a situation-specific NFU agreement for a Taiwan contingency, where the risk of military conflict is most pronounced.
First and foremost, Washington and Beijing need a shared understanding of what defines a credible NFU commitment.
China shares strikingly similar concerns. When Biden advocated for reducing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. foreign policy during his presidential campaign, Chinese experts raised questions about the substantive value and reliability of a potential U.S. NFU declaration.
Since the Cold War, U.S. decision-makers have frequently believed that maintaining a policy of “calculated ambiguity” provides a more robust deterrent than an unequivocal rejection of first use.
In recent years, both Presidents Barack Obama and Joe Biden have exhibited interest in NFU, but they faced opposition from certain U.S. allies. Japan, for instance, worries that an unconditional U.S. NFU commitment might embolden China’s conventional military aggression or undermine Washington’s commitment to employ nuclear weapons in defense of its allies against existential threats.
Many in Washington contend that China’s NFU policy can be deceptive.
U.S. nuclear strategists have drawn parallels to the Soviet policies of the 1980s, when military planners secretly included first-use options in their contingency plans despite political leadership publicly endorsing NFU.
Though the U.S. posture primarily focuses on deterring the first use of nuclear weapons by adversaries, Beijing suspects that Washington may be increasingly inclined to issue nuclear threats in the event of future conflicts due to diminishing U.S. conventional military superiority in the region.
The renewed U.S. emphasis on low-yield tactical nuclear weapons has further fueled China’s apprehension that Washington intends to make its nuclear weapons more usable.
develop a common set of criteria for assessing whether a nation’s nuclear force structure, technological capabilities, operational postures, and military doctrines align with an NFU commitment.
With China’s growing nuclear forces, ensuring consistency between declaratory and operational policies is no longer primarily a U.S. responsibility.
The security concerns of U.S. allies in East Asia will continue to pose a significant hurdle for Washington in embracing NFU, so long as they feel threatened by China’s conventional military actions. If China hopes to sway the United States in this area, it stands to benefit from a better understanding of how its own behavior affects the conventional security concerns of U.S. allies.
Thus, another valuable topic for a U.S.-China nuclear dialogue to address is the interplay between conventional and nuclear issues within the NFU context.
A political agreement renouncing the first use of nuclear weapons in or around the island, or against each other’s territories, facilities, and forces in a Taiwan contingency, would lower the risk of misinterpretation and potentially dangerous escalation.
a bilateral NFU agreement limited to a Taiwan contingency would not impact existing U.S. security commitments and would maintain the broader U.S. nuclear posture in military contingencies beyond Taiwan.
Plus, compared with other cooperative risk-reduction measures, an NFU agreement would not legitimize U.S. close-range military reconnaissance activities near China, which is a significant concern for China and has hindered its willingness to engage in risk reduction discussions with Washington thus far.
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