Among the prime national security issues tackled in the three-and-a-half hour Monday evening Biden-Xi virtual summit were nuclear issues and cyberspace conflict, with FT reporting later on Tuesday afternoon that the US and Chinese leaders agreed to start talks over nuclear arsenals.
"The two leaders agreed that we would look to begin to carry forward discussions on strategic stability," US national security adviser Jake Sullivan told a defense conference in Washington following the Biden-Xi meeting.
This is perhaps the first practical application and major breakthrough related to Biden's call for each side to agree on "guardrails" that would ensure competition between the two largest economies and strongest militaries "does not veer into conflict".
Sullivan had disclosed the theretofore unreported details of that part of the summit during a Brookings Institution panel wherein Brookings president John Allen raised the issue of the recent Pentagon review assessing that China's ambitions for near-future warhead production is "exceeding the pace and size" of past projections. The Pentagon assessment said China could develop over 700 nuclear warheads by 2027 and would likely seek to produce over 1,000 warheads by 2030.
Allen asked Sullivan about China's "potential to add as many as hundreds of warheads to their nuclear arsenal" and "the recent test of the fractional orbital bombardment system" - a reference to China's advancing hypersonics testing and capability.
Sullivan responded that Biden "did raise with President Xi the need for a strategic stability set of conversations around the sorts of issues you just described... that needs to be guided by the leaders and led by senior empowered teams on both sides that cut across security, technology and diplomacy," according to FT.
On the initial agreement reached Monday to pursue nuclear talks, Sullivan added, "It is now incumbent on us to think about the most productive way to carry it forward from here." It appears we are merely still talking about a 'hoped for', 'planned for', or even 'maybe' there will eventually be nuclear talks stage.
Thus whether US-China nuclear talks actually get off the ground remains unclear, given also the ambiguity which Sullivan acknowledged when discussing the issue: "There’s less maturity to [the nuclear aspect] in the US-China relationship, but the two leaders did discuss these issues. And it is now incumbent on us to think about the most productive way to carry it forward from here," Sullivan said.
It must be remembered that currently China is the only nuclear power with a definitive 'no first use' nuclear policy, and lately Beijing has called on Washington to revise it's own policy. The US has across many administrations resisted international calls to adopt no first use. Likely the issue would be front and center during any potential US-China nuclear talks, also given the heated rhetoric over Taiwan has sparked new concerns over the potential for armed confrontation between the nuclear-armed superpowers over the island. This issue, along with the fact that the US has a much larger nuclear arsenal many times over, has prevented past talks.