats posed by the climate crisis," says the letter. "We hope that you will extend those conversations to include seeking cooperation on the existential threat of nuclear weapons. At your upcoming virtual bilateral meeting with Xi, we ask that you propose practical steps to reduce nuclear weapons risks with China."

After acknowledging some progress made on the nuclear front, the letter proposes five steps Biden could take to enhance mutual security:

  • Invite China, and other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, to observe a United States-Russia New START Treaty on-site inspection;
  • Seek negotiations toward a treaty or agreement that stops the additional production of fissile material;
  • Seek an agreement with China that allows for advance notifications of ballistic missile launches, through the Hague Code of Conduct;
  • Seek an agreement not to target or interfere in nuclear command, control, and communications (commonly referred to as "NC3") infrastructure; and
  • Seek an agreement on transparency measures or verifiable limits, or both, on hypersonic cruise missiles and glide vehicles that are mounted on ballistic missiles.

"These steps will reduce the risk of a nuclear conflict with China, but won't eliminate it," the letter warns Biden. "We urge your administration, in its Integrated National Defense Strategy, to prioritize restraint and to work with allies and partners to call on China to maintain its minimum deterrent posture."

"China's test of an orbital bombardment system is only a 'Sputnik moment' if we let it result in a new arms race," the letter concludes. "Through your leadership and diplomacy we can ensure that does not happen."

Reporting on the lawmakers' letter Thursday, Politico's "National Security Daily" newsletter noted:

We asked the White House if Biden planned to raise his nuclear concerns during his superpower FaceTime with Xi. A senior administration official wouldn't preview the agenda, but did say "the virtual bilateral meeting is part of our efforts to responsibly manage the competition between our countries, and that includes ensuring the competition does not veer into conflict, so you can expect that they'd discuss a number of issues in that area."

Calls for direct nuclear talks between Washington and Beijing have mounted throughout the year. In a July statement, Global Zero—an international movement for the elimination of all nuclear weapons—also warned of the growing risk of a nuclear arms race.

"The one firm lesson of the Cold War arms race is that there's no way to build up to stability or security. And yet today, in every region of the world, governments ignore this warning as they chase the false security of nuclear deterrence and overmatch," said Global Zero CEO Dereck Johnson.

"This is not just a China problem," he said. "The United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and others are all taking significant steps to expand, enhance, or further operationalize their nuclear arsenals. Across the board, nuclear-armed powers are moving in the wrong direction and relying increasingly on these weapons as the basis for their security."

In mid-June, Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin jointly reaffirmed that "a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought." Two weeks later, Putin and Xi similarly said that they "are firmly convinced that nuclear war has no winners and should never be unleashed."

According to Johnson, "Every effort must be made to universalize this truth among all nuclear-armed states." All five of the U.N. Security Council's permanent members—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—are known to have nuclear weapons, along with India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan.

Peace campaigners continue to pressure leaders of all countries, including nuclear-armed states, to support the U.N. Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which bans such armaments under international law and entered into force in January.

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